Skip to main content
  • The Three-Ringed Life: Clowning Around with David Carlyon

    David Carlyon atop an elephant with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
    Photo courtesy of David Carlyon, originally printed in The Education of a Circus Clown

    This series of interviews explores the lives of people in the circus and their experiences on the road. “The Three-Ringed Life” reflects the three social arenas: the personal, the professional, and the space in which the two intersect. When seen together, the three rings create a narrative as vibrant and varied as a three-ring circus.

    “It seems to me that comedy is ultimately social,” says David Carlyon, a former circus clown. “When people think things are funny, it’s because they share them. So if I did something that was really funny, it was because I got on some kind of wavelength with them.”

    Carlyon performed for three years with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus before returning to school to earn a PhD in cultural history. Today, he writes extensively on clowns and the circus and has published several books on the subject, including The Education of a Circus Clown: Mentors, Audiences, Mistakes. For the 2017 Folklife Festival, he has served as an advisory scholar and wrote about the history of American clowns.

    In this excerpted interview, Carlyon recalls his time as a performer, focusing on his adventures aboard the circus train as it wound its way through the country. Connection with others is a key piece of Carlyon’s experience, both in his personal life and as a clown. He invites us onto his wavelength, as he brings us inside his memories.

    How did you first get involved with the circus?

    I read when I was in college that Ringling Bros. was opening a clown college. And then after a few other things—I graduated, I went in the army, law school, and then finally I had to try it or quit talking about it. So I applied and I got in, and then at the end of the training, I got a contract with Ringling. I traveled with them in ’77, ’78, and ’79. 

    What was your schedule like? Did you ever feel homesick?

    I lived on the train—Ringling owned this train, and it took us to each of the venues we played. I think it was something like eighty in the first two years. So we were all over the place.

    David Carlyon rests in between performances.
    Photo courtesy of David Carlyon, originally printed in The Education of a Circus Clown

    It was a grueling schedule. The show at the time was almost three hours long and there was a twenty-minute clown pre-show. It was in effect three and a half hours, and almost thirteen shows a week. You did two shows on Friday, and Saturday you did three shows, and you’d have a couple more on Sunday. And it was about eleven, eleven and a half months a year, because being in arenas, you didn’t have to worry about snowy weather.

    Back to your question, homesick—not really. I was 27, 28, and I’d been all over the country before the circus. At the same time, my father was a big fan of the whole idea of me being with the circus, so he arranged business trips to come see the show. He arranged business trips in Atlanta, in D.C., in Buffalo, in Chicago, in Cleveland, in—oh, half a dozen places. So the idea of homesickness really didn’t apply to me.

    Within the circus, did you form your own kind of family in order to build a sense of community as you were traveling?

    David Carlyon’s sandwich act.
    Photo courtesy of David Carlyon, originally printed in The Education of a Circus Clown

    To a certain extent circus is family. At the same time, you had lots of foreign groups, and to a certain extent the foreign groups were their own family—the Poles and the Bulgarians. There weren’t a lot of American performers at that point except for the showgirls and clowns, so they tended to hang out together.

    Socially, it was a mix: sometimes one, big happy family, like the time we were late into Memphis and all set up the show together, and sometimes split into national groups. There was an overlap and a weave.

    For instance, the Polish performers also had a troop of Polish workers who worked the ring curb. And they liked me; they called me kanapka which is the Polish word for sandwich, because one of my things was I would walk around the arena with two giant slices of foam rubber bread.

    What differences do you see between the circus then and now?

    Back then credit cards were mostly for business people, so most of us took our pay in cash every week. Having put myself through college, with a $20 budget for weekly expenses, and rarely more than $30 in my wallet, to suddenly have $70 to $90 in cash made me feel wealthy. Suddenly being flush with cash also made us targets, which is why so many on the show got mugged.

    What was the hardest part about being on the road?

    So you’re in train yards, and train yards aren’t always the safest places. In Atlanta somebody got beat up; Omaha somebody got beat up; in Nashville two guys had their guns pointed at me just as I got to the train. Turned out they were railroad detectives and finally the situation calmed down, but it’s not fun having guns pointed at you.

    What was the best part about being on the road?

    Photo courtesy of David Carlyon, originally printed in The Education of a Circus Clown

    The best part was seeing the country. A lot of the clowns went to bars or partied after shows but I tended to hit the hay early, so I could wander a town the next morning. I walked most major cities in this country those two years. I’d see what was out and about.

    In D.C., one night I went to the Kennedy Center for ABT, American Ballet Theater, and then walking back to the train—long walk—I walked by the White House and there were cops there, at the Blair House. I was feeling kind of antic, so I was going to go over and talk to them. It turned out foreign dignitaries were there in the middle of Middle East negotiations. I could have created an international incident if I had continued!

    Also with the train you could go out on the vestibule. It was like a Dutch door, so you could open the top and lean out and watch the country go by. And it was “Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus” inscrolled on each car, so everybody knew it was the circus train. People would wave, and you’d see different parts of the country just rolling by. It was wonderful.

    Julia Berley is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a rising junior at Emory College of Emory University, double majoring in history and psychology.

  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, sustainability projects, educational outreach, and more.