Another circus memoir from Tim Torkildson: “News of the imminent shuttering of Ringling Brothers Circus has revived interest in the big top — not just among the exalted media, but even down to the local grade-school level. Several of my grandkids have requested my presence in their classroom to demonstrate the old slapstick razzmatazz.
“I have informed them that I will take their request under advisement and have my social secretary get back to them as soon as possible.
“They all know that Grandpa Tim is an old bum who spends most of his time trying to sneak past newspaper paywalls while eating beans straight out of the can, and that he doesn’t even own a drugstore calendar, much less have a social secretary. So they roll their eyes at my playful evasions, wishing, no doubt, that the bumptious geezer would just say yes or no.
“But it’s complicated.
“On the show, I was dragooned into appearing at hundreds of schools during the season. Or so it seemed. This meant getting up at an atrociously early hour, like 7 in the morning, to slap on the cold and congealed makeup, with no chance for a warm and nourishing breakfast beforehand.
“Stein’s Clown White, the standard whiteface brand, needed to be rubbed in the palms of my hands vigorously before applying to my face, to warm it up and make it easy to spread. But no matter how much I rubbed it, that first swipe across the face was never a very pleasant sensation; it was like slathering your face with schmalz out of the refrigerator.
“And then: facing dozens of howling youngsters in an overcrowded classroom or up on a gymnasium stage. It was no use doing a regular show, since the kiddies just kept screaming and wriggling like eels no matter what I did. So I marked time: juggling a bit; doing some balloon animals; playing my musical saw; and falling backwards off a folding chair at least a dozen times. When my 20 minutes were up, I would bow deeply and trot off, hoping against hope that the local circus promoter would have the decency to provide me with some hot chocolate and a cruller.
“Dropped off back at the arena, what was the use of taking off my heavy whiteface, just to put it back on again in a few hours? So I’d curl up in one of the clown prop boxes, snuggled up against the killer kangaroo, and try to recapture some of that blissful slumber I had been robbed of earlier.
“There were some merry exceptions.
“I recall going to a grade school in Hershey, Pennsylvania, with a bag full of discount Ping-Pong balls I’d bought at a thrift store for a dollar. I spent 20 minutes throwing the Ping-Pong balls out into the crowd of frenzied children and then dodging them as best I could when they were thrown back at me. When I took my bow, I could tell the children were beyond any earthly restraint, and the teachers were biting their nails and nibbling on their lower lips in expectant terror. That was a fun show.
“Then there was the time I performed at the Bangkok International School in Thailand. I was in Thailand serving as an LDS missionary, but I’d brought along my clowning rig at the behest of my mission president, who wanted me to do some free shows to promote good PR for the LDS Church in Thailand. That particular show was held outdoors in the sweltering tropical heat. Halfway through the performance, my makeup began to literally melt off my face. Rather than call a halt to the proceedings, I simply jumped into a convenient koi pond and began heaving water at the students, who returned the compliment by hoisting their math teacher into the air and depositing him next to me, sputtering and cursing like a shipwrecked sailor. At that point, the students were hustled back inside and I was given an icy ‘Khob khun khrab’ by the administration for my improvised performance.
“But most of them were rather humdrum and inconvenient. After I married and began raising a large herd of my own anklebiters, I vowed never to visit their classrooms as a rollicking merry-andrew.
“I kept to this noble resolve until my oldest daughter was in fifth grade. At the time, we were living in Minneapolis, and she was enrolled in my old alma mater, Tuttle Grade School. One winter evening during the off season, as the family relaxed over popcorn and a Disney videocassette, I casually asked her what her classmates thought of her dad the circus clown.
“’Oh, I never tell anyone what you do,’ she said offhandedly. ‘I guess they think you’re a janitor or something.’
“Blowing out a geyser of half-chewed popcorn, I stormed off to the bedroom. Imagine such ingratitude, I told myself; here I was knocking myself out (sometimes literally, when the slapstick went wrong) as a professional circus artist, and my oldest daughter lets her chums think I’m a janitor! By godfrey, madame; this shall not stand! After downing a restorative root-beer float, I rejoined my family in a much calmer frame of mind.
“The next day, I walked with her to school and dropped in on the principal to offer my unusual talents, gratis, for her pupils. She was not immediately overwhelmed.
“‘Mr. Torkildson,’ she said slowly, ‘am I to understand that you work as a circus clown and want to do some kind of clown show here? What are you selling?’
Nothing, I replied indignantly. I just wanted to give the kids a little break from routine, a treat the likes of which they could not reasonably expect from anyone else’s father at the school. Besides, I added piously, it would be a way for me to express my gratitude to that wonderful old school where I had spent six wonderful years during my wonderful formative years.
“She was not taken in by that last bit of eyewash, but still the offer intrigued her — especially after I pointed out that my own mother had been PTA president at Tuttle for three years running, back in the early Sixties. Indeed, her dour features still glowered down from a row of JCPenney studio portraits on the back wall of the principal’s office.
“So it was agreed that I would come in the next week, exclusively for my daughter’s class, to do a brief clown demonstration.
“‘It must be educational; I can’t justify it to the Board of Education, otherwise,’ she warned me as I took my leave.
