Sunday, March 22, 2009


Looking at that photo of Annie Fratellini the other day got me to thinking...

Seeing as how really good clown makeup design and application is such a difficult thing to master, and the proliferation of bad makeup design and application is such a large part of what is fueling the "scary clown" thing and killing clowning as a profession here is America, why don't we try this...

Why don't we just stop?

Why don't we ask the Shriner's to agree to stop using wearing circus makeup in parades? Why don't we ask the suppliers to stop stocking it? What don't we stop holding seminars and teaching circus-style makeup design and application at conventions?

Why don't we just stop?

We could probably end the non-circus use of whiteface, auguste and tramp makeup in America tomorrow simply by changing the WCA and COAI judging rules. Circus makeup? No trophy!

If we stopped makeup from being the very FIRST thing taught to amateurs to making makeup the very LAST thing a skilled clown EARNED after completion of training in many other aspects of performance then we might just be able to restore the public's perception of classical circus clowning.

"But what will we wear?"         "But what will we sell?"


Leon McBryde


Jackie LeClaire
Circus Sarasota


Rik Gern


Kenny Ahern

Proper, professional circus-style clown makeup was a closely guarded secret until the advent of Ringling's Clown College. The old timers believed that if their secrets got out then everyone would be able to approximate the look of a professional circus clown and their days would be numbered.

Which is, pretty much, exactly what happened.

Which is weird because the old timers secrets were passed to the young Clown College grads who taught it to the amateurs who watered down the product to the point where the professionals working in circus today have adopted lighter makeups to better distinguish themselves from the backyard amateurs.

Which means that circus makeup, which evolved in order for a performer's expressions to more easily be read from very far away is now usually worn by people working to audiences of 20 or less, up close, in a backyard setting and lighter makeups which were intended for more intimate venues are now worn by people playing Madison Square Garden.


Since "rules" have become such a popular feature in clowning organizations in the last 30 years or so, why don't we adopt these?

1) If you are strolling, doing "meet & greet", table hopping, or performing to an audience of 500 or less, a clown should forgo classic circus makeup and wear something lighter, less exaggerated and more naturalistic.

2) If you are working to an audience of 1000 or more, or performing in something larger than a one ring show, you should consider slapping it on big and thick if you want to be seen.

Which is not to say that these rules won't have exceptions (Tom Dougherty looks quite at home on the floor in Ringling arena shows, Barry Lubin is excellent at meet and greet outside the Big Apple tent in New York) but might be adopted as a general rule of thumb.

Any thoughts?


Anonymous said...

There is confusion about what is, or what makes, a good clown.

This true in the general, everyday, population.

People don't know. People are taught by what they see and experience.

...and makeup, can blur lines/ definitions even when performance should not.

...and in this I agree with you in total.

...and I also ache for what is lost in circus because of what happens outside of it.

Good points, Pat.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think it's insanity to think that Ringling Clown College grads are the reason people learned how to put on make-up.

Circus Clowns aren't and weren't the only people using 'theatrical make-up'. Sure, the design may be different, but the process and steps to application are all the same. Anyone interested in applying nice make-up doesn't need to seek out a clown, they just need to practice. Besides, the bell's already been rung. What do you want to do, send a clown mafia to bust down doors and take Shriner's make-up away?

Also, many of these people have good intentions... they may not be David Shiner or Bill Irwin, but they are out there - many times - just trying to spread some good in this world.

In every industry, there are the weak and the strong, and the strong always rise to the top.

So stop worrying about the bottom of the barrel.

Matthew said...

While an interesting proposal, I don't think anyone should ever try to stop people from doing what they love.

I do think there is a category of people who cannot distingush between dressing up like a clown and being a clown. Sadly, while a guy dressed as a fireman will not come to think he can extinguish a burning house, the guy dressed as a clown might come to believe that he knows how to be in the circus.

If the clubs like rules and categories, maybe a new category of minimal/theatrical make up can be emphasized. If someone can get the laughs in minimal makeup, that guy is a good clown. If classes and clubs can help folks with that, everyone wins.

Anonymous said...

I lament the confusion, and the loss of what was.

People can learn from almost anything. This is true. (I remember as a child buying a book on clowning, which contained steps as to applying make up, I followed that, as a child, along with a step by step feature in a Clyde Betty Cole Bros. program. We, at any stage, can learn from anything. Maybe not well, maybe not for the best, but we learn something.)

It's just regrettable that what some learn is wrong, or not enough.

...and by wrong I mean used improperly or to a less effective degree than it can be.

...and in a way that might confuse or damage the perception of clowning.

That's bad because it limits, or distorts what can be, what is, and what has been.

