Bring in the (new) clowns

SUNDAY SNAPSHOT

Graduates: Ringling Bros. and...

September 07, 1997|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Bring in the (new) clowns; Graduates: Ringling Bros. and 0) Barnum & Bailey Clown College turns out another crop of funny-bone ticklers.

Brad Reiss would like nothing better than to graduate from college and fall flat on his face.

Or slip on a banana peel.

Or get smacked in the kisser with a whipped cream pie.

For Reiss and Lea Abiera, today is graduation day. The Baltimore students have completed the eight weeks of bowling pin-juggling, face-painting and car-stuffing otherwise known as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. They soon will receive their B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fun Arts) degree.

A rim shot, please.

"Where else can you learn so many things in so short a time and have so much fun?" Abiera asks.

What Harvard is for blue bloods, Clown College is for red noses. And it might be easier to get into Harvard.

Out of 1,500 candidates, just 33 students were accepted for Clown College, held once each year in Sarasota, Fla. This year marked the 30th annual session.

The two Baltimore youths took different routes to college.

Abiera, 20, grew up in Gamber and graduated in 1995 from Bryn Mawr School for Girls in Baltimore. As a sophomore at George Washington University in Washington, she auditioned for -- and won -- a part as a dancer when the circus came to town, earning college credit for repertory performance.

"I hung out with the clowns a lot," she says. "That's why I wanted to go to Clown College."

Reiss, 18, was a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts when he saw an advertisement seeking Clown College applicants.

"The audition was amazing," he says. "I told myself I definitely want to be in that atmosphere. People think I dress like a clown, anyway."

Another rim shot.

While the college treats clowning seriously, it doesn't go overboard. The course list does not include such items as "Pie-Throwing: Underhand vs. Overhand" or "From W.C. Fields to Boris Yeltsin: The Big Red Nose as a Comedic Prop" or "Advanced Geometry: Filling the Clown Car." ("It doesn't have seats," Abiera discloses.)

Instead, students are taught all the old tricks, from juggling to unicycling to stilt-walking.

"I took the initiative to walk on a bowling ball," offers Reiss, apparently looking for extra credit. "I can trip and fall now, too."

Abiera was one of nine female clown students. Her favorite trick is walking on a globe, but she will try anything.

"Everything is a challenge," she says. "You just have to get over it and do it."

It wasn't all fun and games. Well, actually, it was, but it was work, too. Classes were held six days a week, 14 hours a day. That's a lot of water spitting and balloon blowing.

"It's hard, but it's so much fun you don't notice the work," Reiss says.

Although the clown classes are over, today marks the final exam for Reiss and Abiera. Both will perform in front of Kenneth Feld, chief executive officer and producer of the circus. Feld has been known to offer contracts to as many as a third of the clown graduates.

Reiss and Abiera both want one.

"This is the big judgment day," Abiera says.

No matter what happens, Reiss will not put away his eyeliner pencil anytime soon. "I'll either be a clown in Ringling Bros. or on the street," he says. "You may see me at Harborplace."

Both, of course, will have their college memories. Abiera fondly recalls the morning a fellow clown student celebrated a birthday.

"We all pied him," she says. "He got 40 pies in the face at 9 in the morning."

And they say West Virginia University is a party school.

Three thousand feet up in the air it's a little bumpy. Leonard Weinik is practicing turning left and right, going up and down. This is his fifth time behind the controls. He's doing well.

Weinik has planned something a little different for his retirement. He still plays tennis, still reads. But now he's learning how to fly a plane.

The 80-year-old Columbia resident began taking lessons this summer. He's been in the air only a handful of times -- for about an hour each time -- but he feels confident.

The minimum total flight time required for a private license is 40 hours, and at his current pace, Weinik expects to have earned his in about a year.

It's not really the license that's important to him, he says. He has no plans to fly around the world, no plans to use the license for anything but the experience. He just wants to learn how to fly.

Weinik has always been fascinated by airplanes. He remembers taking an aviation course for children at New York University when he was still in grade school.

"I flew in a Curtiss Condor," he recalls. He also remembers attending an air show as a child in 1923 and going "up in an old biplane."

When Weinik receives his license, he won't be the only senior in the skies. More than 33,000 pilots nationwide are above the age of 60, and data collected by the Federal Aviation Administration last year show that of the 254,000 pilots with private licenses, more than 600 were above the age of 80.

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