For my first clown interview, I have chosen Billie Ballantine II,a third generation professional clown. I have had the great fortune to have been given the opportunity to become acquainted with Billie over the last year on Facebook. I ran a clown portrait contest on my artist fan page asking for photographs of clowns that I might paint and he won. As you can see above I have painted his portrait. I will post a second time along with this post showing the painting progression.
Over the last year as I followed Billie and other clowns posts, every now and then they would use a term with which I was not acquainted. Billie was always there to help me with an explanation.
I sent Billie a few questions asking him to answer them in his own words so that we might understand this fascinating world.
1. Who inspired you to become a clown?
My grandfather and mother pretty much knew I was to be a clown at birth.. see I was born on Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus. At that time, my Grandfather was the Dean of the famous Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College. My mother, a clown on the show and costume designer.. My father, he was also a clown on the show. So it was predestined for me to be a clown – my third generation status is prized in the circus. In the long run my Mother wanted me to be what I wanted to be, but my true inspiration came from my grandfather, Bill Ballantine
Bill Ballantine (left), Dean of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College
My grandfather was a professional illustrator for Colliers Magazine in the early ’40s. When he was 38 he was put on assignment at Ringling Brothers to draw clowns. He quickly fell in love with the circus in 1946 during this assignment. Long story short, the younger clowns asked him to stay, (Harry Dann , Bobby Kellog, Paul Jung). well he came back to become a clown for th rest of the year. He hated it, and had no idea of the work. Even though he hated it, well he came back for a second year. Good thing he did or I would never have been born. This year he met Raberta Light ( my Gramma), an ex Broadway showgirl that Ringling had scouted to be that year’s star attraction, the famous snow queen from the mystical land of Isingard. LOL. Well he fell deeply in love and won the pursuit in 48 and they were married in the center ring on top of a gigantic 20 foot wedding cake, the theme that year as well. Bill went on to be dean of Ringling Clown College from its 2nd year in 1969 until 1982. He died in 1999
I accepted his Hall of fame status , personally in 2001.
2. Where did you receive training?
Bill was a clown, boss clown, artist, and author of 8 books for a span of 55 years making my combined training years a hefty 108 years experience. I was trained by the best in the business.
Billie with his Grandpa Bill Ballantine
3. Are you involved with any clown organizations?
I have been told many times I should join American Clown Association or World Clown Association or organizations like this. No one in my family has ever been a part of any organization except Shrine and Masons, when I met a frumpy, know it all, yama (neon one piece costume, greasy smeared face, yuk, yuk) clown. they always ask right away, “are you with ACA or WCA”?. At one point I looked into these organizations and realized it’s all a Ponzi scam. Membership in these organizations doesn’t mean you are an official clown, but that you pay dues to a genius marketer to believe you are one. Membership in such organizations have nothing to do with your achievements in your art, except one…The International Clown Hall of Fame in Baraboo Wisconsin of which I am a follower and my grandfather is a member. And if funding keeps it open… I will be hanging next to him one day…. if I keep going strong. I plan on joining the Masonic Lodge eventually… (family tradition on the other side)
4. How do you feel your clown has evolved over the years?
Clowns definitely evolve constantly.. they slow down at times and become idle but always change a bit through the years. Like myself, if you look at my face back through the years you can see my lines get straighter , features come and go, and colors deepen, not to mention attitude changes. When my gramps died I took on his whiteface character and my evolution got to start all over again. Really your clown always evolves. If someone says they are done evolving and learning, they lie.. definitely…the guy that knows it all, don’t know anything.
5. As I have learned a little more about clowns, I know there are different types of clowns. What kind of clown are you? What do you feel is your clown’s most interesting characteristic?
Clown Characteristics and types? well… there are really only three types of clowns .. well three traditional types, being “Character, White, and Auguste” most pro’s can have all three types of characters in their arsenal, after all they have to land the job and make the boss happy. Because the boss could want anything and you gotta land the job after all. Personally I have all three just in case but my favorite times are in my inherited whiteface. The white clown is the straight man character that always sees the ignorance in other people’s actions. You see, your clown must embody your true persona, ensuring the whole package comes across correctly. I ‘m usually quite the pushy guy and or the guy that really does your work secretly to make sure it works right, (aspergers syndrome )… I’m a tad compulsive in many ways. so the whiteface is for me…. mostly….I.E. Moe from the stooges…… Billie the CLOWN is the questioning,, condescending, smart mouthed ring leader, the clown that actually makes the trick work… finally
