Bello Nock is a clown unto himself.
He’s an adrenaline junkie who lives on a 10-acre “funny farm” east of Interstate 75, where he’s stocked enough stunt equipment to break a few world records and, for that matter, a few bones.
He’s a family man with three kids and a wife of 24 years, whom he met when he was a red-haired, buck-toothed third-grader nailing tricks in his parents’ Wisconsin water ski show.
He’s the youngest of four sons born into a Sarasota circus family that booked long stints at theme parks during Nock’s youth to provide a sense of stability on the road.
Dressed in fitted jeans and a button-down shirt, the man dubbed “America’s Best Clown” by Time magazine looks less like a circus headliner and more like a downtown club-hopper.
He’s searching his laptop for an old photo of himself back in what he calls his “awkward days,” a comment that feels especially ironic given that his hair is (as usual) shellacked a foot in the air.
“Some people think if you put on a red wig, big shoes and a nose that you’re a clown,” Nock says. “Dressing like a clown doesn’t make you a clown. It makes you a sight gag.”
Nock is by no means bashing Bozo.
Many of his idols growing up wore white faces and red noses — Lou Jacobs and Emmett Kelly, for example. Some of his idols did not — Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball and Harold Lloyd, to name a few.
“Dressing like a clown will only get you so far,” Nock says. “People will give you about a minute-and-a-half of their attention, and then you’ve got to earn the rest.”
Other than the ’do and the fact that two miniature pigs have been rooting around his backyard, the situation feels surprisingly ordinary: A 42-year-old man in a tastefully decorated new-construction home browses his laptop computer.
When he finally finds the photo he was looking for, he lets out a little snort.
The picture is of a gaggle of bell-bottomed boys, all who seem to be laughing at a small kid in a ragtag clown costume and makeup.
“Can you guess which one is me?” Nock asks in earnest.
It’s 1974 and the 7-year-old clown in crooked makeup is seemingly oblivious to his older brothers’ reactions.
“They’re embarrassed of me,” he says. “I mean, look at me. What’s wrong with my eye? I obviously did my own makeup.”
He shuts the computer and excuses himself so he can feed his pigs. As he trails out of the kitchen, he says that one photo explains everything.
“All my life, all I’ve ever wanted was to be one thing,” Nock says. “To be the most-famous clown. The clown on the billboard.”
And he achieved it, thanks to cans of hairspray, a zoot suit and an arsenal of breathtaking stunts, all of which he designs and builds on his Sarasota property.
Touring the compound in a utility golf cart with Nock at the wheel is an adventure in itself.
In addition to designing his own spectacles, Nock runs two stunt companies that specialize in providing circus acts — Hair Raising Entertainment and Opportunity Nocks.
Bordered by a six-acre lake, the Nock property functions as a storage warehouse and fabrication plant for many of these stunts, as well as a training facility for Nock and his fellow performers.
A playground for daredevils, Nock’s gated “Funny Farm” includes a Wheel of Death, a flying trapeze rigged over water, a human cannon, an artificial ski jump, a collection of sway poles and a motocross track.
There are Jet skis and unicycles, trick bikes and scooters. There are indoor trapezes and outdoor trapezes, stackable chairs, aerial silks and a transparent snow globe that Nock built for his 15-year-old daughter, Annaliese, to perform in.
There’s a workout room, a music room and a Wall of Fame plastered with hundreds of posters, many of them advertising a Bello Nock production.
There’s so much to look at and so much to toy with, no wonder Nock says he has Attention Deficit Disorder.
“The question is always, ‘What’s next?’” Nock says. “By no means am I thinking about slowing down.”
Throughout much of the early 2000s, he was the headlining act for the Big Apple Circus in New York City or Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
During this time he racked up some of his most popular stunts, including repelling off the side of Madison Square Garden and circling the Statue of Liberty on a trapeze carried by a helicopter.
In 2009, to mark his return to the Big Apple Circus, he walked on a high wire over Lincoln Center, and last year, with more than 20,000 people watching, he jumped off a four-story building in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Yet, here he is — at home in Sarasota, in jeans and high hair, feeding a couple of porky pigs handfuls of Kibble.
“It’s funny,” Nock says. “If you asked most people what are the three things they fear most, they’d probably say heights, performing in front of a large crowd and being laughed at. My life consists of all three.”
IF YOU GO
Bello Nock will star in “Bello Manio” Feb. 10 through Feb. 26, at the Circus Sarasota Big Top. For tickets, call 355-9805 or visit circussarasta.org.
At 5-foot-7, Bello Nock is actually pretty small. His vertical mane adds another foot to his frame.
Nine times out of 10, if you ask the clown how he does his hair, he’ll tell you he puts Viagra in his shampoo.
In actuality, when he’s got a full schedule, he goes through about a can of hairspray a week. That rounds out to about 16 to 18 shows per can.
When Nock invented his look more than a decade ago, he used Rave hairspray. Now he uses a fancier product called Kenra, which retails for about $25 a bottle. Bozo had it easier. A wig is cheaper.
VIDEO: Bello Nock gives us a tour of his Sarasota funny farm.