(Editor’s note: I was fortunate enough to interview Jeff McMullen, former Ringling Brothers clown, clown instructor and motivational speaker, in between performances during the summer of 2004 at my local library)
Clown Ministry: How long were you with Ringling Brothers (Circus)?
Jeff McMullen: I was with them not only as a touring clown for a year, then I left the show and did special events for them and then in ‘89 I went back, that was in ‘83 – I did special events in ‘82, ‘83, ‘84, went back in ‘89 as one of five American clowns to set up the Clown College in Tokyo. So that was my tenure with the Ringlings. Still got a great relationship with the home office. They’ve been wonderful to me, and opened up the doors and whatever I need they allow me information, research, access, which is huge in our industry.
Clown Ministry: Now you clowned as Ronald McDonald for a while, right?
Jeff McMullen: Yeah, I did that for five years, Arizona, Southern California, ‘83 to ‘87, boy, that was fun. The littlest Ronald McDonald they’ve ever had—shortest I should say. And I think the thing, Tom, that probably stands out the most about my relationship with McDonald’s is really two things. One is, they didn’t tell me how to clown, and I didn’t tell them how to make hamburgers. They knew that, they appreciated the fact that I understood what I was doing and the importance of the character, not just to the kids but to the industry, to the McDonald corporation. But the second thing that it really allowed me to do was, the first few years I was with them I was doing three to four hundred appearances a year. Just to get that much professional stage time was just a huge asset. In between, off and on, in between McDonald’s and Ringling, I’ve really just led my personal career as a modern vaudevillian, put grease paint on a little bit once in a while, not too often, doing fairs, festivals, state fairs, conventions, trade shows, resorts, different things. And then during the summer months I do my library tour. I’ll do about 48 libraries this summer, which is a lot—it’s more than I’ve done in the past, but there’s a real tight niche between this year’s theme of “Laugh It Up” and the product that I have to offer, so it’s a good tight fit. The libraries are so important, as clowns I would highly encourage any clown to make sure they’re involved with their library system. Number one, it’s great Monday through Friday work, which is somewhat difficult at times for us. The other thing that it offers us is most of the programs are indoors, and during the summer months even here in central Wisconsin it gets warm out there. So it’s a nice, controlled environment, the kids are supervised and at the other end of that spectrum, libraries are important for us as entertainers to stay involved with ‘cause it’s really the last venue that kids can come to for free, and experience face to face entertainment, or an entertainer. They don’t get that at the movie house. I mean yeah, they go and they laugh at the movies in the theater, but how do you interact? They don’t get it in schools any more because of budget cuts. Oh, they might get a Lyceum program or whatever they’re calling them these days, once in a while from the fire department or the police department, but certainly not from people like yourself and I, that engage that. It’s important. It’s important, otherwise they’re not going to know what to do.
Clown Ministry: Why don’t you talk a little bit about how you got into clowning?
Jeff McMullen: Boy, that goes way back. I knew from probably when I was five years old it’s what I wanted to do. It’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve never had a “real” job, per se. I guess I should say a “conventional” style job. I’ve always danced outside that box of conventionality. So, really from about age five I had an interest, and when I was in Boy Scouts, I was working on my Eagle project, and I thought, “You know, that would be kind of cool to do, maybe I could do some clowning in the hospitals.” So I started clowning for my service project for my Eagle award, and just really kept going from there, doing hospitals and then did parades and then birthday parties, did that beginning track process. And you know, it’s kind of funny, when I look back now, almost 30 years, what am I doing? I’m doing hospitals, libraries, and parades! (laughter) Kind of went full circle in that gamut. When I graduated from high school I went right into Clown College, right out of Clown College onto the road, came off the road, went to the university, got my degree in Mass Communications, the year I graduated McDonald’s picked me up, spent five years doing that, left McDonald’s after five years, moved back here to Wisconsin, got my Master’s degree in Speech Communications, after I graduated I got hired, flew to Tokyo, helped set up that Clown College with Ringling, did that for a year, came back, re-established myself as an entertainer in the marketplace, received an invitation to the White House to do a program for President Bush, George Bush and Barbara, which was just a thrill, to be there. Did that program, came back, went back over to Japan in ‘91 with my own show, and played at an amusement park, headlined at an amusement park for a year, and then came back and started a motivational speaking company. I talk about the value of humor in the workplace, and I guess really