No one wants to be the sad clown. But when Rik Gern, aka Austin children’s entertainer Bonzo Crunch, learned earlier this week that Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey would close in May after more than 100 years in business, the tears of a clown were indeed shed.
“I came back from the Austin Symphony on Saturday night and had my email and Facebook page flooded with the news,” Gern said. “I cried myself to sleep. It was devastating.”
Gern, 59, has a long history with Ringling Bros. He attended Clown College in 1992 and toured with the company’s Red Unit from 1993-1994. From 2005-2006 he returned as a Goodwill Ambassador, driving his, er, clown car to cities ahead of the show to promote it. He had continued to do contract work with the company for Texas events.
“It’s been a part of my life for a quarter of a century,” Gern said. “It’s not just a company that went under; it’s a whole community. It’s like a small town being wiped off the map, and that’s very hard to take.”
A lifelong fan of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy, Gern started his official quest to be a clown in 1978. In 1982 he attended Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California and developed the persona of Bonzo Crunch, “a cross between the Cowardly Lion and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky character.” There he met a “cosmic cowboy hippie” who invited him to New Braunfels to perform during the summer at Schlitterbahn, which he did for five seasons.
“When I was at Schlitterbahn we’d come to Austin to get food supplies and hear music,” Gern said. “After traveling with the circus and seeing 95 cities in two years, I still liked Austin the best. … You can march to your own beat.”
Life under the Big Top had its challenges, but Gern thrived.
“It was a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week dream,” he said. “The great thing about traveling in a show like that is that your only responsibility is to show up and do your job well. You can be immersed in the world of clowning. I’d be practicing my lasso, somebody else would be practicing their tumbling. It was just great.”
Gern, who plays the ukulele in his shows and enjoys making “digital doodles” in Photoshop at his South Austin (where else?) home in his downtime, admits that sometimes it’s tough to be a clown. The nationwide rash of creepy clown sightings last fall didn’t help.
“I have a pretty thick skin. I find Krusty the Clown funny, and I enjoyed the movie ‘Shakes the Clown’ quite a bit actually. But the recent wave was extremely malicious and I really resented it. It was people going out in real life and trying to scare actual children, and I find that contemptible,” he said, adding that he refuses any bookings in which scaring people is involved.
Gern, who now spends most of his time appearing at private events in the Austin area — learn more about him at bonzocrunch.com — said despite the setbacks, he’s making a point to stay positive and keep clowning around.
“After the initial shock of the show closing it made me realize the circus arts are still alive, clowning is still alive, but in different forms,” he said. “I’m very sad, but optimistic. People need to laugh, so there will always be clowns.”