Life Of A Clown
Authors Note: In 2016, I met Barry Brazell while working on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship “Ovation of the Seas”. He and I were working together installing state-of-the-art rigging in two multi-million dollar theaters aboard the ship. Barry is always climbing everything in sight like Spiderman, which I later found out was one of his many stunt jobs. Barry is a man that has lived many lives. He has worked in nearly every facet of the entertainment industry from performing to rigging, to stunt work. Before all of that though, he joined the circus. This is his story, in his own words.
Because of my childhood, I didn’t have the mind to think about having a hero. I had friends that had comic books and all that but it wasn’t something that my parents would approve of. As a kid, I didn’t have the opportunity to even believe in Santa Claus. My parents were very strict. Things were expected of me and nothing was ever out of place. They didn’t get along either and sometimes they would take it out on their kids… and that was what it was.
My childhood was rough. It was really rough. I was a cutup (a jokester). I didn’t get the attention I thought I should get and that is why I cutup. I just did what I was told to do but as soon as I didn’t have to, I was going to make people laugh. I was the person that would put tacks in a chair, bring the hand buzzer and a whoopee cushion. I became an expert at spitballs… anything that would get a laugh.
I don’t commit a lot to memory but I remember my brother had a poster. It was one of those patriotic propaganda posters. On the poster was a mouse and this huge eagle is flying at it, about to snatch up the mouse. The mouse is turned towards the eagle with his middle finger up. The poster said Last Great Act of Defiance… that little mouse is me. If you punch me in the mouth for something, I’m going to taste the blood and ask with a grin on my face, ‘What was that about? You think you got something to win here because you are just going to have to keep beating me until I stop talking but I will never give up.’
It was actually my mom that took me to the circus and there I saw Lou Jacobs and (Glenn) Frosty Little. I said ‘That’s cool as hell!’ I didn’t know anything about the circus but I knew that I wanted to be a clown.
When I was just getting started, I was doing a birthday party at a pizza place and I used spray paint on my face. But clown college is really where it started.
At Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the clowns were getting old in age and some of the traditions were not being carried on. Ringling started the clown college to pass on some of these things to the next generation of clowns. The clown college was based in Venice, Florida. It was the home of the Ringling headquarters during the winter. There I learned the daily life of the circus. I woke up early and put my makeup on. It was like an apprenticeship. People were constantly looking at you, judging you, grading you. You had classes about everything: miming, stilt walking, juggling, costume making. As a clown, you are self-sufficient. You have to do everything. The circus was like a family. If there was something you didn’t know, there was always somebody willing to help you learn… If you show initiative, mentorship will be given back.
I woke up early and put my makeup on. It was like an apprenticeship. People were constantly looking at you, judging you, grading you. You had classes about everything: miming, stilt walking, juggling, costume making. As a clown, you are self-sufficient. You have to do everything. The circus was like a family. If there was something you didn’t know, there was always somebody willing to help you learn. If you showed initiative, mentorship will be given back.
I didn’t really know any clowns before I joined the circus, so I studied the history of clowns. I studied who they were, their family lineage, what they did in the circus, the history of Ringling (The Ringling Brothers), and the circus in general. I was just infatuated with the circus.
As a clown, you went over to the “participation circus”, where audience members could safely play on circus equipment. Clowns would help out with pre-show entertainment, juggling and what not. Sometimes clowns would be allowed to do stuff in the show, that would get you experience in other areas. Between shows, I would practice with whoever I could. I would hang out with whoever I could. Go drinking with whoever I could. I learned what I could from anyone that would teach me.
I did a lot of trapeze as a clown. Some comedy trapeze. I performed on the trampoline. I had to learn the art of bouncing my head in between the springs… I learned some acrobatics but it was always like a round off to my face.
Circus used to be about families passing down their knowledge to the next generation. Now there are people of different skill sets like gymnastics or trampoline and they take their skills and they say ‘Hey I could get a job in Cirque du Soleil.’ Cirque du Soleil understands the toll that it takes on a gymnast’s body. Cirque du Soleil spends money, time, energy, effort, offering care and concern for those performers. It’s a mixture of a bunch of different skills that have come into the circus, where it used to just be the circus and its family lineage. What I did and what a lot of my fellow performers did was give up their bodies to get a laugh… We had nothing… sometimes there were fights, just like any other family. And sometimes the fights got ugly. But we were always a family.
Authors note: This interview was conducted a few days before Ringling Brothers closed their doors. I asked Barry to give his thoughts on the ending of the iconic circus that has been around for over 150 years
If something is not working efficiently or could be made more efficient, it should be explored. We should live our lives as efficiently as possible, not “work” at it.
I am not a business man; monetarily Ringling was not working and those in charge of that business made that decision. Change is a necessity of life, choosing to accept it is not. As the years of my life have gone by, I understand that the ways that my parents were entertained are not the ways I have entertained myself. I knew the circus would change but did not think that Ringling would close altogether in my lifetime. Ringling’s Clown College was started due to necessity. Older clowns were getting older and new grease paint (blood) was needed. I was part of that change and it changed my life. Determined, passionate performers will thrive as long as humans exist whether or not vaudeville, freak shows or circuses do.
The show will go on.
After the circus, Barry went on to perform stunts in movies such as “Passenger 57”, “Instinct”, and “Earnest Saves Christmas”. After he retired from doing stunts he went on to become a rigger in the entertainment industry. In 2015, Barry retired from the Cirque du Soleil show La Nouba after 17 years working as the assistant head rigger. At the time of this interview, Barry was living with his 14-year-old son Dylan in Orlando, Florida.