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Ideas

When clowns were cool

Murray Horwitz joined the circus out of college — and got an education

By Natalie Pompilio

Murray the clown was feeling low.

The year was 1970, and Horwitz, then 21, was sitting in the clown car of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train parked in Syracuse, N.Y. His routines under the big top had been bombing and he was sharing his woes with fellow clown Mark “Zapata” Barragan, son and grandson of circus performers.

“I’m depressed. I’m not getting laughs,” Horwitz told him.

Zapata was thoughtful. “You know what’s wrong with you when you’re out there?” 

“No.”

Zapata did. “You’re trying to be funny.”

“Isn’t that the point?

“No, the point is to be yourself.”

And that night, under the big top, it happened. Horwitz went from being a bad clown to a good clown.

“It was like a switch had been flipped,” he says. “Before that night in Syracuse, I was always fretting and worrying. ‘Am I doing this right?’ ‘Is that correct?’ I was trying to call attention to myself, mugging, instead of being me.”

He mastered classic gags, like the clown car: in his case, a 1970 Gremlin stuffed with 26 performers. 

Succeeding as a clown sounds like a dubious achievement at a time when clowning has, at best, lost its cachet — and at worst, become a kind of cultural joke. It has been more than a year since the Ringling Bros. circus took its final bow, its famed trains auctioned off or sold to scrap metal dealers. About a decade ago, the British health care system asked 250 patients ages 4 to 16 what they thought about the use of clowns in hospital decor: Every one of them said they disliked it, with even the older children calling it scary.

Coulrophobia — a fear of clowns — isn’t an official diagnosis, but still, people claim to have it: In a 2016 Vox survey of 2000 people, a third said they had at least a mild case of the phobia. The revival of Stephen King’s “It” last fall underscored the idea that clowns are creepy.

But in 1970, a guy could tell his parents he was going to run away to join the circus and they’d encourage him to do so. At the time, Bozo the Clown still had a TV show, mimes could draw non-hostile crowds, and traditional white-faced clowns advertised everything from hamburgers and soft drinks to cigarettes and beer. Circuses were cool, with crowds regularly packing the tents of traveling three-ring shows, the best known of which was the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The experience of being in a Ringling show? Well, there was nothing in showbiz quite like it. And clowns, as P.T. Barnum said, were “the pegs on which the circus is hung.”


Horwitz was a senior majoring in English and Drama at Kenyon College when he decided to attend Ringling’s clown school in Venice, Florida. He figured he’d use the experience for a school project. He took a leave from Kenyon and threw himself into lessons in yoga, ballet, juggling, and tumbling.

He perfected his make-up and costuming, built props, and came up with jokes. He listened to lectures by master clowns, watched movies featuring the field’s best, and finessed his comic timing. He learned classic routines and ran them over and over, often to a stopwatch.

When he graduated from clown school in November 1969, and from Kenyon in May 1970, the Vietnam War was raging and the country needed laughs. With the encouragement of his parents, teachers, and friends — and the luxury of a high draft number — Horwitz joined a traveling Ringling troupe.

But the welcome he received from the other performers wasn’t exactly warm. He’d “joined out,” as circus folk term it, in the middle of a season, a no-no. He also had a Bachelor’s degree.

“They called me ‘Shakespeare’ and claimed I was the first college graduate to be a clown in the Ringing show, which cannot be true,” he says.

Another big problem? “I wasn’t good.”

But oh, how he tried. He was a “First of May” — a novice — but he quickly learned the lingo, hitting up the donniker, not the toilet; spending his alfalfa like it was paper money (it was); and enjoying after dinner aba-dabas in the cookhouse because clown costumes can hide a multitude of sins. Horwitz’s costume was a school boy’s uniform, a nod to that slip of paper he’d received from Kenyon, with short pants, big lapels, and a cartoonish oversized baseball cap. He let his chestnut hair grow untamed. He didn’t paint his face white, but he did use make-up to exaggerate his features.

And yet he didn’t really have “it” — the good kind of it, not the Stephen King kind — until that fateful night in Syracuse.

From there, Horwitz’s clowning got better and better. He fine-tuned his walk-arounds, distracting pockets of the crowd with tricks between acts.

He mastered classic gags, like the clown car: in his case, a 1970 Gremlin stuffed with 26 performers. “There’s a system but I’m not going to tell you how we do it,” says Horwitz, admitting he was banned from driving the vehicle after an unfortunate incident while performing in Miami. (No clowns were injured.)

He was part of the levitation skit, in which a “magician” elevates another clown, until the truth — the levitating clown is lifting his upper body and a pair of fake legs under a blanket — seems to be accidentally revealed. He was the anchor in the balloon chase gag, a clown relay race that ends with every balloon popped and a very angry balloon salesman.

Soon, he was a “producing clown,” responsible for writing and directing gags himself. He co-wrote a skit that had one clown depositing dirty dishes in a box that the other would remove completely clean. The reveal was that there was a dog inside licking the plates.

The performance schedule was grueling — twice a day, three times on Saturday — but it was also the secret to success, Horwitz says. Repetition and close collaboration taught him to be both disciplined and relaxed, a mainstay of comedy, “being tight while seeming loose.”

“With experience, successful experience, comes confidence, and that gives you the moxie…to go out there and take on the audience,” he says.


As the circus wanes, and the current comic aesthetic has replaced wide-eyed wonder with jaundiced observation, it’s easy to see clowning as a lost art. But Horwitz notes that clowns have taken different forms over the years, from court jesters to touring vaudevillians to modern stand-up comics and improv performers. The constant, he says, is art that “redeems the sins of the community through laughter, by pointing out human foolishness and failure.”

There’s still a demand for classic clowns in places like hospitals – just not in the U.K., apparently — and nursing homes, where residents crave attention and personal interaction, says Tricia Manuel, a former Ringling Bros. clown who founded the Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp in Minnesota.

And clown training has value well beyond the circus, says Dominique Jando, who teaches classic European clowning at San Francisco’s Clown Conservatory.

“You learn timing; how to interact with partners and your audience; how to react and improvise; how to express yourself clearly and simply; how to not be afraid of being vulnerable,” he says. “All these qualities can be useful to a straight actor, a comedian, and to anyone else in life.”

Murray the professional clown spent three seasons with Ringling Bros., a long stint when some young performers barely lasted one or weren’t invited back. He was a good clown, he thinks, realizing about 80 percent of his clown potential. But he figured it would take him another 20 years to pick up that 20 percent.

And he wanted to write. So he left the circus in 1972, moved to New York and a few years later co-wrote the Broadway musical “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” winning a Tony Award. Since then, he’s written lyrics for the opera “The Great Gatsby;” created the NPR show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me;” and came up with the idea for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Lin-Manuel Miranda, a college roommate of his son’s, has said he’s in Horwitz’s debt for the gift of his first rhyming dictionary.

Now, at 68, Horwitz still writes — another play he co-wrote, “RFK: The Journey to Justice,” was recently heard on the radio via Public Radio Exchange — and creates stage shows as artist-in-residence at Washington Performing Arts. He also hosts WAMU’s “The Big Broadcast,” a collection of vintage radio shows from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.

But that 1970s training still looms large in his memory: “Those years on the Ringling show were some of the best of my life.”

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Natalie Pompilio is a writer based in Philadelphia.

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