From corporate to clownsville Happiness: John Carrington tossed a pie into the face of convention and painted a serious smile on his own face.

March 28, 1997|By Sondra Liburd-Jordan | Sondra Liburd-Jordan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Like millions of other American workers, John Thomas Carrington had been thinking about it for years: chucking it all, giving up the 9-to-5 to devote himself to his true passion. But unlike most who only consider it, one day last October, Carrington decided to do it. He gave up his title, packed away his briefcase and scheduled a little quiet time to chat with his wife.

"I've quit my job," he told her.

"Well, what are you going to do?" she asked.

"I'm going to be a clown."

As Carrington tells it, his wife held fast to a lengthy blank stare before responding, "Whatever makes you happy."

Clearly, this change in career path did not come as a complete surprise to Carrington's wife, nor to his friends or co-workers. Carrington, 47, a one-time academic turned executive, had been moonlighting as a clown and magician for almost 20 years, entertaining kids at schools and parties.

But to go all the way, to step out of a secure job in the business world and step full-time into oversize clown shoes -- was he serious, or just, well, clowning around?

"I know it's hard for some people to understand, but I had to be honest with myself," he says. "I hated what I was doing. And if you continue doing what you hate long enough, failure is imminent," he says.

The daily grind

Not to mention the short-term problems, like waking up to the migraines and stomach cramps that surfaced each morning as he prepared for the daily grind of corporate politics at the downtown Baltimore company where he worked as a general manager.

"Each day I could see my enthusiasm waning. The criticism, the lack of appreciation as well as incompetencies all affected my decision. But it was just this one day when I came into work, I knew I couldn't stay," says Carrington, who prefers not to name his former place of employment.

"Living positive is important to me and you can't do that working in a stressful environment."

So he traded in his business suit for greasepaint and a wardrobe of elaborate costumes. Several times a week, with brightly colored curls on his head and a big smile on his face, he breezes into roomfuls of strangers to entertain and amuse. His audiences will laugh, he says, but also learn.

"There's always a message. Whether it's conveying the importance of picking up a book or lifting the spirits of a friend, I want to make an impact as a clown, as a human being."

On a recent morning, dressed as a genie in shiny black shoes and glimmering gold turban, Carrington is strutting across the floor, making like a chicken -- with 150 kids at Baltimore's Highland Elementary School looking on.

Suddenly he whips into a comic version of the Macarena -- the "macaroni -- and cheese." And then it's on to his magic act. All the while he's preaching the values of Scouting, of books and of being a friend.

Carrington applauds long and loudly for those who come forward to assist with magic tricks, as if they'd completed some magnificent feat.

Then Carrington shows off his ventriloquism skills in a bit with "Oscar the rabbit."

"How do you like school, Oscar?"

"I like it closed."

"Oscar, what are you taking in school?"

"Anything I can get my hands on."

The smaller children roll on the floor with laughter; some of the older ones roll their eyes.

His clients may be young, he says, but they are extremely discriminating.

"Don't think you can go before these kids, tell a few jokes and you're out of there. No, no. Children will size you up and know if you've done your homework. If it's not funny, trust me, they will not laugh. If the magic is shaky, you've lost them."

But today, Carrington wins them over. And even after the show is over, there's still a chance to teach. A boy impressed by his magic act comes up and asks: "How did you do those tricks with the rings?"

Carrington holds up a book. "I read," he says. "Remember, readers are leaders. Use your brain to gain."

Laughter and planning

A conversation with Carrington can take a while. Even when he's being serious, he tends to laugh before, during and after his comments. It's a sign of the joy the father of two seems to genuinely take in his 5-month old job as full-time entertainer.

"It took a lot of maturity and years to come to the conclusion that I belonged in the children's world," he says. "First you deal with the shock that you've given up a stable, ordered work environment. Then, well, you move on."

It's not as if it's all fun and games now. Carrington says he makes no less effort planning for his shows than he did for a regular business day in his old job. He stays up many nights trying to adjust his show to fit the coming occasion and audience.

Business is competitive, admits the smiling entertainer, who advertises his Action-Packed Shows in the Yellow Pages. But he says he gets a lot of repeat business. And he's happier than he's been in a long time.

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