Barry Lubin: Anatomy of a Circus Clown (And Clowning)

Barry Lubin, aka Grandma, will be returning to the new Big Apple Circus in October 2017. For many years the face of Big Apple, the artist has been silently, sympathetically silly his entire professional life. What makes a good clown? How did this one cut a path to laughter and distinction?

The Cast Top Row left to Right: Paul Binder (Bertrand Guay), Michael Christensen, Jeff Gordon (Patricia Lanza) Jimmy Tinsman
Bottom Row: Joel Jeske, Todd Robbins, Lou Jacobs, Barry Lubin

The Cast
Paul Binder- Co-Founder Big Apple Circus, “Nature’s Ringmaster” (Clive Barnes)
Todd Robbins – Pitchman/Host Big Apple Circus Medicine Show, Ringmaster Circus Sarasota
Clown Alley* – those I interviewed
Barry Lubin, Grandma, a character clown (personality) with Auguste style make-up
Michael Christensen – Co-Founder Big Apple Circus-Director of Clowns; Mr. Stubs, a hobo clown
Jeff Gordon – Gordoon, an Auguste (he who gets slapped or takes the pie)
Jimmy Tinsman – clown, straight man, all ‘round circus performer; 2017 Performance Director Big Apple Circus
Joel Jeske – Mr. Joel, white face clown/straight man; worked in every facet of Big Apple; Host/creator/writer Big Apple Circus Grand Tour, creator/writer the 2017 show
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Lou Jacobs – 1902-1992, an Auguste; spent 60 years at Ringling Brothers Circus retiring at age 82.

Finding One’s Face

“I was uncomfortable in my own skin growing up,” Barry Lubin tells me. “Making people laugh was how to fit in. It wasn’t jokes, it was physical bits, especially running into things and falling down…Being quite short and not a fighter, making people laugh was also a great way to deflect getting beaten up.” (Gordon currently teaches clowning to fourth graders who find the ability to deflect useful among new skills.)

Barry Lubin in High School

Lubin ricocheted through four college majors, undecided what do with his future. When an acquaintance told him about touring with a small circus, it intrigued him. “Clowning sounded like something he’d been doing my whole life, why not get paid for it?” He applied to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and was accepted. Graduates often refer to the course as ten weeks of auditioning.

I ask my “Clown Alley” what makes a good clown. Responses included: “…heart, resilience, and the ability not to take things too seriously. The more you give the audience, the more love you receive… Pay attention, you’re not in a bubble like on a stage…Clowns are students of human nature. They can watch and mimic people more astutely than civilians. They’re vulnerable, playful, childlike… A clown is filled with shortcomings and weakness amplified to comic proportions, we see ourselves reflected in their antics… empathy, making joyous contact with the audience. Thinking on one’s feet – not thinking ahead even when there’s a routine…Be funny…”

Lubin’s Clown College Graduating Class

Choosing audience volunteers takes a particularly well honed set of instincts. Clowns often peek from behind the curtain preselecting participants based on expression, vivacity, and a feeling the person won’t be embarrassed if they have to give up dignity. A clown has to know when to be solicitous, infectiously mischievous, even daring. If he chooses wrong, moving on must be quick and graceful. Fortunately, the next acquiescent civilian is cheered for bailing him out.

As to routines, one never knows. “The smell of a dead clown in a tent is very hard to get rid of…We would write things we thought were hilarious and that the audience didn’t think were funny,” Christensen relates. “A sequence where we hypnotized members of the company by wiggling our hands always affected the person behind the intended victim who then fell on his back. We ended up with a ring full of bodies. It seemed funny. The bit lasted one night. It looked too much like people dying.”

Barry Lubin (Grandma) and Toto at Ringling Brothers

“Failure is part of the deal. It can get me down to this day, 43 years into my career… Just because you’re gifted, doesn’t mean you know anything. It’s worth it though,” Lubin tells me.

