Sarasota County and the American Clown: A 100-Year Relationship

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus launched a clown college in the Florida beach destination in 1967, and gave the world a new generation of entertainers

Sarasota County has long been synonymous with the circus and the art of clowning.

It is a relationship that dates back nearly a century, when John Ringling, the Midwestern impresario, moved the winter quarters of his Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from Bridgeport, Conn. to a burgeoning Florida city called Sarasota in 1927.

With Ringling’s winter quarters came the trapeze artists, the lion tamers, the tightrope walkers, and the clowns. Itinerant artists, each in their own way, who made their move south in the off-season to hone their act in Sarasota’s temperate climate.

A Community Affair

Sarasota was a small town in the 1930s, and it wasn’t long before word of the winter quarters got out into the community. Eager for a local glimpse at the Greatest Show on Earth, families would travel to winter quarters to watch and interact with Ringling’s performers, especially the clowns, the most accessible of the acts under the big top.

“As the weather got too cold to tour, the [circus] season would end and they had to bring all of the equipment and the acts and the animals back to a place to rebuild the wagons, rebuild the equipment and the canvas for the big top,” said Dick Monday, a veteran clown and a former employee of Feld Entertainment. “But [winter quarters] was also where the workshops were and where they would put together the new show and build the costumes for the next season.”

Winter quarters was like the spring training of the circus world. A time when veterans would teach the rookies ­the tricks of their trade and secrets of tapping into human emotion. This was particularly true of the clowns, who interacted directly with the audience. For the clowns, winter quarters was the perfect time to try out new routines and gags for families prior to hitting road the following season.

Desperate for Fresh Talent

By the mid 1960s the average age of the American clown was 70. A concern began to swell among circus magnates that this special art form would be lost if a younger generation of clowns was not there to take center stage in the years to come. One innovative entrepreneur would provide the answer.

The Birth of Clown College

November 11, 1967 was a momentous day in the circus world. Businessman and rock ‘n’ roll promoter, Irvin Feld (the man credited with discovering Paul Anka) bought the Ringling circus for $8 million. 

The following year, in an effort to replenish his aging cast of clowns with younger talent, Feld teamed up with Danny Chapman and Mel Miller and founded the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Venice, Fla. Located adjacent to the Venice Municipal Airport, Ringling’s Clown College taught students the art of clowning at no cost (students would pay for their own room and board) for 10 weeks. In return, students would agree to a one-year contract with the Ringling Brothers Circus, if one was offered.

“I was just really lucky to be my age when I was and to be interested in how clowns communicated,” said Peggy Williams, the first female graduate to receive a contract with the Ringling Circus in the ‘70s. Today, she serves as an archives assistant at John Ringling’s home-turned-museum: The Ringling

Williams studied deaf education at the University of Wisconsin before leaving in her senior year to enroll in Clown College. At the time, the UW campus was rife with protests and tear gas and Williams wanted out.

“I thought [Clown College] would really help me learn to communicate to the masses without having to speak,” she recalls. “It was a lot like the military. They would tell us – a certain number of you won’t be here in two weeks.”

A 30-year Run

Ringling’s Clown College operated from 1968 to 1997 during which it moved from Venice to Baraboo, Wis. and, lastly, to Sarasota. The college taught some 1,300 clowns, many of whom went on the road with Ringling’s circus. Among its notable graduates are Bill Irwin of Broadway fame and Penn Jillette of the magic duo of Penn and Teller.

Today, the spirit of Clown College lives on in the form the annual Circus Summer Camp at the Circus Arts Conservatory in Sarasota. Held in one- and two-week sessions from early June through early August, the camp teaches children ages five through 15 circus arts and clowning skills such as "rolla bolla,", juggling and unicycle riding. Adults can also participate in a variety of classes, though few experiences can bring out the inner child like the slapstick gags of a professional clown.