Today in History: The First Day of Clown College

Today in History: The First Day of Clown College

M.C. Millman

On September 1, 1968, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College opened its doors, giving the world a new generation of entertainers. 

Irvin Feld established the college in Venice, Florida, as the first school to exclusively train circus clowns. Feld was born in Maryland on May 9, 1918, to Russian-Jewish immigrants. After high school, he opened record stores and produced his own records and live concerts. He became one of the few national promoters for the Ringling Circus. 

In November 1967, Irvin, his brother, Israel Feld, and Houston Judge Roy Hofheinz bought the circus for $8 million. 

Less than a year later, Irvin opened the clown college to get additional talent for his aging cast of clowns. He teamed up with Danny Chapman and Mel Miller to train the clowns in the "Ringling Style" of clowning. This style was an American style of clown performance with slapstick humor, which involved exaggerated physical activity. Clowns in the Ringling show were also trained to design their makeup in a way that could be seen at a distance because the show had very large audiences, with some people seated on balconies or upper decks. Because of this, the clowns also had to use very clear physical movements and large props so all audience members could see what was taking place. 

According to the Visit Sarasota website, Ringling's Clown College taught students the art of clowning for ten weeks at no cost, aside from room and board. In return for the free education, the clowns had to agree to a one-year contract with the Ringling Brothers Circus if one was offered.

Feld passed away in 1984 at the age of 66. His son, Kenneth Feld, took over the Ringling shows. In 1997, just shy of its 30th year in operation, the college closed down. Over the years, the college trained around 1,400 clowns.

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