Can the craft be taught? On hiatus, Lubin gave workshops at Ringling Brothers Clown College. Both Gordon and Jeske were briefly his students. “Clowning has zero to do with a red nose, costume, wig, make-up and everything to do with heart,” he says. “Some people are instinctively silly. It’s remembering the child that exists within us all.” Anti-technique, he suggests, performers experiment rather than try to use the spotlight to tell a story or change the world.

A clown makes his best guess when creating material. Playing in front of an audience he discovers how it responds. “Then the real work begins.” The toughest aptitude Lubin reflects, is timing. Second, is finding a character, third, enduring failure, “…so a clown doesn’t play it safe to avoid the pain…comedy failure doesn’t kill, it just hurts. The sun rises the next day.”

Barry Lubin as Tommy Trimble at Ringling Bros. and Big Apple

Lubin’s clown life at Ringling Brothers began as an unnamed Auguste he now describes as “nondescript.” (Later, Christensen would call him Little Tommy Trimble.) He also continued with a ventriloquist routine originated in Clown College for which he eventually enlisted Tinsman as straight man to his dummy. Over time, a composite of Lubin’s own nanas, Lubin and Weinberg and little old ladies observed on his native Atlantic City Boardwalk, developed into Grandma. The irascible old lady made her debut in 1975.

I’m told clowns (and chorus people) were then the bottom rung of Ringling Brothers social status and received lower pay than featured acts. Lubin was fortunate to be mentored by legendary Lou Jacobs, the face on Ringling posters and subsequently a postage stamp. “If they laugh, it’s funny. If they don’t it ain’t,” the veteran told him. Binder echoes this with “An audience is the best director.”

Jimmy Tinsman and Barry Lubin – The Ventriloquist Act (Jean-Marie Guyaux)

The Short Transvestite Clown

At the beginning, Lubin considered circus life enormous fun, but not a career choice. (This is not unusual. Tinsman applied to Clown College as a joke.) He apparently walked away several times only to be drawn back, missing camaraderie, uniqueness, travel. Ringling Brothers was a tough place to flourish.

Reexamining non-circus options at the end of five years, he temped, did stand up and freelance clown work before fortuitously falling in love with Big Apple and its hospitable one ring format. “Nothing beats the excitement of making 20,000 people laugh, but nothing beats the intimacy of the 1,500 seat, tented Big Apple Circus either.” Tinsman, then a member of its core company, took his friend to audition for a Big Apple corporate gig that lead to his being hired by the circus. Having seen “this ridiculous old lady clown” (in development) at Ringling Brothers, Binder already had Grandma on his radar.

Meanwhile, Gordon became A “First of May” i.e. a new circus performer at Ringling Brothers. An athlete/acrobat, he somersaulted over elephants at $133 a week for 16 two and a half to three hour shows. Jeske worked at Ringling Brothers for four years, a white-faced straight man he describes as a cross between Bud Abbott and Mo Howard. Both Gordon and Jeske would end up working with Big Apple.

Barry Lubin/Grandma, Michael Christensen/Mr. Stubs, Jeff Gordon/Gordoon  (Bertrand Guay)

The triumvirate of Mr. Stubs, Gordoon, and Grandma (Christensen, Gordon and Lubin) came together with a “Ka-Blam!” Each clown performed solo turns as well as ensemble pieces. “Every routine is developed on its feet over the course of a season,” Christensen says. “It usually gelled about two-thirds of the way through, but then had to be retired for new ones the next year.” “Laughter is a team product. The three of them were terrific. I can’t tell you how many good clowns I turned away,” Binder recalls.

Affectionately referred to as the short transvestite clown, Lubin thinks of himself as a “skill-free” practitioner, meaning, he hastens to tell me, Grandma eschews acrobatics, juggling, wire walking…“I’m neither athletic, fearless, nor capable. Heights scare me as does risk.” On the one hand, Gordoon and Grandma once did a trapeze act with the swing five feet off the ground. It took the fall-down-and-go-boom clown quite awhile to convince Grandma to hang from her toes with her head on terra firma like a headstand.

