About Face: To Grandma's House We Go
Thursday, September 20, 2007; Page C13
My, my, Grandma, what a heavy 5 o'clock shadow you've got.
The better to make you laugh, my dear. After all, whoever heard of a grandma who has to regularly shave a beard?
In fact, though, Grandma is no lady. She's Barry Lubin, a friendly, middle-aged man who plays a mischievous older woman for the Big Apple Circus, which begins performances today at Dulles Town Center with its new show, "Celebrate!"
On and off for a total of 16 or 17 years -- he's lost count at the moment -- Lubin has been one of Big Apple's star attractions, putting on a curly wig, bright-colored dress, string of pearls and, of course, a traditional clown nose to transform himself into Grandma. The character, who among her many talents can perfectly flip single kernels of popcorn onto her tongue, has become the Big Apple's most famous face.
You instantly know it's time for funny business under the big top whenever Grandma's in the house.
"Do I love doing it? I love it more than ever," Lubin declares one recent afternoon during a break in rehearsals at Big Apple's headquarters in the town of Walden, New York, about an hour north of Manhattan.
Out of makeup, Lubin looks like an average guy, like he might be coach of a Saturday morning soccer team or maybe your school's most popular teacher. In any case, he shares with Grandma a mild-mannered friendliness that invites people to approach him.
You'd think that getting into Grandma's get-up 350 times a year would become a bit boring. But Lubin says that getting a circus crowd going is an endlessly rewarding way of earning a living.
"We pass this off as work," he says with a grin, as the practice ring in front of him fills with rehearsing jugglers and tumblers. "I took on Paul's idea that this is my living room, and you are our guests."
The Paul he is referring to is Paul Binder, a founder of Big Apple Circus and its original ringmaster. Lubin, a graduate of the Clown College that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus used to run in Florida, says Binder hired him in 1982 to be Grandma, a character Lubin invented before coming to Big Apple.
The two men hit it off instantly, Lubin says. "And he empowered me to upstage him."
Grandma's job is to be a kind of ambassador between the audience and the magic in the ring. She roams the crowd and sometimes pulls unsuspecting spectators into the spotlight. This usually goes well, but you never know. When it doesn't, Lubin has learned how to get out of the situation gracefully.
Talking to the man behind the woman, you become curious: Does Grandma think she's funny? Lubin grins. "Hmm, I've never been asked that before. When I teach, I tell the students that what you think is funny is irrelevant [not the point]. It's the audience that decides."
-- Peter Marks
Mr. Lubin will appear on TV from 3 to 4 pm on Retirement Living Cable Channel Monday, September 24 in conjunction with the opening of CELEBRATE!, the Big Apple Circus' all new 30th anniversary edition, which had its world premiere on September 20, 2007 at Dulles Town Center in Northern Virginia: