Having been something of a class clown growing up in Dayton, Ohio, terrorizing many an innocent grade school teacher at Cleveland Elementary School with my pranks and wise-acre behavior, I suppose it's not surprising that, as an adult, I would get my chance to be a genuine circus clown.
Complete with greasepaint, baggy pants, and dozens of skinny balloons stuffed into my oversized pockets to turn into balloon animals for the kiddies.
It was the spring of 1979; I was a 26-year-old reporter for the Troy Daily News, a little daily newspaper in the county seat of Miami County, about 75 miles north of Cincinnati.
I've already told you that in my five years at Troy, I had pretty much free rein to do whatever stories I wanted. Covering Pope John Paul II's first visit to America (a Tale for another day), the Democratic National Convention in New York, the fateful Carter-Reagan debate in Cleveland in October 1980, and many more.
This was a little paper with a big attitude. And they never said no if a reporter had an idea he or she wanted to pull off.
Well, in March of 1979, I pulled off a whopper. I saw a poster on a telephone pole near our office that announced that Hamid-Morton Circus was coming to town for a week in late March!
The circus was setting up shop at Troy's Hobart Arena, which seats about 4,000 people in the seating bowl and has been, for many decades, the entertainment capital of Miami County.
Every conceivable type of event has been held there. A young Elvis swiveled his hips there in 1956. The Harlem Globetrotters have entertained the fans and whipped the Washington Generals there countless times. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans put on their Wild West show at Hobart in the 1950s. And, through the decade of the 1950s, it was the home of the International Hockey League's Troy Bruins. The Bruins seemed to be a team where professional hockey players landed as their careers were winding down.
In fact, I remember a number of them who liked the town so much that they stayed there in their retirement. There was a little corner grocery in my neighborhood run by a rugged looking old fellow named Pop Sawchuk, who looked as if he had taken more than a few pucks in the mouth in his day.
Now, the Hamid-Morton Circus was a good outfit, but not in the league of the Ringling Bros.-Barnum and Bailey Circus.
They played the smaller venues, like Troy, throughout the Midwest; and, like most circuses wintered down in Florida. Although as a small operation, they had to stay on the move more than the big boys of the circus world.
Well, of course, this poster on the telephone poll gave me an idea and I went to my editors with it – Jim Morris, the editor; Harriet Heithaus, the managing editor; and Dave Lindeman, the city editor. So, the circus is coming to Hobart Arena in a couple of weeks. I want to see if I can arrange to do a story about being a circus clown for a few days.
They were very used to me coming to them with loopy ideas, but they also knew that usually I had a track record of making those loopy ideas work. Well, most of them anyway. So, they rolled their eyes and said, Sure. Why not? Go for it.
I managed to reach the publicity man for the Hamid-Morton Circus. To my great surprise, he was intrigued by the idea; and the more we talked the more enthused he became. He said that the King of the Clowns at the Hamid-Morton Circus was a fellow named Dime Wilson – who was in his 70s then and had been a circus clown for over 60 years, since childhood.
That's the guy I want to learn from, I said.
The public relations guy made it happen. The circus pulled into town a couple of days before the first show; I had less than 48 hours to learn how to be a circus clown.
But I also had Dime Wilson.
Dime met me in the "clown's dressing room,'' which was actually an old hockey locker room. Honestly, as he stood there shaking my hand and welcoming me to the circus, he did not look his age.
OK, son, let's get to making you a clown.
He had with him his ever-present teenaged clown, whom I knew only as Junior.
Junior was a tow-headed kid, maybe 14 or 15 years old, and already a jaded veteran of circus life.
Junior eyed me warily as Dime got his make-up box out to create a greasepaint persona on my face.
I'm going to give you a character to play; get you set up in a costume; and then we'll work on some routines, Dime said.
Junior's face dripped disgust. Who is this guy to come in here and think he can do clowning? I am convinced Junior thought I was after his job as the foil to Dime's starring role on the circus sawdust.
I ended up looking like a happy version of Emmett Kelly, the classic clown known for his frown.
Dime found a beat-up bowler hat in his box of tricks and put it on my head. Then, he threw me a pair of baggy, too-short pants with a set of suspenders and told me to put them on. Plus, he had me dress in a striped t-shirt and a musty, dusty old jacket with a wilted flower in the lapel.
Behold, Howard The Clown!
The first class was on tying balloon animals. Dime had been doing this since the 1950s, with his wife Connie; a lot of people in the circus business believed he was responsible for making balloon sculptures a regular part of the professional clown's routine.
Turns out I wasn't bad at it. He soon had me tying balloon dogs, giraffes, horses and other critters. One of my jobs during the show would be to race around the room of the circus floor and make balloon animals for the kids.
Then we learned some routines where I was basically reacting to the crazy things Dime did, like setting off small firecrackers in the middle of the ring. That was my cue to act incredibly frightened and run around like a mad man, until I fell over, rolled around in the sawdust and popped back up on my feet, no worse for wear.
Before the first show, Dime, Junior and I went to a local hospital and visited the children's ward. I'll never forget the look on the face of one little girl – maybe four or five – as she lay in her hospital bed and I made her a balloon giraffe. She had a look of sheer joy.
The first show we did was a matinee; the joint was packed. My parents were there; so was my sister Barb and her husband Dennis, along with my two nephews – Pat, who was five at the time; and Nick, who was not yet three.
I sat in the clock locker room with Junior waiting to go on. I smoked cigarettes in those days and so did Junior, although he wasn't old enough to buy them. He bummed one off me and stretched out on a bench. We were both in costume ready to go.
Thanks for the smoke, Junior said. No problem, pal. Hey Junior. Look, man, I just want you to know that you are a really good clown. It's really been great working with you.
Junior sat up. I thought you was trying to take my job.
No, man, I'm just some guy doing a newspaper story. You're a real circus clown. I could never take your place. He flipped his cigarette butt on the floor and crushed it under his heel. Wow, thanks, man. You really mean that?
I really mean it, brother. And within 10 minutes, Junior, Dime and the amateur clown were out prancing around the sawdust, doing our routines, and filling the time between the animal acts and the high-wire team.
And we were killing it. Me, Dime and Junior.
What a team.