“To say that my daughter was thrilled that her old man was going to show off his bag of circus tricks to her fellow students would be a slight exaggeration. Her exact words (or word) when I broached the subject to her at the dinner table: ‘Whatever.’
“That is one expression that needs to be stricken from the English language PDQ. I’ll be tweeting the President about it later today.
“I’d like to say the demonstration went off without a hitch, impressing students and teacher alike. And it might have, if a certain daughter of mine had not been quite so mulish. I decided to use three students to demonstrate the three different kinds of clown makeup: the classic whiteface, the auguste, and the hobo or character clown. I chose my daughter for the whiteface, and she immediately set up a continuous thin whining and muttering that began to palsy my hands, making them clumsy in the application of the makeup on all three kids. Plus, she kept twitching her nose, complaining the powder would make her sneeze. Her whiteface turned out rather like Boris Karloff’s death mask in the old movie ‘The Ghoul.’ The girl I chose for the auguste makeup, which requires a great deal of red and black, neglected to inform me that she was already wearing makeup. Since when do fifth-grade girls wear makeup, for the cat’s sake? Her cosmetics proved to be an unhappy blend with my professional greasepaint, and her whole face took on a greenish tint that was off-putting, to say the least. The boy I chose for the hobo makeup stayed as still as a statue, but his eyes began to leak when I was halfway through — it turns out he was terrified of anything put on his face, but had been too shy to say anything when I chose him. So I left his makeup undone.
“The strange results were displayed to the class, and then I opened it up for questions. There were none. I won’t say that crickets could clearly be heard in the background, but the silence was so profound that each crisp click of the Elgin wall clock could be made out distinctly. I packed up my gear, advised my three victims to use the baby oil I left them to rub off the makeup before trying to wash it off with soap and water, and stole silently away — chapfallen to such an extent that I briefly considered retiring from the tanbark there and then.
“But time alleviates all lacerations, even if it doesn’t get rid of the scars, and it wasn’t long before I welcomed the spring blossoms with a contract from the Cole Brothers Circus out of DeLand, Florida.
“The years slipped through my hands like a greased pig, and now my grandkids are clamoring for a guest appearance from Dusty the Clown in their classroom.
“Will I go? If I go, what will I do? I’m too old and fat for pratfalls; my arthritis precludes me from playing the musical saw or making balloon animals. Should I try a makeup demonstration again?
“I wonder if I can get away with just telling some tall tales with a W.C. Fields enunciation: ‘Ah yes, my little nippers! ‘Twas many a long year ago when I invented the Spanish Web routine that made Alf Ringling the head plutocrat of the hippodrome crowd . . . .'”
Separated by a common language
Or: Fellow travelers
Reports Lucky Buck, “somewhere in Georgia”: “On my way to Sarasota for a couple months.
“Stopped in Hannibal, Missouri. Interesting, but the trains are noisy day and night.
“Spent some time with my baby sister and husband in Nashville.
“On my way to Marietta, Georgia, I stopped at a Loves for gas and a Subway. Real nice girl asked what I would like. I said: ‘Turkey and ham, 6-inch, whole wheat.”
“She said: ‘Want some chizz with that?’
“‘Chizz. Want some chizz, and toasted?’
“Beyond me what she was asking. I asked: ‘What kind of chizz is there?’
“As she pointed to the cheese, she said: ‘American, Swiss, and pepper. . .’
“Ahhh. Yes, cheese — or chizz, in Southern. Must learn the Southern dialect.”
Where we live
Including: Mixed messages
The Monet of Toaster Strudel: “Saw this stroller last night at Rice Park, by the Ice Bar.”
The bumper crop
Rusty of St. Paul reports: “Bumper stickers spied on the same vehicle: ‘I don’t believe in bumper stickers,’ and ‘Think about honking if you love conceptual art.'”
The little treasures
And: Ask Bulletin Boarders (Genealogists Division)
RMS of Juliet Avenue: “I recently received this photo from a relative.
“She does not have any information about it, except that Rummenie is a family name. I told her I would try to find some information about it, but have not been successful.
“The family is from Quincy, Illinois, and the name of the photo studio on the back of the picture is Fowler View in Peoria, Illinois. I have tried Googling historical societies in Quincy and Peoria and also did a general Google search for information. No results.
“I know there are BB readers who do family-history work and wondered if anyone can offer suggestions of where else I might look for information. It sure it a neat picture, and I would love to learn more about it.
The Permanent Grandfatherly/Granddaughterly Record
Reports Luv.Mom: “Granddaughter Alex, age 11, pops into our house every day after school. Her grandpa is usually ready for her with a few stories or jokes.
“Yesterday he told her that we had three sons, her dad being the youngest, and that we didn’t have any more children because we heard that one out of every four babies born in the world are Asian, and we didn’t think we wanted an international family … but now we have changed our minds, because Alex’s mom is Korean, and we’ve found that an international family is very nice. So we have decided to have another baby.
“Alex said: ‘Does Grandma know about this?'”
Band Name of the Day: The Killer Kangaroos — or: Pepper Chizz
Website of the Day: A Beginner’s Guide to Body Snatching