Missionary Clown


“Graduation—the lights on the stage dimmed; the time that we had all looked forward to was finally here. The ceremony had been grand; all the pomp and circumstance to fit the occasion had been unfurled. Boy, I sure hoped my rubber nose wouldn’t fall off.” Tim Holst was graduating magna cum laude from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown school. He had even been offered a job with the circus, the Greatest Show on Earth.

“How did all this happen?” he wondered. Tim had been a student at Utah State University studying to get a teaching degree so that he could teach seminary. During the summers he would work in Yellowstone Park in a little summer theater company called the Playmill Theater. Tim was playing, directing, and acting as master of ceremonies for the show when he was spotted by one of the circus promoters for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The promoter liked Tim, thought he was funny, and invited him to go to the circus clown school in Florida.

Now Tim had completed the eight-week course in clowning. He had learned the fundamentals of juggling, clowning, acrobatics, gymnastics, make-up, and costuming. The offer of a one-year contract to clown for the circus was appealing. Should he accept? Tim decided not to. He was very close to graduation from college, and he felt that he should finish his schooling. He left Florida after graduating from the clown school and drove back to Utah State University to begin his winter quarter classes.

“Still, I just didn’t feel right,” Tim said. “I felt as though I should get right back to Florida and accept the offer to be a clown for the circus. After much prayer and consideration, and after talking with my parents back in Illinois, I decided to head back to Florida and begin rehearsal as a clown for the upcoming circus season. As I was settling into my new room, there came a knock on my door. I opened the door, and there stood a member of my graduating class, another Tim—Tim Torkildson. He had observed what he thought was something special about me, and Tork (that was his circus nickname) wanted to know about the Church.”

Tork said, “Tim’s life-style was different from anybody else’s, and I wanted to know more about him.”

Tim introduced his friend to the Church, and soon Tork was taking the missionary lessons. After about six weeks Tim baptized Tork in Florida, just a few days before they left on their circus tour of some forty-five cities throughout the United States and Canada. Tim now knew why he had needed to return to Florida. He was to be a “missionary clown.”

Both Tim and Tork say that clowning has its good and bad sides. Being away from home more than ten months a year, traveling by train from city to city, and living out of a truck can become tiring. But the good side seems to outweigh the bad. Living so you can influence others inside and outside the circus is a great challenge. The circus people seem to respect them for their beliefs. Tim’s boss clown often comes to him for advice, and Tim has even helped him with a lesson in delegating authority. Tim and Tork think highly of their boss who is responsible for the clown acts, seeing that they are good and that they get into the arena in order and on time.

One of the first things Tim and Tork always do in a new city is contact the closest bishop and get a schedule of the Sunday meetings. They are able to attend church in almost every city. Usually after working sixteen to eighteen hours on Saturday, they get up early and attend priesthood meeting on Sunday morning. They have been able to meet many members of the Church all over North America. Meeting new people in new places has been a special reward all its own.

A day in the life of a clown? Well, there are traveling days and set-up days, but the busiest and most exciting days are performance days. On Saturdays the circus puts on three shows, and this keeps everyone extra busy.

Make-up takes Tim about one hour. His particular clown face is his own creation. A clown’s face and costume are his trademark, and it is part of the clown’s unwritten code that he will not use the face or costume of one of his fellow clowns. Tim starts making up by covering his face with cold cream so that the rest of his make-up will come off easily after the performance. He whites his face all over. Then, over the white face, he draws in bold, descriptive lines around his eyes, nose, and mouth that exaggerate his expression. At various times while he is making up he will stop and wrinkle up his face in his very best smile to make sure that the make-up is on correctly. Tim makes his own big red rubber noses and tops off the new face with a bright red wig. His make-up and all his costumes are in his own steamer trunk that follows him wherever he goes. His circus life revolves around his circus trunk. Sitting in front of the open trunk he can reach the compartment in front that holds his make-up; in the drawer beneath he keeps his personal gear. On one shelf there are some tissues, and in the left side of the trunk hang all his clown costumes and some of his civvies. In the bottom drawer are two pairs of specially made clown shoes. Everything seems to have its proper though crowded place. On one of the top shelves is a Book of Mormon, some well-worn New Eras and Ensigns, and a few copies of the Church News. Tim treasures them and reads them again and again. Tim’s trunk is vital to his profession.

The clowns must make up and be ready before everyone else to “warm up” the audience for the rest of the show. The clowns do slapstick comedy and vaudeville-type routines to get laughs from the crowd. Sometimes they all work together in one big rollicking show, and other times they work alone doing a routine of their own creation. Tim is the very first performer in the arena. He walks in with his huge shoes slapping on the hard rubber runway and a big bandage wrapped around his head. He groans and screams in pain from the most terrible toothache that anyone has ever had. But never fear, who should appear at the other end of the arena but a clown-faced dentist in a tuxedo who obviously has the equipment and know-how to help Tim get rid of his horrible toothache. This all seems fine to Tim until he sees the dentist’s equipment—a large hammer and a huge pair of pliers. Tim makes several attempts to escape but all to no avail. The dentist and Tork finally wrestle Tim to the ground right in front of the center ring, and with his huge pair of pliers the dentist extracts a huge foam-rubber tooth that had been hidden in Tim’s bandage. It’s a great laugh for everyone, and the clowns seem to enjoy it most of all. After a few more good routines, the crowd is warmed up and the show begins.

