It is time to write of Kevin Bickford, a.k.a. Rufus T. Goofus.
I will pass over his many kindnesses to old friends and complete strangers during his tenure at Bozo Row in Los Angeles. He took in more strays than the SPCA.
I want to recall him as I first met him and worked with him on the Ringling Brothers Blue Unit in 1971.
He and I were both as blind as bats without our glasses, and so were constantly tripping over guy wires and smashing into other big top paraphernalia during walk arounds and ring gags.
During that first season we played Madison Square Garden for over two months, and had several evenings off when we were preempted by hockey games. Those were glorious rambles through the bowels of New York; one night we went to Radio City Music Hall for the movie. It was the first time either one of us had ever been inside that Taj Mahal of the cinema. When Kevin saw the sweeping staircase leading up to the balcony, the carpet a plush red, his slapstick instincts took over.
“Tork” he called, as he clambered up the stairway. “Watch this!”
At the top he threw himself down, to roll boisterously all the way to the bottom. Then got up and laughed like an idiot child. Nearby patrons were extremely startled at his antics; an usher, dressed like a South American chief-of-staff, anxiously asked him if he needed a doctor. He was about to repeat his performance, until Tim Holst and I grabbed him and forcibly steered him into the darkened theater before he could concoct anymore mayhem.
For my birthday that season he went out and bought me a cake. We lived right across from each other on the clown train car (nicknamed “The Iron Lung), and so he simply knocked on my door that night after the last show so we could share the treat. Even though both of us were mighty trenchermen, there was still cake left over, which he gave to me. But I didn’t want it cluttering up my tiny roomette, so, while he went down the hall to the donniker, I simply shoved it under the upholstered seat of his roomette. And didn’t think to ever mention it to him.
He didn’t discover this until a few months later, when the cockroaches became even more unendurable than usual. As he was cleaning out his room preparatory to spraying it he came across the remnant of my birthday cake, slowly decomposing into a feast for bugs.
He chased me through the King Charles Troupe car, through the Bulgarian acrobats car, and then cornered me in the pie car, where I lamely offered to buy him the pie car special – a ham sandwich and a bowl of chili. That pacified him.
A few seasons later he celebrated my natal day in a much different manner . . .
During the evening performance, while I was doing a gag with Terry Parsons, he snuck up behind me and gave me a shaving cream pie in the kisser. While I was wiping it out of my eyes he and Terry hustled me into a smelly gunnysack and dragged me off into a corner, where I spent the rest of the show trying to extricate myself from the bag.
I stopped reminding people about my birthday after that.
In Chicago we played the old arena that was next to the stockyards. Over one hundred years of bloody and poopy cattle had imbued the ground with a unique and unsettling aroma. It took us several days to become used to it and stop gagging sporadically. Around the arena were hundreds of bentwood chairs for the front row audience.
Kevin immediately became enchanted with their comic possibilities, and spent come-in wandering among them, getting first an arm and then a leg encumbered in them . . . until he looked like a human porcupine with chair legs sticking out from him at all angles. It was such a funny gag that I tried to steal it from him; but I couldn’t carry it off with the same panache.
My favorite Roofus T. Goofus walk-around had him dressed as a candy butcher, with the pink cotton candy plastered all over his face, arms, midriff and legs. His look of bemused concern as he staggered around the track engulfed in his own product made even a hardened old veteran like Swede Johnson chuckle.
On Halloween that first season he and I decided to exchange makeups and costumes for the evening show. We knew that if the performance director, the redoubtable Charlie Baumann, caught us we’d get a taste of his tiger whip – so we stayed out of his sight. I did Kevin’s gags and he did mine.
It just so happened that payday was that day as well, so when the word went out that the Ghost was walking we didn’t stop to think but scrambled over to the deal table where Schwartzie was handing out the pay envelopes. Schwartzie was a former clown, as cross-eyed as Ben Turpin, who now handled the payroll. After a cursory glance he gave me Kevin’s pay envelope and gave Kevin my pay envelope.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I peeked inside Kevin’s envelope – and immediately regretted it. Kevin was making fifty dollars more than me! We silently exchanged envelopes a few minutes later. I doubt that Kevin looked inside my envelope – he wasn’t that kind of a guy.
I lost touch with Roofus when I moved to Thailand to teach English many years ago, and when I moved back to the States there were only occasional and vague echoes of him from other old circus friends.
But I want to think of him now, still swathed in cotton candy and still tottering down the track somewhere to the crows of delighted laughter from children and adults – still a clown for all seasons . . .