Former clown celebrates a lifetime of spreading laughter

PEOPLE OF MERIT

May 03, 1992|By Dolly Merritt

William Rosensteel loves laughter. That's why he spent most of his life specializing in smiles and giggles.

Last week, the 92-year-old former clown -- now a resident of Lorien Nursing Home in Columbia -- got to hear the laughter of the crowd again.

Family, friends, and a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown, Danny Devaney, gathered to celebrate Rosensteel's life of merrymaking.

It was fitting that the 20-year-old Devaney, who is a first-year clown at the Ringling circus, and Rosensteel, a clown who worked in the Baltimore area for 70 years, could come together to share some laughs. The idea belonged to Judy Carlton of Columbia, a humor therapist with the University of Maryland Medical Center, who visits hospitals and nursing homes dressed in clown garb and is known to her "patients" as Dr. Lollipop.

Two years ago she heard of Rosensteel's love for the circus and clowns, and she organized a visit between the former clown and BTC a member of the Moscow Circus. When she heard that Ringling Brothers was coming to Baltimore from April 30 to May 10, Carlton arranged for a second clown meeting.

Like Carlton, Rosensteel, alias "Bimbo," also used to make his appearances at hospitals and nursing homes.

He also participated in parades and holiday parties for organizations like the Knights of Columbus, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the former Baltimore-based Moose Lodge No. 70, where he was a member.

Sitting in his wheelchair and wearing a white jacket with "Clowns of America, Inc." inscribed on the back -- the only outward sign of his former clown life -- Rosensteel on Wednesday seemed to know what was coming. Devaney's bright orange-haired kindred spirit, wearing a striped shirt and plaid pants, sprang into action, introducing himself as he presented Rosensteel with a clown certificate and official clown makeup.

He proceeded with a lemon-juggling demonstration before the audience of several dozen people, and later -- for old time's sake -- painted a red nose on Rosensteel. All of it met the former clown's approval.

The clown talk got under way as Rosensteel reminisced about the days when the carnival would come to the Frederick County town of Emmitsburg, where he grew up.

"The circus would pass through town and I would get a job with them," he said.

He recalled painting lamp black (used on cast iron stoves), shoe polish, and even coal dust on his cheeks to look like a sad, unshaven tramp.

Through the years, Rosensteel decided to attach a plastic bumblebee to the end of his nose because of the reaction it prompted from children, who shrieked at the sight of it.

His affinity for comical antics came from an uncle, whom he described as a "one-man clown who went into vaudeville."

Apparently clowning runs in the family.

Rosensteel's older son, Phil, 58, who lives in Baltimore County and works as a sales representative for Patuxent Publishing Co., is known as "Knobby" in certain circles.

And he recently celebrated his first wedding anniversary with his wife, "Jingles," whose real name is Jacqueline. Both are amateur clowns for local charity organizations.

"I remember as a 6-year-old, my father taking me with him to a parade," said Phil Rosensteel. "I was dressed up like a tramp; I remember the bands and the people cheering and blowing kisses. That hooked me.

"I remember the transformation of my father into 'Bimbo.' He wore a fake nose with a plastic bee, rags for clothes and a mousetrap for a tie bar."

William Rosensteel also made his own oversized shoes using huge leather straps from machinery and attaching them as soles to his own shoes.

"My father would then cover them with an inner tube. He was very innovative and fun to work with," Phil Rosensteel said.

His mother, the late Alice Rosensteel, supported the antics of her husband and son, but left all of the clowning to them.

Through the years, both father and son continued to clown together.

One of the events they participated in was the annual Catonsville Fourth of July parade.

Phil Rosensteel laughed when he recalled a parade in 1970 in which a storm cleared away the parade and the crowd -- that is, everyone except "Bimbo," who was riding his lawn tractor, "drenched, and still putt-putting down the street."

"He taught me to love it," he added. "You can entertain people; you become a cartoon, attracting attention from children and adults."

William Rosensteel -- a former printer who set type by hand for The Sun, The News American and several small printing shops -- had a variety of other interests as well.

He was a drum corps director of the former Moose Lodge No. 70 in Baltimore and a charter member of the Patapsco Valley Barber Shop Chorus, now the Heart of Maryland Chorus comprised of Baltimore and Howard county residents.

"He was in the chorus until sometime during the '80s when he couldn't climb the risers anymore," said Phil Rosensteel.

Today, William Rosensteel, who has lived at Lorien since August 1988, can no longer walk and he is quiet at times. "Bimbo," who has been out of action since around 1980, is no longer sporting his painted expression and ragged clothes, but his spirit hasn't vanished.

As Devaney and Dr. Lollipop demonstrated their shenanigans, Rosensteel's eyes crinkled, emphasizing the laugh lines that are now deeply embedded in his face.

0$ "I like being a clown," he said.

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