Kyle Barker can recall the first time he saw a circus.
"I think it was from Moscow, and it was at the Armory off National Street in Elgin," the 27-year-old Streamwood man said. "I was 8 or 9, but I remember it was a small show, with just one clown. With one finger, he balanced himself on a globe. And I thought, 'wow, people can do that,' " Barker said.
As with most dreams, it took life experience and perseverance to realize that goal.
Sure, there was that trip to the circus in the back of his mind, and the magic tricks he loved to perform when he was in grade school. But Barker's dream began to take shape at the age of 14 with the first time he put on clown make-up.
He'd seen a picture of legendary Ringling Bros. clown Lou Jacobs, was inspired to try such a look for himself, and fell in love with greasepaint for the smiles it could bring.
Sure, many kids his age were playing sports or doing other school activities. But Barker — a former Courier-News paperboy, who lived in Elgin from the age of 4 until his freshman year in high school — was bored with classes at Larkin, then at Dundee-Crown in Carpentersville, where he moved with single mother Donna.
A summer job at the age of 16 did hold his attention for a bit: He played costumed characters at Santa's Village in East Dundee, including a Pluto-like dog and a Momma Bear.
"It was very hot to wear one, and there was tons of fur," Barker said. "They gave us ice packs, which you could attach to places inside the costumes, but those never really did the trick."
Barker wound up quitting school for three months. Then, in a move to get his act together, he enrolled in Lincoln's Challenge in Rantoul, a National Guard-run military school for at-risk youth. At the age of 17, he enlisted in the Army and became an ammunition specialist.
There he made friends with a soldier from Pennsylvania who was involved in clowning, which inspired him to put on the greasepaint once more.
"It was the fact that you could have a career making people happy," Barker said.
While still enlisted, he wound up getting a job as a clown at a brew pub in Columbus, Ga., entertaining customers by riding a miniature bicycle, making balloon animals and cracking wise.
"They had great burgers and it was a wonderful place to work," Barker said.
As for how the other soldiers reacted to his act, "they already knew I was quirky," Barker recalled.
After an honorable discharge in 2001, Barker came back to Streamwood, where his mom had settled with his stepfather, Mike Friese. Barker eventually wound up joining the Triton Troupers Circus, a small performance group that calls Triton College in River Forest home.
He also found work for a time with Around Town Clowns of South Elgin, playing at parties and corporate events. And he joined the Clown Guild of Metropolitan Chicago, the card of which is still in his wallet.
That led to meeting "a whole bunch of clowns who were really into what they did," Barker said. In 2003, one of his new clown buddies, Dorothy Miller, who performs as Blab-i-gail, told him about Mooseburger Camp, a school in Minnesota dedicated to the art of clowning.
After finishing the weeklong session, Barker continued performing and even started his own online prop shop. He also worked for a time as a security guard and as a clown for guests at a now-closed Old Country Buffet in Hanover Park.
"I convinced them to let me be a clown," Barker said. "It was a first lesson in negotiations."
Barker also wound up falling in love, getting married, and for a few years gave up his passion to work in customer support for T-Mobile.
Barker is uncomfortable talking about this part of his life, in which he wound up unemployed and divorced, with his wife having custody of his daughters Shaylee, 4, and Brienna, 5.
"I've put on the clown face for them many times," Barker said.
Shortly after his marriage dissolved in November 2008, Barker turned to performing as a way of dealing with the emotional turmoil. He sold some old clown props, beefed up his character and did a few parties for kids of friends from his job at the cell phone firm.
Then, early this year, a buddy from Triton told Barker about Ringling Bros. holding auditions for Clown College to be held April 6 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Barker learned more details from his clown friends he met on Facebook, and he planned his trip accordingly.
He rented a Mazda, picked up some props along the way in New Jersey, including some plungers and clothesline, and hit the Big Apple.
In something that seems like a clown bit, Barker said he wound up standing in a line with one other candidate for 35 minutes before realizing they were at the wrong door.
"I got bored, so I walked around the corner and saw the real line, marked with a big sign that said 'Clown Auditions,' " Barker recalled.
Getting a shot at Ringling Bros. "was surreal. But once I got on the floor of Madison Square Garden, I felt comfortable, like it was where I belonged," Barker said.
He did some warm-up exercises with other performers, then got a chance to impress those doing the casting with his shtick: juggling and trying to do a tightrope act across the clothesline held up by two plungers. But when the time came for calling out numbers of the chosen few, Barker's was not among them.
"I figured, 'hey, I had my shot, but the show must go on.' So I started packing up and said my good-byes," Barker recalled.
Still, with his foot just that much more in the door, Barker kept chasing a job with Ringling Bros. He continued to send contacts links to videos he had posted on YouTube and kept in touch with the Facebook connections.
"Then, on Sept. 11, he got a call asking if he was still interested.
After hanging up, "I was rolling around on the ground and my mother almost did a back flip," Barker noted.
"I got it! I got it! I got it," he screamed three times after landing the gig, a one-year contract and on-the-job training with the Greatest Show on Earth.
Making it extra exciting is that the job started Nov. 5 at Rosemont's Allstate Arena, where the circus settles in every fall before moving to the United Center.
Barker never got to see the big Ringling Bros. show until he was in his 20s because "we were too poor." But now he will be a "First of May," which is what veterans call first-time, first-generation circus performers, playing his creation, Babble-On, with Moe from "The Three Stooges" hair and requisite baggy clothing.
"He's an Auguste, a type of clown that is funny, silly, does pratfalls and pretty much is assured of pies in the face coming his way," Barker said.
While Barker never gave up on his dream, he hopes to make it all the more sweet by playing in front of his daughters before he heads out on the circus train.
"That would be wonderful," Barker said. "I am not sure if I can make it happen, but I'm an optimist."
As the clowns say to wish each other good luck, "Bump a nose."
Kyle, now that you are on the Big Show if I ever hear you say "Bump a nose" again I'll beat you across the face with a powder sock full of Qualatex balloons and heart shaped stickers ; )