It’s almost trendy to say you’re afraid of clowns these days. And with good reason: Remember Pennywise, the pointy-toothed clown-villain of Stephen King’s “It,” a 1980s made-for-TV miniseries?
The fiery-haired fiend in a multicolored onesie was enough to creep out legions of now 20- and 30-somethings for life. But while professing a fear of clowns may garner snickers among friends, the concerted dislike of these benign figures in face paint breaks Ben Bolin’s heart.
“It’s hard to get used to seeing children who are terrified of your very presence. That’s the worst. You want to take it personally and think that it’s something you did,” says the clown for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
The famous circus opens today at U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix. Now in its 138th year, Ringling Bros.’ show mixes traditional big-top acts — contortionists, dancing elephants — with flashy additions designed to keep “classic circus” just fresh enough for modern audiences: a rare double-decker trapeze, a motorcycle act featuring seven cycles in a steel globe and one on a high-wire, Cirque du Soleil-esque human butterflies.
And, of course, there are the clowns, as much a part of the show as they’ve ever been.
The 16 members of Clown Alley spend the show trying to wrestle control away from the ringmaster and do things their way. But their chief job is to make sure each audience member feels connected to the show, a tall order for a trapeze artist who looks like a pinpoint way up in the rigging.
Bolin, 24, says interacting with the audience is the best part of performing for the iconic circus — despite the clown-phobes. The Oregon native is an average guy who, six years ago, actually — as the saying goes — “ran away to join the circus.”
“My first job in the circus was the first time I’d ever even SEEN the circus. I come from a small town, and we never really had a circus before. I had no idea what to expect whatsoever, but from my first day on, I knew I was where I needed to be,” he says.
Bolin started working backstage, swinging a sledgehammer and moving props. Last year, he joined Ringling Bros. as a clown. It’s a career choice that took some getting used to.
“It was like a huge shock for (my family). It’s nothing they would imagine doing, but knowing me and my personality, it fit. Being a clown is what I’ve always done, in a way. Now that they know I’m happy and making a living, they’re very supportive and excited for me.”
As a primarily happy clown, Bolin says he can understand the perspective of the littlest circusgoers. The lights, sounds and bizarre sights of the circus are a lot to take in. Stick a guy in makeup and a bouncy wig in a kid’s face, and tears are understandable.
As for the rest of us?
“Some people have got it in their head that they’re afraid, and they don’t take the chance to just connect and realize that we’re just people just trying to entertain,” says Bolin. “I put so much of myself out there to make sure the audience feels connected to the show, and I love sharing those emotions with them. It’s very easy to want to do this forever.”
Circus fun facts
• The circus travels from town to town in two trains that are each more than a mile long. Staff, performers and animals, props, tools and equipment all ride — or live — on board.
• Because the circus is typically held in large arenas, Ringling Bros. clowns originally designed their makeup to be seen no matter where in the house someone was seated.
• No two clowns’ faces are alike.
• The eight members of the Torres family ride motorcycles up to 65 miles per hour inside a 16-foot steel globe; to keep from getting creamed, each follows a set trajectory around the globe’s interior.
• As many as four of the Bombastic Bouncers’ giant, springy inner tubes may be damaged in one day, thanks to constant use and transport and changes in temperature and humidity from city to city.
• Most of the tigers in the show train for four years before they’re admitted into the tiger act.
• Comic trapeze artist Maria Garcia and her eight siblings — all circus performers — are keepers of their father’s cherished Jesus statue; they kiss it before every performance.
• Each elephant living at the circus’ Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County, Fla., feasts on 2 1/2 tons of hay, 800 pounds of grain, fruits and vegetables, and 80 gallons of water per day.
• American icon “Uncle Sam” originated from a character created by a clown in Washington, D.C.
Source: Ringling Bros.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey “Over the Top”
What: Flying dogs, dancing elephants, acrobats on horseback, a motorcycle on a high-wire and contortionists. A special pre-show allows families to join performers and learn circus skills and secrets one hour before showtime.
When: 7 p.m. today; 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: U.S. Airways Center, 201 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix
Cost: $6.50-$83.75; children ages 2-12 receive a $3 discount on certain performances; free for children 23 months and younger on an adult’s lap