On a personal level I think joy is a wonderful thing and the more of it in this world, the better. Those that share it, and create it, can give blessings to all. (including themselves) That group of people can include a face painting clown at a birthday party as well as a clown collage grad.


Done best, is best.

...and done badly can hurt everyone.

Little John said...

As a clown matures the pound can of Stein Clown White becomes his powder sock holder, the triple level tackle box make-up kit is replaced with something the size of an eye glass case, and that clown can now walk out into the spotlight raise an eyebrow at the appropriate time and bring the house down. Such a great thing it must be to travel this path that such excellent performers have opened for those who are called, pity that most of us can’t take more than a few steps toward greatness.

Anonymous said...


Why are you so bent on these nonsense issues?

The look does not make the clown... the clown makes the clown.

Look at some of the great clowns throughout the ages...did they all have great make-up? Honestly? Did you look at some of the old photos that you posted recently? Does that make them bad clowns? Huh?

I have seen some really excellent clowns, mostly from other countries, that maybe do not look picture perfect...but they are damn great performers. "REAL" circus clowns.

Most of the posted photos in this thread of the folks that have changed their "look" probably did not do it because of a tainted view of clowns. They did it as part of their character's development.

Back in 1990, I got permission from Kenneth Feld himself to adapt a more "European" look. Minimalistic make-up, and I did not wear a wig. Mr. Feld's response when I showed him the photo, "I like it. It is the clown of the 90's" (Remember the year). I was the only one on the Blue Show back then with that style make-up.

I did not make the change for any other reason than it fit my character.

Like other folks that frequent your sight, I have used several different looks to fit what I was doing at the time. It is a part of our business. But you always have that one character that you are most comfortable with.

I do not see the photo of your auguste charater on top of your blog. How come? That character is VERY photogenic.

Please do us a favor, and do not let yourself get hung up on the petty things such as this last rant. We love this site for what it is...a celebration of "REAL" circus clowning. No matter how they look.


Anonymous said...

I think it's quite funny that you bash the Ringling clowns about makeup etc., but you recently came out with a new "clown" that has no makeup what so ever...... I'm tired of the Ringling clowns getting bashed. They put in there hard time and all you do is bash them. Get a real job and quit bashing people and take a good, hard look in the mirror.

Anonymous said...

Great idea, impossible to communicate. Because if crappy-looking clowns bothered to visit sites like this, there wouldn't be a problem.

Peppo the Clown said...

Pat, your comments are very interesting and they make great food for thought, as usual; they are very provoking and, in that sense, very, VERY positive. There is one thing about minimal make-up though, and I think it was being overlooked. And (this is only MY feeling) it happens sometimes that the artist behind the clown feels that the mask is exactly that, a mask, a disguise, a fake thing that is applied on the face, covering the real clown coming from the heart. It's interesting to see that real PRO clowns with years of experience, professionals who are so good at what they do that they are teachers of the art (and rightfully so) discarded the traditional circus make-up they used for years and adopted a minimal style; case in point: Karen Bell. Marcela Murad is other example. The adoption of a "european" style of make-up comes out of that reason too: the need for "unmasking" and for "reality". I went through the same process myself, and my make-up is so much better received now (I invite you to see my photos at Please don't get me wrong, I'm a very, very, very humble community clown, and there is no way I could compare myself to you Pat, or Karen or Marcela; I'm saying this just to establish my point. Again, Pat, thank you for your opinions and ideas. By the way: I like this chacterization of yours so much better than the previous one. Could you please explain a little about your change in make-up?. Does it have something to do with what I just said?.

Anonymous said...

Since my Ringling makeup made me appear as a kindred "Blue Meanie" from Yellow Submarine, and my makeup touch looked like I learned to put on the mud with a spatula, I don't have much room to speak about makeup eloquence, of say, Keith Crary, who spent more time with one glitterered eyebrow, than I spent in a week of trying to beat come-in. To tell you the truth, I did'nt like full makeup, and only wore what I could get away with while still surviving the "alley heat" of the old-timers that I adored. In spite of my errant ways, they still loved me and watched out of the corner of their eyes to make sure that I had a method for the madness, and a love for the laughter, that brings us together in spite of facial, character & costumed differences.
As time went, I wore less as my friendship with the old-timers grew. Now, I'm an old-timer, and I'm down to putting on the same dilapadated train conductors I've worn since 1970, my baggy pants, my big shoes, longjohns, striped & faded underwear....and for make up, I black out two teeth with a Maybelline Black Velvet pencil before I try to the stage with reckless joy and abandon. It's not much, but it's all I's not the's what you carry inside that determines how far you can go with a strangers heart.