The odds of landing a coveted spot on the Ringling Bros. Circus’ elite traveling clown corps might be slightly higher than winning the lottery.

But not by a whole lot.

More than 4,000 clown candidates apply to join the circus each year. About 14 — or a paltry .35 percent — eventually become Ringling clowns.

And that’s despite a rumored clown shortage.

Slim odds didn’t stop seven could-be clowns from showcasing their rubbery facial expressions and juggling talent at a Friday audition at the Giant Center in Hershey, where the circus runs through today.

Mike, a Virginian whose head is shaved bald except for his blond mohawk, says Ringling is a dream gig for anyone who dons the makeup and floppy shoes.

“If you’re a clown, Ringling is the place you want to perform,” says Mike, who has worked as a clown in his home state for five years.

Free of costumes or clown makeup at Ringling’s request, the clown wannabes run through a series of “warmups” alongside members of the circus’s “Clown Alley.”

Ringling clown Matt stresses the importance of playing to everyone in the arena, even the unfortunate folks in the nose-bleed seats. Clowns also can’t slouch in the physical fitness department, he says.

“We have to work very hard,” Matt tells the group. “You have to be ready to present yourself as a clown 24 hours a day.”

Then each clown hopeful performs a short solo routine observed and recorded by none other than David Kiser, director of talent for the circus’s parent company, Feld Entertainment.

Most of the tour’s 12 clowns, as well as the “boss clown,” also observe the individual performances.

No pressure, right?

DJ Weiss, 22, started clowning at parades and birthday parties at age 5. He worked his way up from cleaning up after circus animals to become a Ringling clown himself.

Weiss, who is originally from Minneapolis, says the talent team looks for a big heart, a funny bone, improvisational ability, a keen sense of timing and a sincere desire to join the circus.

“Right now what we’re looking for is personality,” he says. “As a clown, you have to heart for it. We do 400 shows a year.”

Unique physical skills, such as unicycling and gymnastics, are a bonus. Weiss, whose sister is also a Ringling clown, can walk on stilts and a large rolling globe, as well as juggle and hula-hoop.

“I love to take falls,” he says. “I love to get hit. ... You can’t be a clown unless you can laugh at yourself.”

Candidate Valerie, from New Jersey, has wanted to be a clown since age 10. Valerie, who juggles bowling pins for the group, says she loves making people happy.

“It’s something I could do all day, every day, for the rest of my life and never get sick of it,” she says.

Jonathan, from Puerto Rico, shows off exaggerated facial expressions while waging a slapstick battle with a persistent “bee.”

Anyone who impressed the Ringling crew will likely get called back for further evaluation, Weiss says. If that goes well, the candidate could be invited to “study” at Ringling’s Clown College.

But even that doesn’t mean a guaranteed spot in the circus. A grand total of 26 “road clowns” currently tour with Ringling’s three shows, Weiss says.



Mary Beth Schweigert writes for the Lifestyle section of Lancaster Newspapers. She can be reached at mschweigert@lnpnews.com or (717) 291-8757. You can also follow@mbschweigert on Twitter.