Tina Bausch has spent the last 34 years traveling with the circus as Skeeter the Clown.
The Hugo, Oklahoma, resident is what is known as an advance clown and was recently in Whitesboro spreading the word for the Culpepper and Merriweather Great Combined Circus, which is coming to town Oct. 6-7 at the Whitesboro Rodeo Arena.
Bausch puts on her full make-up every day she goes to work. She is one of the old timers, as she called them, the few clowns left in the business to earn a degree from the defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus Clown College. She joined the college a decade after Peggy Willams was the first woman to not only graduate from the college, but to be given a contract with the circus. Bausch graduated from Clown College in 1985 and has been “clowning around” ever since. The college shut down around 17 years ago and the circus had its final season last year.
“We will continue on like any business, one foot in front of the other,” Bausch said of the Culpepper and Merriweather circus, which she has been with for 17 years.
She was optimistic that the family tradition would carry on as many circus performers pass their skills onto their children. In fact, Bausch said one family with the circus she now calls home is a ninth generation circus family.
Now, instead of attending a clown college, hopeful clowns have returned to the traditional method of apprenticeship that was used for more than a century. Bausch enthusiastically bragged about how the tradition of clowning gets passed down from one generation to the next similar to how artisans used to do for centuries.
Bausch said many of her colleagues travel to China frequently. She said about 28 of her clown friends are still in the entertainment world in some way or another.
As the advance clown, Bausch rarely gets to perform in the shows. Instead she is the one who goes to the media, schools and public forums in a town where the circus is planning on setting up to inform the public of the pending show. Bausch said she enjoys making children laugh and is aware the traveling circus is not what it used to be. She said about five years ago, she was addressing a class of kindergarten students who didn’t know what a big top was when she asked.
“Now that we’re about three generations removed from when the circus was real big, it’s getting to where kids have no idea what I am talking about,” Bausch said. “They just stare at me with blank eyes. I am a clown, I am used to being stared at, but not like that.”
The Culpepper and Merriweather Circus is one of three circuses left to call Hugo, Oklahoma, home. Skeeter said back in the 1930s through the 1970’s, more than 20 traveling shows were based out of Hugo. The circus industry has faced tough times in recent years with animal rights groups often attacking the way they treat animals. Culpepper and Merriweather features a few animals, mostly rescues Bausch said, who are a small part of the show. Among them are two Golden Silver Siberian Tigers, a lion, horses and a few dogs. She said the horses are complete opposites. The large horse stands 18 hands tall and weighs over 160 pounds. That horse is paired with a miniature horse standing no more than 18 inches tall. They call it the Big and Little Act.
Other features of the circus include a trapeze artist, a main clown who hosts the shows, and a contraption Bausch called the “Wheel of Destiny,” which is a device she described as a reverse Ferris Wheel. The show will also feature a woman named Miss Perez who is one of the few women in the country who walks the “Wheel of Destiny.”
The circus will be in Whitesboro at the rodeo arena on Oct. 6-7 with two shows each night. The first show will be at 2 p.m. with a second show at 4:30 p.m. The circus is sponsored by the Whitesboro Rotary Club who uses the proceeds to pay for scholarships and leadership training programs for high school students.