Bill Ballantine (1910 – 1999)
Born in 1910 in Millvale, Pennsylvania, Ballantine was introduced to circuses by his father, a member of the Mystic Shrine and once mayor of their home town. Mixing sawdust and grease paint with the sparkling tarnish of the music hall next door to his childhood home, Ballantine developed a lifelong hunger for show business.
After graduating from high school, Ballantine found work in sign shop, painting posters for local movie houses, and after several years, began attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, beginning his long career as an artist/illustrator and later writer. He traveled with Ringling Bros Circus during the 1946 season and then, finally, in 1947, he decided to bid a temporary farewell to the workaday world of publishing and run away to the circus.
He ‘joined out’ as a clown with the biggest of all big tops, Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus. From 1969 through 1977, Ballantine served as dean of the Clown College, a school that offered the secrets of humor and comedy, and demanded much from its students, yet gave even more. A former student, NPR’s Murray Horwitz, noted in 1999 after Ballantine’s death, “I remember a time 30 years ago when American circus clowning had fallen on hard times and Bill Ballantine came to the rescue.”
Dozens of his students worked on the Ringling show, but hundreds more took their skills to the theatre, to mud shows and to the streets.
Bill Ballantine died of Alzheimer’s disease on May 14, 1999. His eldest son, Toby followed in his father’s footsteps and came to be recognized as a well-known clown and performer of magic. His eldest daughter, Bridget, once sparkled above the ring on a single trapeze. She is now retired.
Bill Ballantine was inducted into the 2001 Clown Hall of Fame.