Specifically regarding Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey (Sarasota), which closed in 1997:
Clown College was a unique institution for several reasons. First, the method to apply to the school was an extensive written personality profile that gave the directors an opportunity to have an understanding of the applicant’s psychology, interests and previous experience. The circus also held in-person auditions at most stops along the route to drum up interest in the show and to get a range of people from all over the United States to apply.
Next, tuition was free (though students were responsible for their own room and board, as well as any other incidental expenses incurred), and a graduate from the school finished the term with a full “Agent Suit” or specific clown costume, including a wig and proper clown shoes and a complete make-up kit, as well as the training needed to be a good clown performer.
Each yearly session was held in the fall. The number of students admitted to any year’s session varied but it ranged from thirty to fifty, with the vast majority being men. The ratio of men to women in a Clown College class was roughly 8 to 1.
The Clown College session over the years ranged from approximately thirteen weeks down to ten and a half weeks before it was eventually scaled back to an eight-week course in its final years. Students would work together or “play off” each other 81⁄2 hours a day, six days a week preparing material for the “Big Show” (Clown College served as a think tank to create new gags for the circus) and learning all of the basics of clowning. Typical classes included make-up application, costume design, acrobatics, juggling, stilt walking, pantomime and other skills training. Films of classic performers like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and The Three Stooges, and the cartoon work of Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny were also studied.
The entire session was one long audition for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, as the instructors took note of which students had what they were looking for to fill the positions for the new season’s show, which began several weeks after the Clown College session ended. Chosen graduates received a one year contract to travel with “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which they were obliged to accept. (This was Ringling’s only stipulation for all students who agreed to receive the school’s free training, but was only added after several students declined job offers at the end of the session. The first person to do so, in 1974, was Bill Irwin.) Grads not selected to tour were often given opportunities to perform in other capacities within the Feld Organization, sometimes were added to the show’s clown alley at a later date, or became a member of any of a collection of other circuses that sought well-trained clowns for their shows.