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Walkin' the Walk in Clown Alley

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Bill Ballantine, the avuncular Dean of the Ringling Clown College back in 1971, was big on clown walks. He insisted that every professional clown should have their own trademark shuffle, just as they had their own trademark makeup and costume. He often demonstrated his patented clown walk to us during classes -- a sort of bowlegged swagger that made him look like he needed to be milked.

In order to encourage our creativity in this area, Uncle Bill had our Yoga teacher beat a tom-tom each day for half an hour, at varying speeds, and then had us walk around the practice ring one at a time, in the hopes that this would speed our development of a comic amble. This exercise proved to be one of the less popular items in our comedy curriculum. Steve Smith simply skipped in time to the drum. Chico actually broke his ankle when he attempted a sort of sideways shamble that tripped him over the ring curb -- he had to perform at the audition show for Irvin Feld wearing a leg cast. Most of the class simply imitated Chaplin’s famous waddle or did a lecherous glide like Groucho Marx. Originality was sadly lacking in our group of embryonic funny folk. When it came my turn I at first tried walking backwards -- but this proved unhandy in consequence of the number of guy wires and elephant tubs I backed into. I imitated a crab, sliding sideways -- the move generated no chuckles and was hard on my ankles. I hopped; I crawled; I even spun like a whirling dervish. But nothing struck a chord. Finally, in mad desperation, when it came my turn to practice the tom-tom induced journey around the ring, I tore off my pants and streaked around the ring in my undies. This raised a huge laugh, but even I realized it would not be practical to keep tearing off my baggy pants every time I appeared in the ring.

I don’t remember anyone coming up with an original clown walk by the time of our audition performance. And once I got on the Ringling Blue Unit, there were very few of the veteran clowns who bothered with any kind of distinctive strut whatsoever.

Prince Paul, of course, had a very distinctive walk -- but that was because he was a dwarf. He had a regular-sized head and torso, but a cruel trick of nature had foreshortened his arms and legs -- so he couldn’t help display a ridiculous waddle when in motion. Still, he was very fast and nimble on his feet. He never let his handicap keep him from running like the wind to be first in line to get paid when the ghost walked.

Sparky, who sported the largest pair of clown shoes in the alley -- nearly four feet long and two feet wide -- necessarily had to drag his feet along at a slow pace. His distinctive scrape could be heard a half block away.

Rubber Neck developed a very unique head bobbing gesture -- something like the courting dance of a turkey cock -- which affected the way he walked in clown makeup. It was a sort of hop-skip-jump movement that audiences found funny all by itself. So Rubber Neck was lucky -- he could go into the ring and do nothing but strut around for a few minutes to raise a large healthy laugh.

Swede Johnson did not bother with any kind of eccentric walk. Neither did Mark Anthony -- but Mark loved to tell about his old pal Bumpsy Anthony, who apparently had a very peculiar mode of locomotion. The way Mark told it, Bumpsy always dragged a piece of rope behind him, head bowed in deep concentration, walking like a pall bearer at a funeral. Inevitably, someone would step on his trailing rope -- causing him to execute a spectacular backflip. This was Bumpsy’s stock--in-trade for twenty years.

We First of Mays didn’t consciously develop distinctive clown walks -- but we got them anyways. They came from the thin-soled Capezio dance slippers we were forced to wear for all the production numbers. Pounding around on a hard concrete floor every day began to give us all fallen arches and flat feet. To ease the constant pain, I began walking in a stumpy manner reminiscent of a sailor back on land again for the first time in two years.

I’ve kept that flat-footed walk with me ever since -- even in civilian life. An old friend of mine from Church tells me that the first time he saw me enter the chapel he knew I must be a comedian of some sort, just by the funny way I walked in. My kids tell me I walk like a duck.

Nowadays I don’t do a lot of walking. Used to be, I loved walking along the Provo River Trail for miles and miles. But a bad bout of the flu this past winter has sapped my stamina and some of the meds I take for blood pressure and arthritis make me photosensitive -- so now I content myself with a morning stroll to the Rec Center for a swim and a soak in the hot tub. Then a brisk walk home before the sun gets too hot. I spend the rest of the day in my recliner, dreaming and writing . . . and napping.

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