Hello Fellow Clown Enthusiast,
I have just this last week completed a portrait of TOTO, so I am reposting this blog post followed by another blog post showing the creation of his watercolor painting. The Great Ron “Toto” Johnson gave me the honor of painting his image as part of my new watercolor clown series. His painting is number #6 if you’re following along. Original has sold, but prints will be available soon.
Today we have the great honor of meeting one of the top clowns in the industry Ron “TOTO” Johnson. I first met Toto on Facebook when I was looking for photos. He is a friend of Billie Ballantine, whom I have painted and looking at Billie’s friends led me to Toto. Toto has been involved with Clowning most of his life and he is really a world renowned clown having traveled around the world clowning. He has had an amazing life let’s get to know him in his own words.
I asked him a few questions and I think you will enjoy his answers.
1. How long have you been a clown?
I did my very first public performance as a clown just over 35 years ago…June 21, 1977. I was 10 years old and had taken a clown class offered by the Parks and Recreation Department’s Youth Services in my hometown of Naugatuck, Connecticut. The class met for a couple of hours 1 day a week after school and we had our “graduation” as part of the Youth Services Fair on the Town Green.
2. Who inspired you to become a clown?
I cannot say any particular person inspired me to be a clown exactly…but I can say that in school I was part of the “Gifted and Talented” program. (The program was for kids in grades 2-8 who showed exceptional talents in the arts, sciences, etc) One day per week I left my usual school and was bussed to another school to study all sorts of topics. The teacher…Eileen Cooper…introduced me to mime, puppetry, and movie making amongst the dozens of subjects and topics we studied over the years I spent in that class. I found that I loved the performing arts so when I saw an advertisement for the clown class I just had to take it! I fell in love with clowning during that very first class!
Over the 35 years that I have been clowning I have been inspired by far too many people to even begin mentioning them all…but I will say that I have studied under and worked with Master Clowns Lou Jacobs and Frosty Little. My Dean at the RBBB Clown College was the amazing Steve Smith. I have studied under and worked with astounding clowns and performers from circuses, the world of stage performance, etc. I learn something from every clown I meet. Sometimes I learn something that is fantastic…life changing…and gives me a whole new perspective. Sometimes I learn what NOT to do! I do learn something from every clown…good and bad.
3.Where did you receive training?
My very first clown class…in the Spring/Summer of 1977…was put on by the Parks and Recreation Department’s Youth Services in Naugatuck, Connecticut. From 1981-1985 (my high school years) I learned a lot about clowning by reading every book I could find on the art. I also joined the Sawdust Clown Alley of the Clowns of America organization. I learned a lot from members of that club (Leo Desilets, Rob Iassogna, Joe Barney, and others) and by attending clown conventions throughout New England. I also learned a lot from members of the Harry Houdini Assembly of the Society of American Magicians organization (Larry Parsons, Walt Kilfeather, Joe Lantiere, and others).
In 1985…fresh out of high school…I was accepted into the prestigious Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus’ Clown College….a 10 1/2 week program…6 days per week…14 hours per day…that taught such classes as stiltwalking, juggling, acrobatics, makeup and costume design, arena choreography, dance, improv, classic clown gags, and much, much more!
Over the years I have continued to take classes…and teach classes…and conventions and festivals around the world.
4. How long have you been a clown?
On June 21, 2012 I celebrated my 35th anniversary in clowning!
5. Are you involved with any clown organizations?
I am a member of the world’s oldest clown organization…”Clowns International” (based in England)…as well as the USA based “Clowns of America International” and “World Clown Association”. I have been a columnist for the official magazine of “Clowns International”…”The Joey”…since 1999. I am also a member of “The Midwest Clown Association” and “Circus Fans of America”. On the local level I am a member of “The Quad City Clown Troupe” (a WCA affiliated Alley of which I am currently the Treasurer), “The Clem Magrum/Del Kiefer” Ring of the “International Brotherhood of Magicians”, and I am the Secretary/Treasurer of the Wayne Fanzen Tent of “The Circus Fans of America”.
6. How do you feel your clown has evolved over time? How did you settle on the particular style and design of your clown or the personality you try to project as a clown?
My first clown…at age 10…was a silent, cute little Whiteface. Over the years I found I was much better suited for the slapstick, fall down antics of the Auguste. I became VERY loud! I never “decided” what to do or become…it just happened over time. Just as our personalities develop as people…as individuals…my clown did too. My clown is an extension of myself. I am not “acting” as a clown. I am just being another side of me. My clown will continue to evolve over the coming years….just as I will too.
7. I have learned a little more about clowns and I know there are different types of clowns, What kind of clown are you and what do you feel is your clowns most interesting characteristic?
I am most certainly an Auguste! As for my clown’s most interesting characteristic…hmmmm…I don’t really know! I guess maybe I could quote something a newspaper reporter said about me years ago…
“He is like a Snicker’s bar…half nuts!”
