Greetings from the Gulf: This clown at heart has spoken

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By John Morton

Here I was thinking I’d be getting a pat on the head, not a spank on the hind.

My first progress report from school had just arrived, and it made mention that I was the class clown.

Yes! My letter of support was in hand, and down to Sarasota County I’d be headed for “college.” Time to start packing those big shoes and chasing those big dreams.

After all, on one spring break after another my parents would remind me that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College was just down the road from Siesta Key, in Venice, where it started in 1968.

They also would take the family each April to the Sailor Circus (which still exists), where clowns would honk their horns more often than an anxious tourist heading west on Clark Road.

By my senior year of high school, I had removed one of the tires from my bicycle. And I was watching Bozo on WGN far too late in life, explaining it to the family as research.

I was ready. Well, it was not to be.

Apparently, clown college wasn’t on my parents’ radar. So, I dragged myself through what society deemed as a normal life.

But clowns apparently have their way of calling you, and when the college moved in 1993 to Baraboo, Wisconsin of all places, my fake flower sprayed all on its own. This was 45 minutes from my front door in Madison. This was fate!

And I had just memorized the Joe Pesci scene in Goodfellas: “What, do I amuse you? Am I like a clown to you?”

People shook their head, annoyed. They’d heard it way too often. What they didn’t know, in this case, is that I was literally asking them for an answer. I wanted to know.

My first son was born during the clown college’s stay at Circus World in Baraboo between 1993 and 1995. Life was to be taken seriously.

Had that not been the case, I may very well be strapping on some baggy pants right now, as a job requirement, instead of the other reason I’m doing so.

It had been only a few years earlier that I attended a Penn and Teller show in downtown Chicago, at the old Shubert Theatre. So amazing.

For those of you who visit Vegas, they are holding residency there right now. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, little did I know that Penn Jillette was a 1974 graduate of the clown college. And he’s on TV!

And to think I’m only writing a monthly column for a newspaper that serves the greatest place on earth. Sigh.

I could have been part of the Greatest Show on Earth!

Before you shed a tear, you should know that another clown college alum is the turbulent Steve-O, from Jackass fame. A clown in a whole different manner.

By the time he graduated in 1997, the college had moved back to Sarasota. When did it shut down?

In 1997. Hardly a coincidence?

As a side note, I always hated the Jackass stuff. My sons were into it, as were most male adolescents, and I feared the worst.

Well, such fears became very real here on Siesta Key for another family. I was watching a national morning news program, without the volume, in the spring of 2003 when there was aerial footage shown of a swimming pool.

I thought to myself, “I know that pool.”

I cranked up the volume, and sure enough it was the back pool of the condo complex here where my family has a unit. Those who read this column know where that is, but I don’t want to mention it here because I just don’t feel good about it. It’s a tough memory for the residents.

Anyway, a bunch of teens were emulating the Jackass movie stunts and recording their madness. One of the segments involved them running wild at Sarasota Square Mall.

Then, the footage showed them jumping off a five-story roof and into a pool below.  One kid, an 18-year-old, gave it another try while soaking wet. He slipped upon take-off, landed short, and shattered his legs as he slumped into the water.

It was all on videotape.

Being a clown, for me, was always all about acting a fool. Not being one.

For those who still appreciate the legitimate clown culture, you’ll be happy to know that a training school still exists in Sarasota in the form of the annual Circus Summer Camp — part of the Circus Arts Conservatory. It’s held in one- and two-week sessions from early June through early August for ages 5 to 15. And, before you snicker, it’s often considered the perfect way to fend off a child’s desire to become a ventriloquist!

(Yes, Jeff Dunham, we hear you laughing all the way to the bank.)

Truth be told, once clown college was no longer an option, I seriously considered pursuing a career with Mad magazine. Friends to whom I reveal this nod in agreement. They say it makes perfect sense, knowing me.

Then they block me on Facebook.

In defense, the brilliance of the “Spy vs. Spy” feature was right up my alley. That roller roaster of espionage gone oh-so-wrong was so relatable.

Maybe because it describes my dating life?

Speaking of which, can you imagine the number of women who, on a first date, have asked me why I’m interviewing them?

National Lampoon was another publication in which I truly belonged. It was a story in an issue in 1982, entitled the “Utterly Monstrous, Mind-Roasting Summer of O.C. and Stiggs,” that rocked my world.

Instead of telling people “I’ll see you in the funny papers” when departing their company, I was telling them that they’d see ME in the funny papers.

But alas, I never pursued these avenues either. Now, I did write about the Green Bay Packers for a living, but I’ve also typed-up obits and birth announcements.

I’m not complaining, but in hindsight I should have asked my folks to send me to pricey Manhattan to pursue the fourth estate as I saw fit.

And with that, there’s no better way to instead be sent to clown college. Honk, honk, honk.

(John Morton is managing editor of Siesta Sand.)

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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