what I saw when I left the country, when I came back all of my friends had changed. And not for the good. They suddenly started to grumble, all of a sudden they didn’t have time, they were always hurried, they were rushed, they were mumbling about this and grumbling about that, and I look at them, and I’m not saying they didn’t grow up – we all mature, but psychologically they became very hard and they forgot about that wonderment of life, of celebrating, of getting up each day and just trying to do good and making other people laugh and improve the quality of their day, which is at the very essence of what a clown always does. So I left the traditional grease paint world of clowning and went into the corporate world; I wouldn’t be accepted with a rubber nose and grease paint in that environment, so I put on the coat and tie and still talk about the same essence and values of clowning so instead now doing it, I talk about the value of it in one’s life, and finding that life balance and focus, and it’s been a fun 12 years now doing that. When summer comes that industry really stops. Speaking, I’ll do about 100 keynotes a year throughout corporate America. The summer months I like to stay home a little bit more, be with my kids. I’ve got a 10 year old boy and a 5 year old daughter, they like to see Dad, so I try to stay home a little bit more. Now when I was going back to graduate school, the Wisconsin Library System said “whatever we can do to keep you employed in the art, we will do that while you put yourself through school.” I’m just a real firm believer, Tom, that you take care of those people who take care of you. I couldn’t do today if it wasn’t for McDonald’s, I still go to McDonald’s. If I were given a choice between any fast food restaurant I’ll still go there. Is it because I enjoy the food better than I do anybody else? No. Why? Because they took care of me when I needed that. I still help clowns on the Ringling show. I’ve got friends on the show now that I helped in the craft and get their skill level up. I can’t say I put them on the show, they did that themselves, but I helped train ‘em and get ‘em ready. So Ringling, I’m indebted to them, I’m indebted to McDonald’s, I’m indebted to the Wisconsin Library System, they all helped me build my career and allow me to do what I do and provide an income for my family.
Clown Ministry: Now you said you came back to Wisconsin. Are you from Appleton?
Jeff McMullen: Yes. Born and raised here. And while I was growing up I was saying, “Dad, why do you stay here? There’s nothing here! Why are you here?” And then I left. And lived in a circus train, and lived in Phoenix, and L.A. and New York, and then I realized when my wife Debbie and I, we’ve been now married almost 20 years, I realized Nothing is the attraction! (laughs) I think it’s like gardening—you kind of grow into it. You don’t understand it as a kid, but as you get older, you go “Aaah,” you kind of take that neon “Stupid” sign off of Dad’s forehead and say, “Genius,” you know. Right now Keegan is entering that. Do you have children?
Tom: I have 5.
Jeff McMullen: 5, congratulations. (Jeff then pretends to do an ‘arabic bow’, saying “I’m not worthy”)—laughter. Boy, you know I spent 20 years in the kid business before we had our own children, and I thought I knew what it was like to entertain kids, or to raise kids—didn’t have a clue. Not a stinkin’ clue.
Clown Ministry: Reality rears its’ ugly head.
Jeff McMullen: Man. So, Keegan’s at that point now where he’s starting to challenge a little bit, and you just look at him and go “Dahh!” (slapping his forehead with the palm of his hand, followed by laughter) “But Dad, I don’t want to learn from your mistakes, I want to learn from my own!” (laughter)
Clown Ministry: Remember, “we must learn from the mistakes of others, we can’t live long enough to commit them all yourself.”
Jeff McMullen: That’s right. Anything more technical? I want to give you want you want, what you’re asking for.
Clown Ministry: I’m not sure myself :o) I’ve got a question for you. As part of this, I generate a little weekly newsletter for this, I’ve got about 1,000 clowns subscribed.
Jeff McMullen: That’s cool.
Clown Ministry: And one thing I’ve been doing on it, I get questions on everything under the sun. And I don’t profess to know it all, because I don’t. I clown 4,5,6 times a month maybe. Primarily church things, or birthday parties for kids. And to this point, it’s been fine and lovely. Somebody sent me an e-mail with the question, “OK, I want to know how do I actually get started doing this as a business?” And my basic response was, “I’m the wrong person to ask.” There’s a couple of good books I can recommend, like Birthday Party Business and Handbook for the Magical Party Clown.
Jeff McMullen: It’s funny that you mention that. I just came out with a beta version this year of, I’ve been teaching a program called Business Fun-damentals, I’ve taught it at camp a number of times, and at World Clown, and everybody always asks, “How do we set up a business plan? How do we figure out how to attack a marketplace?” So I created a CD version of this program, and it’s goal setting, it talks about how to figure out what you want to do, and it’s a movie, where you put it in, it’s got a printable workbook with it …
Jeff McMullen: When I look back, all of my friends are clowns. Do you know Earl Chaney?