Barry Lubin/Grandma Flying (Maike Schultz)

On the other hand, when Gordon left Big Apple Circus, Lubin asked permission to take up his harness flying routine. The creator of the act soared up to the tent peak and ostensibly got stuck during a reprise i.e. a transition that gave riggers time to lay the trapeze safety net. Grandma’s version is not meant to cover other activity. She seemingly panics clinging to a pole about ten feet above the audience. “High enough, thank you,” he cracks. Still, it’s a stretch for someone with acrophobia.

Lubin calls Gordon a Leonardo da Vinci of clown creation. You have only to view his inspired Toilet Paper Routine to agree. At its artful climax, billowing rolls of toilet paper coil, spin and dance high up into the air with the use of powerful leaf blowers.

Barry Lubin/Grandma on the Treadmill (Maike Schultz)

“I try to be physical more than ever because it allows me to deny my age,” Lubin says. “When I’m soaring in a high circle above the ring, looking out at the audience, it’s like I’m watching a movie, like they’re spinning not me. …” Later in the show, Grandma often flies inches off the ground with a child in her arms. “That makes me cry. I can’t wait to do it again.” Nine year-old Finn Robbins got special dispensation to fly with Grandma at age two and a half. “… I was excited and nervous. I knew Grandma and thought it would be great…Whenever we go to Big Apple Circus I ask my dad if I can fly again…”

The character’s iconic Treadmill Routine is also much more physical than it appears. Lubin calls it “five minutes of hell.” His inspiration? Charlie Chaplin would’ve had a field day in a modern health club. Watching the performer navigate various speeds with glee, pride, surprise, and consternation is captivating. Grandma excels at comic movement, especially ersatz dance. The treadmill has become his most requested act.

Barry Lubin/Grandma and Paul Binder (Bertrand Guay)

I ask Clown Alley what makes Grandma distinctive. “Unlike many clowns, Barry never relies upon stupidity for laughs, nor is there any violent slapstick used. His physical comedy has a gentleness…He’s a minimalist. He can make the audience respond with the slightest gesture and creates amazing material out of nothing…Barry is very present. You have to be on your toes to work with him. Grandma might interact with the ring crew. Anyone is fair game…He knows how to work an intimate circus audience and sticks to his guns when he believes in a routine. Clowns are collectors of moments. Barry embodies that.”

Chuck Jones, director of Warner Brothers Cartoons, declared that every character has rules they obey. Several peers observe that Grandma’s rule includes no respect for authority. You have to understand her parameters to work with her. It’s best to either join in or present a wall off which she can work. The old lady’s relationship to her Ringmaster is a perfect example, especially when he becomes her voice. “Whenever I stepped away, Barry would whisper my lines to me lest I not pick them up,” Binder notes.

Mr. Joel and Grandma – Jeske and Lubin do a musical interruption gag wherein Jeske plays a musical instrument. Grandma snatches off his companion’s straw boater and dances, somehow destroying the hat. Having been lulled into uncomplicated entertainment, the surprised audience reacts. “I learned to just stare at the remains of the hat, to freeze, “Jeske tells me. “All laughter crests like a wave. You have to let what happened sink in before you move. Grandma then tries to reconstruct the hat and get it back onto my head which elicits more laughter…Barry taught me timing and patience.”

Barry Lubin/Grandma and Joel Jeske/Mr. Joel – The Hat Act

Lubin admits to being a good lip-syncher, a skill recognized by his peers. This can be tapped for what Robbins calls laugh-inducing incongruity; for example, gently requesting that she be allowed to sing, Grandma grabs the ringmaster’s microphone, opens her mouth, and out comes the belting voice of Gloria Estefan. The character currently lip synchs Bruno Mars’  “Uptown Funk” which is all male voices. Its ridiculousness makes the choice appropriate.