8. Have you ever worked in a Circus and if so which ones?
Just 3 hours after I graduated from Naugatuck High School in Naugatuck, Connecticut in June of 1985 I was on a plane to Orlando, Florida because I was to start clowning at the Circus World theme park the next morning! I left that job 3 months later because I had been accepted into the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus’ Clown College.
I was one of 23 students from my Clown College class to be offered contracts to tour with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. From my class 13 went to the RBBB Red unit (including me) and 10 went to the RBBB Blue unit.
After 4 years with “The Greatest Show on Earth” I made my first overseas trip to clown with Cirkus Olympia in Sweden. By this time I had married Rene’ Coker…whom I had gone to Clown College with, toured with on the RBBB Red unit with, and had a huge circus wedding with in Philadelphia in 1989 complete with elephants as bride’s maids. Rene’ and I toured as a duo on Cirkus Olympia in 1990 and then added my Clown College roommate and fellow RBBB Red unit clown John Winslow to our act for the 1991 season on Cirkus Olympia. The circus season ran for 6 1/2 months each year.
Between our 2 seasons in Sweden Rene’ and I performed at the circus themed restaurant “Carnival Plaza” in Tokyo, Japan for 6 months.
(Rene’ and I divorced in 1994 but are still good friends..chat on the phone a few times a year and are in touch very often through Facebook.)
I performed at the “Circus Circus” casino in Tunica, Mississippi for 2 years (1994-1996). I have also been a “guest clown” and done spot dates with such circuses here in the USA as Alan Hill’s Great American Circus, Carson and Barnes Circus, etc over the years. I still do some “advance clown” publicity work for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus from time to time too.
9. What kind of functions are you hired for example: conventions, parties…
I no longer do birthday parties in people’s living rooms…but I am available for just about anything else! Here on the local level I am seen primarily at festivals, fairs, company picnics,school shows, etc. I teach clowning at conventions and festivals across the USA and the world Clowning has directly or indirectly brought me to 48 states and 23 countries so far. I perform at festivals, in stage shows, on-screen, on cruise ships, etc. I perform on the local, national, and international levels….sometimes as a solo act and sometimes with partners. I tailor what I do to the needs of the client…balloon sculpting, juggling, “meet and greet’, stiltwalking, magic, clown gags, etc, etc, etc. I do shows for 20 people…and I do shows for 20,000 people.
A few of the highlights from my international career have been performing at the first ever international clown festival in China, the 2nd international clown festival ever in India, and being the only American ever invited as an “honored guest” of Princess Stephanie of Monaco to perform at “Festiclown de Monte Carlo”.
10. Do you have bits that are standard in the clown world or do you create your own acts?
I use a combination of well-known acts…with my own personal “spin” on them, of course…and of acts I have created myself/with my partners. While these days I am most know for my solo western themed cowboy Whipcracker act I actually prefer to work with 1 or 2 partners.
11. Do you use props?
YES! I have used HUGE props doing circus work and tiny props when working up close. My cowboy Whipcracker act brings the best of both world’s together. The act plays BIG but uses a minimal amount of props…which is wonderful when traveling overseas!
11A. If so did you make them yourself?
I have made many props myself but most of the time I buy them…either “off the shelf” or have them specially made. I am not the most handy guy with tools!
12. If you are in a parade do you ride anything? Bike, Unicycle, Clown car?
I have ridden in all sorts of “vehicles” for parades…convertibles, fire trucks, etc…but my favorite, of course, is absolutely the traditional circus wagons used in “The Great Circus Parade” that used to be staged in both Milwaukee and Baraboo, Wisconsin! I do not unicycle very well so I have never unicycled in a parade. I have walked stilts in MANY parades. I did not like stilts when I was at Clown College but once I joined the RBBB Red unit I started practicing and ended up walking 6 foot stilts (that’s me on top of 6 foot long aluminum “legs”). Within 6 months I was up to 9 foot stilts in the show. I ended up becoming the stiltwalking instructor at the RBBB clown College in 1988.
13. Is there video we can watch of you on the web acting as a clown for us to enjoy?
If you search for me on Youtube there are a few slide shows of me performing in England and China. I can also be seen in various videos relating to the RBBB Circus 1986-1989.
14.What kind of presence do you have on the web, FB, web page, blog…
My website is www.totojohnson.com
I have a personal page on Facebook but that is now only “open” to folks I reeeeeeeally know. I have a page that is open to EVERYONE…Ron “Toto” Johnson’s “Colossal Clowns International“…as well as a fan page that was started by a friend/fan in England…We Love Toto Johnson.
Ron “Toto” Johnson was also depicted in 1999 by the great artist Ron Lee. Here is the photo of Toto posing and the resulting sculpture.
I hope you have enjoyed this post about another wonderful clown. Please follow his links and read more about him on his Facebook page and his web page.
Until next time. Happy Clowning!
Thanks to Toto for all his help in creating this blog.
Patty Sue O’Hair – Vicknair Clown artist to the world
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