Clown Ministry: Not personally.
Jeff McMullen: Earl actually got me in with McDonald’s. He introduced me to Leon, Leon and I go way back, Jim Howle and I talk probably twice a week, he hates it. “What do you want now?” “Nothing, I’m just calling to see how you’re doing.” He hates talking on the phone, so I just call and babble about nothing. “Are you done now?” “Yeah.” “Okay, bye!” Grumpy old man.
Clown Ministry: You’ve got to love Jim. Oh, yes. He was my favorite part of Clown Camp.
Jeff McMullen: He’s a good man. He’s got a good heart. … I’ll send you a copy of that; it’s probably going to be next week, Tom. Right now we’re selling, literally, my house is in boxes. We’re transitioning to a new house, and I didn’t realize how many boxes of clown stuff I have.
Clown Ministry: There’s always E-bay.
Jeff McMullen: Yeah, but most of it isn’t even stuff I’d want to sell. Most of it is just junk, just boxes.
Clown Ministry: Donate it to Clown College for their auction.
Jeff McMullen: Yeah, yeah, you go to like K-Mart after Hallowe’en, and I bought, they had these little felt clown masks, OK, the kind you put over your eyes to go to sleep with, but they had little clown noses, I thought “those are cute,” someday I might use this in like a plate spinning act and put one on all the kids or whatever—that’d be cute. Yeah, that’d be cute, but I don’t need 60 of ‘em! (laughs) So I got a case of those, and bubbles, well you never have enough bubble juice, so 3 cases of bubbles—you don’t need this stuff. And old costumes, and wardrobe.
Clown Ministry: Let me riddle you with 2 other questions. We were talking about David Ginn’s (website). Do you have a website?
Jeff McMullen: Not for clowning, just for the speaking business. I’m starting one. I’ve learned not to put it out until it’s ready. And, on the other extreme of that, you’ve got to put it out, ‘cause it’s never going to be ready!
Clown Ministry: I know the feeling. My little website has been up for going on 7 years now, finally moved it to its’ own domain about 3 years ago, it’s undergone at least 3 major changes and I’m in the middle of doing the 4th.
Jeff McMullen: They’re like kids, I mean they continue to grow and they make, you know, like my speaking one I’d change only every 14 to 16 months, okay? I mean I update little things, but I mean do a graphic (interface update) over a year. Takes me a long time to figure out what the next step is with it, as I’m sure you get. I get email every week from somebody, “How come your website hasn’t changed?” “When are you going to update?” (laughs) Soon. But this is a, you’ve got a great community here. Have you lived here your whole life?
Clown Ministry: Turning this back onto you, who were some of your inspirations?
Jeff McMullen: Probably the greatest influence on my life was Otto Griebling. I never had a chance to meet Otto, I just have kind of lived a relationship vicariously through stories that my friends have shared. But I’ve had great, the year I was on the Ringling show I got to work with Frosty, I was Prince Paul’s last partner before we took him off the show. I guess that’s probably the one thing that’s very meaningful to me. He had a pacemaker put in the year before I came on the show, not uncommon in little people, and unfortunately it affected his mind, and he started to wander, mentally. So we felt it was best to make a recommendation to his family that they take him off the show. He died shortly thereafter. Sandor and Elizabeth taught me, I became good friends with Sandor, Elizabeth was much more shy and reserved, but Sandor taught me an awful lot about just overcoming things and accepting things. We used to sit and talk well into the early hours in the vestibule of the train as it was going through … that was another thing about the circus that was pretty exciting to me and impacts me a lot even today is, we’d be sitting the vestibule between the cars, riding, and you’d come through a little town, like even smaller than Wausau, at 5 or 4 in the morning, and at every intersection people would be lined up to see the circus train ride through the town, and I realized, Tom, as I was looking out watching, going “What in the world are you doing? It’s 5 o’clock in the morning! You’re supposed to be at home asleep!” What I realized is that I was living every one of their dreams. I was doing that they said, “Someday I hope I can,” or “I should have when I had the chance.” And every time I would do a show I would think about the fact that I’m living everybody else’s dream. And that’s why it’s so important to me to do a good job. And I think that was one of the neatest lessons I learned, or philosophical things I learned about myself, how fortunate I was to have that opportunity, and to be able to do it.
Clown Ministry: Thank you for all your time.
Jeff McMullen: You’re very welcome.