At a recent Ringling Bros. clown-casting call, the applicants, counterintuitively, did not arrive in one small car.
Quite the opposite: A metallic Chrysler minivan from the airport Radisson screeches to a halt in the parking lot and Remy Davis hurriedly disembarks from the passenger seat. A lithe 19-year-old Angeleno swathed in layers of Day-Glo apparel and sporting a platinum Bob's Big Boy hairstyle, she extracts an oversize Pilates ball from the vehicle only with intense effort. Across the blacktop, Rebekah Cavinder, an elfin woman with a pair of jump rope-length pigtails, also struggles to tote a smaller but much heavier sphere resembling a giant pink gumball off the No. 9 bus. Both hopefuls pace, rapidly, toward the beckoning mouth of a Cow Palace loading dock — and destiny.
The first thing to hit you upon entering the darkened arena is its ever-present odor; the interior of the Cow Palace eternally smells of the interior of a cow. The caterwauling of someone welding together a circus caravan echoes throughout its cavernous antechambers and a shower of sparks illuminates a strange landscape of gaily decorated golf carts, racks of unicycles, and mounds of unidentified big-top detritus. A male clown outfitted in a paint-splattered jumpsuit with an alabaster face and a crimson nose leans in when greeting a comely female clown colleague. Their legs intertwine and they kiss, deeply.
Well, you don't see that every day.
The light and noise emanating from the Cow Palace's main floor grow ever more intense as you draw closer. Push aside a curtain and there you are: On center stage, a gaggle of clowns grooves to Muzak versions of popular songs played in the style of Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show band — including ACDC's "Highway to Hell," complete with honking horns. These are the few, the proud: the men and women who can write "clown" on their 1040s. Today, a dozen aspirational clowns will attempt to breach this rarefied world.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics' list of Standard Occupational Classifications stretches from "Able Seaman" to "Zoologist." Sandwiched between "Clothing Patternmakers" and "Coaches," you'll discover "Clowns" (category 27-2099). The BLS Occupational Outlook Quarterly even includes a profile of a rodeo clown named Dale "Gizmo" McCracken. He reveals the inspiration for his routines comes via mimicking mall-goers: "You can pick up some funny stuff just watching the world go by."
Sadly, you can't pick up much stuff, funny or otherwise, from the scant occupational data kept on clowns. Asked if this is a good time to break into the field, San Francisco-based BLS economist Todd Johnson replies, "It's a good time to have any job. So, yeah, it's a great time to be a clown." When queried for any additional information regarding clowns, the economist thinks for a moment: "They're extremely scary."
Johnson would do well to avoid the Cow Palace. The arena is, on the morning of the audition, lousy with clowns. It is a coulrophobe's worst nightmare. Clown residue will likely be seeping out of this place for weeks to come.
Outfitted in a Zippy the Pinhead top-knot wig of his own making, with a painted face, oversize foam shoes, and prescription horn-rimmed glasses, Taylor Albin has an actual job title of "boss clown." Now in his fourth year on the Ringling circuit, he's something of a grizzled veteran. The boss clown estimates he's seen perhaps 35 or more performers fill the dozen or so slots allotted to clowns on the circus' larger traveling shows. It's a young clown's game and turnover is high — hence the open auditions.
If you grew up idolizing Buster Keaton and marking the days until the big top came to town; if you always wanted to live on a mile-long private train and dine in its "Pie Car," then joining the circus really is its own reward. As for the material rewards: Clowns your humble narrator chatted with demurred, offering answers such as "a great experience," "popcorn and cotton candy," and, finally, "that's the one thing we're really not supposed to talk about."
Pressed further, however, clowns confirmed that they're earning "so much less" than $20,000 yearly (they do, however, have their own rooms on a train and purchase food on the cheap in the Pie Car — where seven bucks gets you a "steak with the works.").
This is the existence the dozen would-be refugees from San Francisco life are competing for. But not without stretching first.
Albin leads both the hopefuls and the Ringling crew through drills not unlike those preceding a soccer match. But there's a difference: They all contort their faces, loosening their cheeks and jaws to produce broad, gaping smiles even a myopic kid in the nosebleeds could see. At the count of three, the order to freeze is issued, and every professional and amateur clown in the stadium stands stark still, arms raised, with a maniacal grin plastered across his or her motionless visage.
Somewhere, Todd Johnson breaks into a cold sweat.
Life can be grim for a clown without a train and a Pie Car to call home. They roam the earth like unicycle-bound ronin, eking out an existence hawking their weight in balloon animals. They suffer life's slings and arrows — and sometimes worse.
"There are days I've had knives pulled on me. I was attacked in front of a Mexican TV crew," says Kenny Kahn, aka Kenny the Clown, a Fisherman's Wharf fixture and 2007 San Francisco mayoral candidate (he received three votes). He's broken bones. He's been pounded over the head with his own cudgel.
He's been shot at.
While Kahn was motoring through Southern California, someone blasted the window out of his automobile. "Clowning," he's learned, "is a hit-or-miss business."
Back at the Cow Palace, the aspiring clowns are run through a series of workshops. They're given emotions — "You just won the lottery!" "You're so confused!" — and told, emphatically, to play it big, with silent movie gesticulations detectable from the rafters. Another drill involves half a dozen performers improvising a factory line-like succession of interconnected, machine-like gestures and noises. This clown concatenation doesn't exactly go as planned. Spandex-clad women emitting whistles while tilting repeatedly at the waist and men grunting and writhing on the floor is less reminiscent of the "Greatest Show on Earth" and more akin to something one might witness on Folsom Street.
To the performers' credit, however, this would have been apparent even to that myopic kid in the nosebleeds.
After several hours of drills, the candidates were given three minutes — and not a second more — to show their stuff. Some juggled. Others danced and executed complex gymnastic maneuvers. More traditional clown acts struggled to pack stubborn suitcases with polka-dotted clothes or walked out of their shoes and feigned nervous breakdowns. Remy Davis flipped herself over her Pilates ball. Rebekah Cavinder mounted the giant gumball and perambulated about the concourse like a log-roller. The professional clowns in attendance hooted with abandon. Clowns, it turns out, are a hell of an audience.
Then the real business of the day commenced, as circus personnel and applicants sat down to talk clown shop. In the realm of clowning, as elsewhere, it helps to go to the right schools and make the right connections. Graduates of San Francisco's respected Clown Conservatory forked over documents, DVDs, and letters of recommendation from clown school luminaries.
Cavinder, who solemnly disgorged all of these, has a pressing appointment in the non-clowning world. She is the first to depart. As she exits the Cow Palace, the company's clowns can be overheard assuring their would-be colleagues that, in addition to one's own room on the Ringling train, clowns have access to refrigerators and microwaves.
That train may or may not be in Cavinder's future — those passing Ringling's muster will receive calls by mid-month.
Once again, she struggles to hoist her hulking pink gumball onto the No. 9. By now, however, it barely registers; it's a ritual of everyday life. And there are worse places to be than seated on the bus with your gumball.
You can pick up some funny stuff just watching the world go by.