No-nonsense Clown College is like a Navy boot camp

Imagine being able to go to a college simply to clown around.

A college, in fact, where clowning is mandatory - and is the reason students apply. But not just anyone can attend. Only those with charisma, plenty of cheer and wit, and a desire to perform will be accepted.

Situated in Venice, Fla., the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College celebrated its 15th anniversary this past fall.

Clowning was disappearing 15 years ago. When Irvin Feld purchased the circus from John Ringling North in 1967, only 14 clowns remained in the circus's Clown Alley (a name for the clowns' dressing room). Aware of a need to preserve this fading art, Feld founded the only clown college in the world. Today there are over 800 alumni.

This year, 59 hopeful mirthmakers were chosen from over 6,301 applicants to attend - a figure up a thousand from last year. The 10 1/2-week session is packed with complete clown instruction. Thirty-five faculty members teach students everything from basic clowning procedures, juggling, acrobatics, and stiltwalking to unicycling, costume design, and makeup. Videotapes show them traditional comic techniques.

Taking five 1 1/2-hour classes a day, these aspiring jokers work hard at building their talents to become among the best in the world. The number of students chosen to be apprentice clowns for the circus varies according to the number the circus needs. Twenty-eight clowns travel with each of the two circus units.

Students spend the first five weeks developing their own personality, designing their costumes and makeup, and choreographing their own acts. Tom Murphy, a member of the faculty, says, ''We sometimes call it clown army, because it's like boot camp. The students work 14 hours a day.''

During the last five weeks they concentrate on their newly created acts in preparation for a final gala performance that represents all they have learned. The next day a chosen few are offered contracts with ''The Greatest Show on Earth.''

''It's a very special individual who becomes a clown in this circus,'' said Ron Severine, a dean at the Clown College. (He or she is) a fantasy figure who comes to life.''

After becoming an apprentice, a prospective clown remains one for three years. One college session is not considered long enough to be considered a full-fledged professional. The time as apprentice is spent perfecting skills.

Deans Sandy and Ron Severini carefully review each application, looking for such qualities as flexibility of personality, raw talent, motivation, aptitude for hard work, and improvisation.

The students staying at a local motel and pay for room and board. Ringling Bros. picks up the school tab. However, students contribute $500 to a fund that buys their costumes, makeup, juggling balls, or whatever else they need.

Recent high school graduate Nancy Osborn of Cupertino, Calif., has been interested in clowning since ninth grade. She began dressing as a clown when working with handicapped children during high school, then appeared as one at school football games.

Nancy says, ''When I came here I never knew how to juggle or stilt-walk. But being around a group of creative people you learn fast. You put your whole self out to make yourself better.''

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