The ringmaster grandly announces the initial entry, and all the circus performers and animals parade around the arena. During a show Tim makes twelve costume changes. He continues clowning around, assists in the aerial ballet, and participates in a number of parades and productions that have become part of the modern circus: the clowns all squeeze into a little car, hit each other with cream-filled pies, do a proper amount of kicking and swatting each other, and generally give the audience a rousing good time.

Between shows Tim often finds the local library and studies. He writes letters and reads the scriptures and Church publications. The break between shows is also a time to grab a bite to eat. The circus provides food at a reasonable price for the performers and people who work for the show, some five hundred in all.

Tim, our missionary clown, traveled to 45 cities and clowned his way through 548 performances this past season. Does he like the circus? He has signed a contract for another year with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but Tim won’t be a clown this next season. Tim will be the ringmaster—the man who is often the focal point and always the person who keeps the Greatest Show on Earth moving.

Tim explained that staying with the circus for another year would enable him to help send his brother on a mission.

What do Tim and Tork think about their occupations as clowns? Let’s say that they are both proud to be part of a great tradition. Clowns are as old as literature and the arts. Shakespeare’s Lear had his fool, who was perhaps the least foolish of all. There have been clowns in literature from earliest times to the present.

Tim Torkildson says: “It is my feeling that laughter is a most precious and valuable gift to mankind. It helps make things easier when you can laugh away your problems. As you watch a clown go through his convolutions and escapades, you begin to realize that there, but for the make-up on his face, go I. Essentially, a clown is just magnifying and perhaps even understanding what we as human beings are prone to do. The closer a clown comes to the truth, the harder we laugh. And as we laugh, perhaps we also begin to think. Pride and boasting are brought tumbling down to the ground by the antics of a clown. To make people laugh is to help them in some indefinable way. You know, I have found nothing that hampers my living according to gospel principles. I love my work and love the gospel.”

Tim Holst says: “I’ve noticed for years the confusion and heartache that people experience no matter what their stations or beliefs. My clowning relieves some of the problems of others by poking fun at everyday experiences. I marvel at all the people who visit the circus. And in many ways I feel very humble to be able to perform to such great audiences. I had a difficult time in deciding between the circus and returning to school. I made my decision to be a clown and then asked Heavenly Father for help and strength in my decision. I pray daily that I might be an example for all those I come in contact with through the circus. The high point of this year was when I was able to help bring someone else into the Church. I felt his new-found joy and peace, and I felt closer to the Lord.

“I’m not a star or celebrity but a hard-working performer with an inner desire to achieve excellence in my field. The scope of the circus is worldwide.

“To those who have the desire to be professional actors or actresses or to involve themselves in some aspect of show business I would say, think very carefully of the decision you have to make, weigh all the factors, and then have the courage and fortitude to maintain your standards and decisions.

“The most important thing in my life is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Though this year has been a tough, rigorous schedule of performances, I’ve gained great strength through prayer.

“My parents have influenced my life with goodness and living the gospel. I love them very much, for they have helped and encouraged me to develop the talents that God has given me.

“Many times as a clown, I feel very close to those for whom I perform, and I want to share with them the blessings I have. I love clowning and children, and nothing delights me more than hearing laughter and seeing smiles. What would this world be without clowns … or comedy?”

Some Circus Jargon

Blue and Red Units

—Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus has two complete shows that go to different cities each year. Each show runs for two years in alternating cities so that a city never sees the same show twice.

Dummy-up

—means to shape up or to wise up. In other words, get your head on straight.

First of Mayers

—is a name for first-year clowns. Traditionally, new performers came to the circus during the first few weeks in May because that was when school let out for the summer and many young people would run away and join the circus.

Greaseballs

—is another name for first-year clowns because they will often put on their make-up without using cold cream, and it makes it very difficult to get all the greasepaint off their faces.

Oscar

—is the traditional name for the fire marshall, who in days gone by often gave the circus a hard time because of the hazardous conditions caused by old-time circus tents and equipment.

Rosey

—when a circus performer says Rosey is here, he hasn’t seen a long-lost aunt. It means that there are rows and rows of empty seats in the arena. Circus performers would prefer that Rosey stayed away from all the performances.

Towners

—are the people who are outsiders, and they usually live in the town or city where the circus is currently playing.

The Ghost Walks

—is the circus payday. Circus performers are always paid with cash because it would be difficult for them to have a regular banking or checking account when they are always on the move.

Warm-up

—is the period of time before the show begins when the clowns go out and prepare the audience for the show by getting them to laugh and relax.

[photos] Photos by Lowell M. Durham, Jr.

[photo] Tim in front of his trunk ready to make up

[photo] Some cold cream and then start with the white stuff

[photo] White make-up is traditional with clowns

[photo] Tim uses a red, rust-colored make-up around his eyes and cheekbones

[photo] Tim pulls faces to see if his make-up is on effectively

[photo] He may try a laugh or two—too

[photo] Black grease pencil highlights the outlines of Tim’s make-up

[photo] Red lips, a red rubber homemade nose, and a red wig finish Tim’s clown face

[photo] Tim carefully holds the rope for a young aerial ballet performer

[photo] Some clown antics to prove that the hand is quicker than the eye

[photo] Tim carrying a banner in one of the big circus productions

[photo] Do you think you will ever see a clown much prettier than me?

[photo] Tim rests in front of his trunk

[photo] Tork and an “old soft shoe”

[photo] Tork’s hiding behind the make-up curtain after exercising his pea shooter

[photo] You don’t step on my toes, I won’t step on yours