Few circus and clown historians and even fewer Dylan fans seem to know about Bob Dylan's all consumming passion for classic American circus clowning. Growing up in Minnesota, young Robert Allen Zimmerman attended his first circus at the age of three and was immediately entranced by the clowns. As he got older he befriended and corresponded regularly with several members of the classic Ringling alley, especially Otto Griebling from whom he learned about the poetry of Jack Kerouac and the music of Woody Guthrie.
Moving to Greenwich Village to join the New York folk music scene, Zimmerman (now Bob Dylan) was a fixture backstage at the Garden each spring throughout the early 1960s and, even at the very zenith of his counterculture celebrity, revelled in the any and all chances to help pad out the larger production gags like the Firehouse where his high, nasal "Fireman, save my bay-BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" could be heard echoing off the walls of the old Madison Square Garden.
After his close friend Paul Jung's death in 1965 Dylan was inconsolable and dropped out of the spotlight for almost 18 months while he studied mime and clowning with Tony Montaro in the hopes of leaving musical superstardom behind and joining Clown Alley. It was spring of 1967 before Lou Jacobs himself convinced Dylan that his skills and makeup were simply not up to an acceptable standard and that he should probably just return to his music. For his own good, a heartbroken Bob Dylan was not accepted to Clown College when he applied in 1968.
In typically Dylanesque fashion Bob denied that he had been studying clowning and instead he fabricated the unlikely story that he had actually been recuperating from a broken neck suffered in a motorcycle crash near his home in Woodstock, NY.
Continuing his friendships with the likes of Lou Jacobs, Bobby Kay, Duane Thorpe, Mike Polakovs, Prince Paul, Mark Anthony and Frankie Saluto and "guest clowning" at the Garden each spring, in 1972 Bob Dylan did finally visit the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Venice, FL to play the students two songs that have still gone unreleased, one about his good friend Otto Griebling, the other about the death of Paul Jung. These photos are taken from his brief concert and the long yoga and mime class that he taught that afternoon. As evening approached he left the Venice Arena profusely thanking Bill Ballantine for the opportunity but never visited the show again and did not return to teach at Clown College.
Disappointed that his sons Jesse and Jakob did not share his passion for circus clowning, Dylan strongly urged his youngest son, Todd Zimmerman, to apply to Clown College and was delighted when he was accepted. At the Kennedy Center ceremony in 1997 Dylan told President Bill Clinton that his greatest pride and joy was not in his own amazing and influential body of work but that his son currently toured with the Blue Unit of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Please click the title of this post to be taken to an EXTREMELY rare 1965 film that Dylan made to teach classic American circus clown blow-offs. It was used at the first Clown College class in 1968. Watch it twice and see if you can spot a teenaged Avner Eisenberg with a walking stick talking with Allen Ginsberg before walking off down the alley at the end.