Other proudly mastered talents include the signature gag of flinging a piece of popcorn from fingers to the tip of his tongue with great accuracy, spitting water “better than most people on earth,” dance, and performing a running headstand onto a whoopee cushion. Not only has Grandma executed the last feat at Carnegie Hall (with New York Goofs), but the only clown ever to do a show in Antarctica, she performed the stunt for a tundra full of penguins January 2017! No kidding.  Antarctica was the 7th continent on which Lubin has performed.

Barry Lubin/Grandma and His Antarctica Audience

Longevity

Few clowns have successfully spent their entire careers as one character. Exceptions include: Lou Jacobs, Emmett Kelly (Weary Willie), Bello Nock, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin… arguably, Barry Lubin (Grandma.)

Lubin’s 25 years and counting with Big Apple Circus made a celebrity of his obstreperous alter ego. How has Grandma changed over the years? Appearances by Little Tommy Trimble and the Ventriloquist Routine featured exaggerated hitting and shoving which played well in big arenas. Early on, that personality carried over to make the old woman “crusty, surly, pissed-off- fun.” Binder missed this when a kinder, gentler character evolved in the closeness of a new environment. Peers unanimously agree Grandma has become more lovable.

Barry Lubin/Grandma (Maike Schultz)

Still, the artist acknowledges his choice not to explore pathos. “Spencer Tracy was complimented by someone who called him a great actor. His response, and I misquote, was shhhh, don’t tell anyone. He was implying that all his effort went in to looking effortless. I never want to be seen as acting. Maybe that’s the reason I avoid touchy-feely clowning. I seem to stir hearts anyway, or so I’m told…Since 1975, I’ve never wavered from wanting to simply make people laugh. If you’re looking for someone interesting, you’ve got the wrong clown. Interesting clowns create new world. I live in yours.”

“Adapt or die is my feeling about entertainment …We have to remain relevant which means listening to ever changing audiences and making sure they’re happy,” Lubin tells me. “I chose a treadmill because of the health care craze. Lips syncs are to popular music. Grandma started to talk a couple of years ago on a circus gig in Miami and the audience responded well, so I’ve done a limited amount of talking ever since.”

Many of today’s “circuses” appear in theaters. From his flourishing vegetable garden, Christensen comments, “Anything that’s alive changes. Circus is one of the most alive forms of entertainment that exist. What I hope doesn’t alter is direct, joyous contact…” Lubin tells me though theaters are easier to work in, the atmosphere of a big top is unique.

Grandma and Barry Lubin (Maike Schultz)

“I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I welcome it with open arms. Long after I’m gone, Grandma will live on. Because of this simple little character, I was able to contribute something to the world, even if it was just laughs…They say that when you’re on your deathbed, you won’t wish that you’d spent more time at the office. In my case, they couldn’t be more wrong.”  Barry Lubin – Tall Tales of a Short Clown

Barry Lubin’s website

*Clown Alley in a circus was a backstage area, usually very near the animal pens, where  clowns change into their costumes and apply makeup.

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Mark Twain

The 2017 Big Apple Poster

This year, Big Apple Circus founders Paul Binder and Michael Christensen respectively handed over a Ringmaster top hat and rubber chicken to representatives of Big Top Works LLC at the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. Maintaining the quintessential ring-in-a-tent, the circus (1977-) returns home to Lincoln Center, October 27, 2017 through January 7, 2018 for its 40th season. The upcoming show is created and written by Joel Jeske and directed by Mark Lonergan, Artistic Director of physical theater company Parallel Exit i.e. clown consciousness is omnipresent. Grandma is back in all her unmanageable glory.

Big Apple Circus website

Friends and fans will be delighted to know that original community outreach programs, including Circus of the Senses, Autism Performances, and Circus for All, will continue in the spirit they were established.

R.I.P. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus 1884-2017.

Photos (all uncredited photos courtesy of the artist)
Opening photo by Maike Schultz

About Alix Cohen (764 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.