As a boy growing up in West Baltimore, Ed France was fascinated by the circus.
But unlike those whose childhood dreams fade with the years, he has attained his -- as Toto the Clown.
"As a kid I couldn't wait for the circus to come to town," said France, describing his early fascination with the big top.
Now, with his face highlighted in red, white and blue, an outsized bow tie, reddish-orange hair, and a variety of multicolored outfits, France plays a year-round schedule of carnivals, parties, store openings, fund-raisers and company picnics.
While performing is only a part-time supplement to his regular job, it is a full-time love.
The 49-year-old France has also stepped into a number of other roles over the years, including that of Uncle Sam, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. And when the occasion calls for magic, he dons his tux and appears as Roseddi the Magician.
His father, Edwin Sr., performed as a magician and escape artist during the 1930s and '40s and was a great influence, France said.
"I always wanted to be a clown," he explained. But he didn't try on the role until the early 1970s, when he began performing at parties and picnics.
France got his big top break when he was introduced to the owner of the Polack Bros. Circus, where he performed his clown routines at Shrine Circus events.
He spent about five years with Polack and other circuses, traveling through Maryland and nearby states.
But a steady home life beckoned after years as a circus nomad. France and his wife, Rose Marie, moved in 1982 to Mount Airy, where they have raised their children: Elizabeth, 13, Timmy, 10, and David, 2.
While the change in lifestyle cut his traveling, he found plenty of other performing opportunities near home.
"I realized I could do well with promotions and picnics, and I found that shopping centers were all using clowns," France said.
He gradually developed his Toto character, repeatedly experimenting with hismakeup until he was satisfied.
The highlight of his performing career came when he entertained at the traditional White House Easter Egg Roll from 1975 to 1977, France said.
"That was the most enjoyable for me. I got to meet the Fords, and they were very, very cordial.It was like talking to somebody living next door," said France, proudly showing a letter of thanks from then-first lady Betty Ford.
Hesaid he had another thrill in 1976, when he played Uncle Sam in a bicentennial show at the then-Baltimore Civic Center with Bob Hope, RayCharles and actress Joey Heatherton.
There he met president-to-beJimmy Carter, who invited him to perform at the 1977 Easter Egg Roll.
While he hasn't played the White House recently, France nevertheless exhibits great pride in performing. He is meticulous about his appearance as a clown.
"Kids want you to look crisp -- no wrinkled clothes," France said. "Even if your act isn't so good, if your appearance is good, you'll get by."
But he also pays attention to his act. A versatile performer, he can spin a plate on a stick, juggle andperform magic tricks.
He also has featured a trained dog -- the most memorable being Buttons, a sheep dog who could walk on his hind legs and play dead when France "shot" him with a toy gun.
France loves to trade wisecracks with the audience, cajoling volunteers into joining his act.
France also strives to be a convincing Easter Bunny or Santa Claus at store and party appearances -- he even attended aSanta school once.
He prides himself on being able to walk and talk just like old St. Nick or the Easter Bunny when occasion calls forit.
Besides being a multitalented performer, France is also a businessman.
He spends hours on the phone setting up his picnic, party and event appearances months ahead.
His "Circus Fun With Toto" can supply popcorn and cotton candy machines, pony rides, games, a band, food, or even a man to be shot out of a cannon. The latter, though, is one role he doesn't play.
"I know some of the best people in the country," said France, who can bring in performers for special events.
The roar of the crowd still seems to be more important to him than the businessman's role.
"I love kids, and I always like hearing the response from the audience," he said.