When I returned from my LDS mission in Thailand I was stony broke. I called old man Feld at Ringling Brothers, and he gave me a job back in clown alley. I was hoping he’d reinstate me as an advance clown, but no — I was to be one of the faceless funny faces.
On top of that, there were now dancers in clown alley, for the love of Mike! They spent patient hours of their free time showing me the new, intricate steps that the clowns had to perform during Opening, Spec, and Manage. I repaid their kindness with cold stares and a nose completely up in the stratosphere.
The whole atmosphere of clown alley had grown seedier in the 3 years I was gone. A pall of cigarette smoke hung over the place as if someone were filming a 1940’s film noir. Beer cans clattered to the floor and were kicked through the blue curtains out into the public hallways. The boss clown was busy chasing showgirls, even though he was married. And the old stalwarts like Prince Paul and Mark Anthony were decaying before my eyes; growing into slippered pantaloons, only interested in counting their money and their days until retirement.
Several weeks after reenlisting in this dissolute buffoonery brigade I decided to save my pennies and seek further light and knowledge by going to Paris to study with Marcel Marceau. I applied to his pantomime school and was accepted; now I needed to come up with the 25-hundred dollar tuition.
I applied myself to the arts of miserliness and cadging.
I attended every press party, in makeup, to fill my ample pockets, ala Harpo Marx, with any loose comestibles. I ate only chili at the pie car — 95 cents a bowl, and so swimming in rendered bovine tallow that I began to develop an udder.
I forsook Stein’s Clown White for the detestable Nye’s Liquid Clown White to save a dollar or two each week. It streaked horribly, leaving me looking like The Mummy’s Revenge by the end of the day.
I refused outright to purchase a clown wig, and styled my own mousy brown hair, with minimal success, to stand up straight like Stan Laurel’s.
My costumes came straight from Goodwill — baggy golf pants and pregnant women’s blouses. Luckily, while I was in Thailand I had a Parsi tailor in Bangkok make me a huge orange overcoat with yellow piping and giant green buttons. It now covered a multitude of shabby sins.
I would not contribute to the coffee fund. Or to the beer fund. I never went halves on a pizza delivery, but hung about the periphery of the feasters, ready to swoop in like a vulture and devour the discarded crusts. I did not go to the movies or hang out in bars with my fellow joeys.
And I’m afraid my plans for imminent departure, along with my disdain for their riotous and prodigal ways, were all too clear to my colleagues. I was about as popular as a dirty diaper in a bowl of punch.
Halfway through the season I attained my coveted goal — the 25-hundred was securely deposited in the bank.
I confided to my old pal Tim Holst, who was ringmaster that season, that I was going to jump ship as soon as my confirmation letter arrived from Paris. A travel agency in New York was handling my sojourn — a tramp steamer left from the Jersey side every Wednesday, and I could book passage to La Havre for a measly two-hundred bucks. Holst wished me good luck, saying “You don’t belong in this hellhole anymore.”
But before my letter arrived, the terrible Charlie Baumann came into clown alley just before a matinee, peering gloomily around at us. He was the Performance Director, a Teutonic tyrant who hated clowns. He was also the tiger trainer, and carried around a whip like it was a crozier.
His glare settled on me. I fell back, cowering, before his far-from-benevolent gaze.
“You!” he said thickly, in his Katzenjammer accent. “You kommen vit me!”
He gestured imperiously for me to follow him as he strode out of clown alley, much like the Kaiser in World War One must have ordered his troops to the front.
I meekly obeyed. Once outside the alley he turned on me, and I don’t mind telling you I flinched like an owl blinking in the sunlight. But he merely said “Dere iss ein boonch uff kits in da front section. You are excuzzed from da show to sit mit dem und narrate da show for dem. Dey are blind. Verstehst du? Blind.” He dragged me through the auditorium entrance to point them out to me. Then left.
Being in makeup, I usually feel invulnerable in front of a crowd. But not that day. Not at first. I sidled slowly over to the kids; about 2 dozen of them, all chattering excitedly and making strange gestures with their hands. I sat down on an elephant tub in front of their seats, cleared my throat, and shouted “Hi kids!” They immediately went silent, their hands falling to their sides as if tied to lead weights. I tried again, softer.
“Hi kids. I’m Dusty the Clown.”
“Hi Dusty!” they chorused back enthusiastically.
After that, it was a cinch.
As the show progressed I described the costumes and animals to them, giving them the inside info on the performers they’d never get from a program.
“Here comes Anna Bornholm, our famous Princess of the Spanish Web — that’s not green lipstick she’s wearing — she eats so many pistachios that she doesn’t NEED lipstick!”
“And there goes Stancho Sandor, our world-famous Bulgarian acrobat. He can hold ten men on his burly shoulders. He’s in love with a lady pig farmer he met back in Iowa, and he has me write all his love letters for him!”
“Watch out, kids! Those crazy clowns are coming out again. This time they’ve got ladders and buckets of white paint. Get ready to duck! That little guy is Prince Paul — he’s only four and a half feet tall, but he can throw the most paint of anyone in clown alley. That’s because he practices throwing pop bottles at the rats that come sniffing around our trunks.”
By the end of the show I had nothing but a hoarse croak left for a voice.
I used it to thank the children for coming, and to ask if there was anything else I could tell them about the show.
One little girl spoke up quickly.
“We want to feel your face” she shouted. The rest of the children echoed her request, so I climbed over the railing and let them come up and lay their fingers gently on my face.
And a strange thing happened.
“Oh” said one child, “this part is white.”
Another one giggled and said “He’s got blue eyebrows!”
“His nose is all red!” said a boy, who not only couldn’t see but was in a wheelchair.
“Why are you crying, Dusty?” one girl asked.
“Oh, I ain’t crying” I told her. “That’s just sweat — being funny all the time is hard work!”
After they had all felt my face, and commented on the different colors it contained, their teacher got them ready to go back on the bus. I managed to take her aside for a second to ask how they could tell what color my makeup was.
“I don’t know” she said simply. “But they always know the colors of the things they love the most.”
A few days later my letter came from Paris. I put it in my clown trunk and didn’t get around to replying for quite a while. Seems like every time I got ready to reply, another group of Special kids came to the show and Baumann always picked me talk to them.