World Famous Ringling Brother’s Clown Alley will entertain Erwin Center fans when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Presents Built To Amaze! takes the stage on August 20-24, but another very important part of the Ringling family starts clowning around weeks in advance of the show.
Rik Gern, who goes by the stage name Bonzo Crunch, graduated from Ringling Clown College in 1992, then went on the perform with their Red Unit from 1993-1994. Bonzo Crunch now serves as a Ringling Goodwill Ambassador and puts on several performances around the Austin area during the weeks leading up to the show to build excitement and spread the word about The Greatest Show On Earth®.
Last week, we traveled with Mr. Crunch to the Bullock Texas State History Museum and Sky Candy Aerial Arts Studio to ask him a few questions and get a small taste of what life is really like as a Ringling Clown.
How did you get your start as a clown?
My interest in being a performer started when I was a teenager when I was exposed to the comedians of the 1920’s and ’30’s, particularly Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, The Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin. When I was a kid and would see the Ringling Brothers circus, I was always mesmerized by the great tramp clown, Mark Anthony. I wanted to live in the kind of world he lived in and that that feeling would last for months after the circus left town. In 1978, I joined Chicago’s Vagabond Clowns and received their “First of May” award. I later joined the Opus Mime Ensemble and studied at the Dell ‘Arte School of Mime and Comedy. Around the 1980s I applied for Ringling’s Clown college and applied a few times before I was finally accepted in 1992.
What was Ringling Clown College like?
You had to go through an application process that not only looked at your skills and experience, but also your personality and attitude. After being accepted, I started a 12-week clown training camp where I learned everything from juggling to skit writing to costume making and design. We would practice all day, and when we weren’t practicing, we were watching videos to continue learning. It was a very grueling but very exciting experience.
What was a typical day like on the road?
On a typical show day, we would wake up and get ready for any PR activities we had planned for the day, which I loved doing. It gave us a chance to get a feel for the community before we took the stage. After PR, we would go through rehearsals if they were called, then try to get some rest. A few hours before the show, we started getting ready and warming up. During the show when we weren’t performing, we would act silly and have fun backstage but we also used to that time to continue practicing and working on our skills. After the show, if it was the last show of the city, some of us would take on extra jobs aside from performing to help load out and get packed up to leave. Life on the road stayed very very busy.
How long does it take for you to get ready?
If I take my time and go at a leisurely pace, it can take about an hour. If I’m in a rush and need to get ready quickly, I can get ready in 25 minutes. I always like to leave some extra time in case I make a mistake or forget to put on part of my makeup and have to go back and redo something.
What’s the hardest part about being a clown?
When you’re living on a train and traveling nonstop, the hardest part is taking care of yourself and staying healthy. Performing two and three shows a day some days, you sometimes forget that you need to sleep.
What’s your favorite part about being a clown?
Performing for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® allows me to entertain three and sometimes more generations at once, and that’s increasingly rare in a culture that is ever more niche marketed. I also love that I get to see people in the nicest light. I see kids faces light up with a huge smile and I see the parents faces light up when they see their children having a great time.
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