There’s a circus in town. The trucks and caravans rolled in late the night before, and by morning the big red tent has taken over the parking area of the town’s sports grounds. The entrance is set up, along with the popcorn stands, the candy store, and the ticket booth.
That same night, a bit before 7pm, the band starts to play. As soon as the audience find their seats inside the tent, the ushers close the doors, and with every beat the anticipation rises.
Then a tall man in shoes and pants that are several sizes too big stomps in with a big smile on his face, waving his hands like a conductor. The first laughs echo inside the tent – and the big man hasn’t done anything yet except show up.
He mounts a music stand in the middle of the ring and begins to work the crowd. People to his left get instructions to clap their hands twice when he points at that section, the people to his right are to do the same on his signal. Then he runs to the front and mimes to the people in that section that they should clap their hand five times – five, he shakes his hand for emphasis – on his signal.
The crowd is ready and the band begins to play Johan Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz”.
When the waltz hits its signature movement, the man in the big pants and big shoes with the red nose dashes from one side of the ring to the other, urging the audience to clap.
Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, clap-clap, clap-clap, the hand claps fit the waltz like a glove, and the audience is laughing because the man is really into the tune now, moving wildly around the ring, and because it is nothing short of amazing that he can orchestrate the crowd to make music together. And then comes the end of the movement: Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, clap-clap, clap-clap.
That’s followed by a thunderous applause, while the rest of the ensemble runs out to introduce themselves, and then the ringmaster, Carmen Rhodin, welcomes the audience.
It’s showtime. The crowd is ready. Don Christian, the clown, has made sure of it.
A circus is always getting into town somewhere. In the mid-1970s, one set up camp in Graz, Austria. Unlike Brazil Jack, which generally spends only one night in a location, that circus would stay for two weeks.
“I was three years old, and I as soon as I saw the clowns I was sold,” says Christian Hofer, aka Don Christian. “It was a little scary because clowning was a lot rougher back then. You can’t do those acts anymore. You can’t shoot a cannon at a clown’s head.
“My family went to the circus every year. It was big and beautiful, with a 50-meter ring, and elephants, tigers, you name it. Back then there was no Internet, so I borrowed books from the library and spoke with the clowns, and the older I got, the more I spoke with them, and I tried to extract as much information as possible from them.”
The boy got to know the clowns and started to clown a bit for his parents and at school, making sure that he was always picked for school plays and that he got the parts that would make people laugh. But in the end, the son of a housewife and a state health insurance director opted against clown college and got a degree in industrial management instead.
But the clowns came knocking.
“The Dutch ringmaster at the Austrian circus told me that the Nederlands Nationaal Circus Herman Renz in Holland was looking for somebody to work with their clown,” he says. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I signed up for nine months but ended up staying there for 10 years. That was my clown university.”
He may have signed up to work as a clown, but in the circus, newcomers do everything. Don Christian raised the tent, delivered posters around town, ushered, cleaned up – and at night, made people laugh.
His first act was a supporting one, working with another clown, but Christian started to work on his own stage persona right away.
“Clowning is like the opera,” he says. “There’s Wagner, Puccini, Mozart, but there are only about 20 story lines, and the presentations vary. All the traditional clown gags are available, you can’t copyright them, and I’ve known them all since I was a student of clowning.
“In the beginning, you copy, and I wouldn’t even say I was a real clown then. I picked parts of acts here and there and made my own, smaller ones alone, and bigger ones with a partner. I wasn’t embarrassed then, I just did it. I should have been embarrassed. Fortunately for me, there aren’t many videos remaining from those days,” he says with a laugh.
He put in the work, and 10 years later he was a clown. A real clown. He honed his acts, and learned the one thing that makes good clowns great.
“I learned the timing,” he says. “Timing is everything. And learning that takes 10 years.”
Since that first 10-year stop in the Netherlands, Christian has worked all over Europe, and he is now one of the most popular clowns on this side of the Atlantic. These days, circuses booking Don Christian know they will get laughs.
“People think clowning and comedy are easy, but making people laugh is the hardest thing,” he says. “Of course trapeze acts and juggling are hard, but once you have your act together, you just go out and perform it. In comedy, every night is different.
“Also, if you’re a famous comedian, people come to see you, and they enjoy it because they know the act from before, or you’ve got name recognition. Clowns get people in from the cold, and we have to make them like us. In France, a circus sometimes has fours shows a day, and each audience comes in completely cold.”
Clowns get more than one chance to get the audience on their side. In a 90-minute show, Don Christian comes out five times. He does the Blue Danube Waltz, he plays bells (and a volunteering kid bangs a frying pan strapped to his rear), he stages a boxing match, he goofs around with a microphone and sings James Brown’s “I Feel Good” – “ooooo, baaa-aaaaaby” – and he chases an invisible fly around the ring.
“Clowns are often the connection between the other artists in the show,” he says. “Let’s face it, without a clown you don’t have a circus. You can get by without a juggler, but not without a clown. That brings me work, but there’s a downside to it too. You can’t explain to the kids that the clown is sick today. So I always have to show up. In 25 years, I have never missed a show – not one.”
There’s another, more practical reason why there’s no circus without a clown.
“I’m there for about 30 minutes of a 90-minute show,” he says. “So the show’s too short without me.”
Never missing a show means regular working out, healthy eating, and no crazy risk-taking – outside the tent, that is. He doesn’t even ski anymore, for fear of breaking a leg.
“And I’m Austrian!” he says with a big laugh.
Circus Brazil Jack’s shows always begin at 7pm, and Don Christian starts to get into his clown clothes and mentality in the afternoon.
“Makeup and hair is my preparation,” he says. “Focusing on the makeup is sort of meditation.”
His makeup is mostly skin colored, with a little lighter color around his eyes and around his mouth, and just a little white around his mouth. His blond hair is straight up, the eyebrows are black, and he paints his nose red, as a clown should. Or about half of it.
“It’s an unwritten law that you don’t copy the makeup of another clown,’ he says. “I don’t like to have a lot of makeup because I think it covers my facial expressions. Also, some children are afraid of the made-up giant with his hair sticking up. It happens.
“Usually, the older a clown gets, the less makeup they have, and the face itself becomes the makeup. Their gestures and facial expressions get stronger, and they no longer need the mask to hide behind. I have a red nose because that’s what’s expected of a clown.”
A clown is one part stand-up comedian and two parts actor. Like an actor, he has to portray the full scale of human emotions, the laughs and the happiness, the tears and the sadness, but like a stand-up comedian, he has to work the room.
“Sometimes people in little villages in the northern Sweden just cross their arms and watch,” he says. “You can choose to give up, get mad, or just do your thing. I play horns, bells, and several other instruments. It’s a clown tradition, but also, with music, you always get the people.
“I need the crowd, it’s essential. If I can’t get them on my side, I get depressed, still, after all these years. When the audience is with me and the crowd goes berserk, time flies out the tent and I get goose bumps. If I make them happy, I’m happy.”
He puts his size 43 foot inside his size 48 clown shoe (“I have to be able to move around”) and walks from his caravan to the tent. He goes through his props and makes sure everything is good to go.
The band is playing, the ushers are ready to close the tent doors, and Don Christian stands between the outer curtain and the big red curtain that separates him from the audience. He stretches himself to his full height, then stomps out waving his hands, with a big smile on his face.
The first laughs echo inside the tent.
This story originally appeared in the September issue of Scandinavian Traveler