6. Have you ever worked in a Circus and if so which ones?
I have worked, clowned and lived on countless circuses. I was born on Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. in November of ’78, where I was raised for a couple of years getting to watch, learn and participate in some circus clowning. Then I was drug around th’ routes ( circus road courses) for years and years. When I was 2 we moved to Hubert Castle Circus and was given my first clown gags to perform, I was billed as the worlds youngest clown on the marquees. When that show changed its billing to Tarzan Zerbini we stayed for a while and moved to Carson and Barnes where I was still the worlds youngest but then I got too lippy and became lot lice (a kid with no duties on the circus). then went on to Ford Brothers, Canadian American Circus, then started the nation’s first racing pig show for the state fair routes. then we found the perfect home in the smoky mountains and my family started our stationary life training animals and making costumes for Dolly Parton at her Dixie Stampede in Pigeon Forge TN , next to Dolly Wood.. Well my love for being in one place didn’t last. When I turned 18 I skipped town back to the circus. This time it was a small building show named Picadilly. It was my first season alone. After that I worked a partial season on Sterling and Ried Bros Circus. I met my wife and put it all behind me to start my family. I also thought it necessary to let them have a normal life. My experience is that life will be much sweeter OFF the road.
7. For what kind of function are you hired? For example, conventions, parties.
I now do stationary clowning or (carpet gigs) and I’m waiting for another stage gig to come along for that’s what I truly love. Stage clowning keeps you separated from the crowd. when the lights are on you don’t even have to see their faces. I suffer from a form of autism, Aspergers to be exact, making me not enjoy close social interaction very much. Yes, I have travelled a million miles and performed for millions of people while dealing with autism. When I clowned for Dolly Parton in my twenties I discovered these perks in the stage form of clowning. I forever search for these jobs now.
8. Do you have bits that are standard in the clown world or do you create your own acts?
Most clowns recycle gags that have been around for decades and decades…well the smart ones do… there is an old clown rule that says ” keep it simple stupid” and when enthusiastic , new clowns write their own stuff, it’s too cerebral, and the crowd loses the point quickly, and of course lose interest and go get popcorn. Multi gen clowns tend to just inherit their acts. Of course, writing a gag is easy and fun-if you have been tought gag developement by people like Steve Smith, Bill Ballantine, or Ron Severini, but I tell ya.. there are no new ideas, and real artists never fix what ain’t broke in the first place.. so nothing is wrong with the old washer woman gag…
I myself enjoy performing George Carol routines. In stage clowning you have a writer like talk show guys and you….must follow a script that has been written for you, most of the time… you’ll hate it an think the crowd will too…. just creative difference but usually it works fine.
9. Do you use props?
Yes, clowns need props to get the point across, your actions must read to the crowd well.. so merely sticking your finger in the air in a eureka moment might be understood to the first row of people but the folks behind them won’t have a clue… so producing a giant lightbulb or big foam finger is drastically important…. props are absolutely imperative.
10. If you use props, did you make them yourself?
I also believe in live props like audience volunteers and animal acts…when I get props I buy them if at all possible to save time, but I do have two separate workshops, one for costuming which is a separate operating business owned by my family, and my own small Clown Alley which is also used for ALL clown duties, like prop making. My preferred method of prop production is foam sculpting if it will be close to the spectators, for safety and looks. but if it’s a stage or ring prop I’ll use what I need to…
11. If you are in a parade do you ride anything? Bike, Unicycle, Clown car?
When I do our spring parades, I have many options to use. From walking illusions to weird vehicles, I have a giant bird puppet that looks like I’m riding it, a unicycle, and I’m working on a miniature Harley Davidson now, to assemble a clown’s angels gag or ride through.. like an old biker gang joke.
12. What kind of presence do you have on the web, FB, web page, blog…
I am sort of new to the Web, but I have started to make myself known in that world for about 3 yrs now. My Family of Ballantines and myself can be searched on YouTube and we are also on Facebook and would love to friend anyone who enjoys my story. If anyone l know from the Circus world wants to be my friend, I would quickly add them to my profiles. I have noticed many people using the web to create a FAKE persona but I assure them right now, you can’t fake being a life long circus performer, there are too many code words, circus lingo, and things that stationary people (normal people who do not travel in the Circus) can’t possibly understand, so they just shouldn’t try. I’m currently on FB, Google + and Circus space.
Here is the link for Billies Facebook Page
13. Is there video we can watch of you on the web acting as a clown for us to enjoy?
Yes here are a few:
Bill Ballantine II gives tips n tricks on proper clown makeup
Billie Ballantine II Promo Video
Thank you Billie for so fully answering my questions. I hope our audience will now have more of an understanding of the life of a clown. It is not just a job, for some, it is a life style they were born into.
Following this blog I will be posting a new blog featuring the creation of Billy Ballantine II painting. I took photos along the way as I painted each night so you can see the painting come to life.
Until next time to all my fellow CLOWN ENTHUSIASTS………….Happy clowning!!
Patty Sue O’Hair -Vicknair Artist
Watercolor and Acrylic paintings of clowns from around the world.