Everyone loves to clown around once in a while. Some do it better than others. Some do it well enough to make a living. Russell Brown has been doing just that—clowning around for a living for about the last 12 years. His reason for becoming a professional clown has to do with his concern for the proper molding of children’s minds. It all started a while back, when Brown and his wife took in a few foster children. Most of them had lived tragic lives, had lost their parents or were abandoned.
“That,” Russell declares, “taught me that children need something to laugh at.”
According to Russell, clowning is different and it’s rewarding. It gives a message and it’s entertaining—not many things have a message and are entertaining. Russell can’t very well answer how to get started as a clown because he himself didn’t quite know when he had set out to make it a life’s goal. Actually, he first donned a clown suit while volunteering as a Cub Scout leader in California. When we would try to find entertainment for our parties and award ceremonies, the top entertainers — the white clowns—wouldn’t come. “So to fulfill my kids needs, I ended up doing it myself.”
His scouts egged him on to audition for a well-known circus. He was told that black clowns weren’t funny. “That struck me as being so odd. Here we’re supposed to be one of the funniest people in the world, but we weren’t funny professionally. And I said, something’s wrong there. How come there aren’t any black clowns? So I began to do a lot of research. The ones I found were Moms Mabley, Pigmeat, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson – they’re considered clowns. But they’re not children’s clowns. In other words, what do black boys and girls have to make them laugh. Batman, Superman, the Three Stooges? Nothing for the little kids three to six years old.”
Russell pressed on. While researching the business of clowning around, he bumped into an organization called the Clowns of America, a trade union with over 1,000 clown members. Brown became the first black to be admitted to the organization, whose president at the time was Red Skelton.
Soon after, he also met Count Popo, one of the oldest and most popular clowns on the West Coast.
On the West Coast, Russell says, there were plenty of professional clowns, like Howdy Doody, Bozo, but none of them were black.
Russell asked Count Popo where he learned the tricks of the trade. He told me that as a kid he used to watch Burt Williams. Burt was a black clown, but he was a minstrel and wore white-face. But here, a white clown copied off of him, he notes with a touch of irony.
Russell has won several awards for his escapades. He took first prize in an international clown contest at the Puerto Rico Clown Festival. He has appeared in several films, including Cotton Comes To Harlem, Across 110th Street, and Shaft’s Big Score. He has also written and directed several plays.
Russell has since retired from circus life and has returned to the East Coast where he entertains children at birthday parties. When he moved east to entertain kids, he recalls, “I’d come to their home in Bed-Stuy, and they could laugh in their own homes. Of course, it didn’t pay off, because most were poor. So a lot of times I’d go in for free.”
His entertainment is quite different from the standard circus clowning. When he goes to entertain children, he brings with him a message. In his favorite learning trick, he uses a small piece of green paper which he tells everyone is the symbol of money, If they want to get rich, they will have to go to work. He then puts the paper in his mouth and out comes 12 feet of multi-colored paper, which means, “Whatever you say, let beautiful words come out.”
Russell Brown still entertains for private parties and children’s programs. He can be contacted at (212) 924-5451 or (212) 272-1322.