NEW YORK — For 35 years, Morton Dean of ABC-TV has delivered the news to millions of Americans with his distinctive deep voice and appropriately serious visage. And for the last 17 years, almost without exception, he has also passed along a very different kind of message to tens of thousands of unsuspecting people in the audience of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus: laughter.
"It's just my thing," shrugs Mr. Dean, behind a whitened face and a big bulbous red nose.
Wearing plaid, suspendered pants that he could literally swim in and what must have been a size 50 pair of shoes, Dean made his way through the audience in New York this spring, twirling little kids' pretzels, mugging faces at babies with mock surprise, and sitting on unsuspecting ladies' laps, feigning shyness - all the while, waving and dancing through aisles with a kind of mischievous jig.
"When we're walking around the arena," he says, "and I just pick someone out of the crowd and wave, and I'll see a parent nudge a child, and say, 'Look, wave at the clown, the clown sees you!'- that, is a great joy."
Dean's clowning career began as a lark. He'd just finished a story on the women of the circus for "CBS Sunday Morning." As he was thanking the public relations people for their help, one said, "Anything we can do for you, just let us know." He nodded and left. He took the elevator down, then he took it right back up again and said, "I'd like to try to be a clown."
Within the week, he was sitting backstage in "clown alley" being made up in a white face by a young clown named Tammy Parish. Known as "the zany redhead," she was also in her first year with the circus.
"He was the first famous person I'd ever met. I was terribly excited. I was fresh off the farm from Kansas," says Ms. Parish, with genuine affection glowing through her permanently grinning red lips. "He's a professional, whether he's sitting behind a news desk or sitting behind a clown nose."
Parish says other celebrities have gotten dressed up in clown costumes and been allowed to work the crowd before the show, but that's the extent of it. Dean is the only one who's allowed to take part in the gags in the actual show.
Throughout the 17 years they've worked together, Parish says, Dean's done it with grace, precision, and discipline. He's jumped off a classic clown firehouse into a net. He's dressed in drag, taken a pie in the face, and paraded around as a gorilla.
'IT'S a great escape. It's total anonymity," says Squire Rushnell, a network news colleague who's known Dean for 30 years but only learned of his clowning four or five years ago. "News people don't usually color outside of the lines, and this is way outside the lines. He can go out there and be a total goofball."
Although he only does it once a year, Dean takes his clowning seriously. He says each time he comes away with a greater respect for the art form and the people who practice it.
"It would be as if I took the place of an opera singer, I'd only be able to hit one note," says Dean of his own high jinks. "Clowns are multifaceted. They're athletic, innovative, smart, and funny. Anybody who can make you laugh deserves a prize to begin with, and they do it in a magical way."
The clowns are just as admiring of Dean's wit and determination. "He's really a joy to work with. He's eager to learn and tries something new," says Parish. "It's impossible to embarrass him and I think, in essence, that's a very important part of what it takes to be a clown."
Dean says he feels privileged the clowns continue to welcome him. And he's proud to hold the only honorary degree ever bestowed by the circus's clown college. "Sometimes I think I might just run away with the circus," he says. "And in a sense, when I'm there, that's exactly what I do."