A little old lady, wearing a baggy, red dress and white bloomers pulled over bulky, yellow socks, shuffles up the sidewalk with a tacky, fringed pocketbook slung over her shoulder. Her plans for the day don’t involve typical little-old-lady activities such as getting a permanent or mailing handwritten cards to her nieces and nephews — she’s headed to Gold’s Gym for an intense workout.
Ignoring strange looks from men in tank tops and spandex, she catches the employees off guard as she approaches them. They’re clearly not prepared for “Grandma,” who just so happens to be a man named Barry Lubin, an International Clown Hall of Fame inductee and star of New York’s Big Apple Circus. Lubin has spent the past few days making public appearances everywhere from Sarasota Memorial Hospital to G.WIZ — The Science Museum to promote Circus Sarasota’s “Grandma and Friends” show.
“In the beginning of my career, I chose no big red nose or shoes,” Lubin says. “From what I hear, kids love to step on big clown shoes, and they’re really expensive. Kids also go up and either squeeze the nose, causing internal bleeding, or they pull it back and slap it against your face. I just put red makeup on my nose.”
The first time Lubin tried his hand at makeup, it went terribly. His hand-eye coordination was awful, and it took an hour-and-a-half to put on his face. Eventually, practice did make perfect, and he got it down to three minutes flat.
“‘Grandma’ is a clown character based on me,” Lubin says. “I went the opposite of far-out drag. She’s subtle, small. You can be in the audience’s face and you’re going to get attention, but if you do less, they want to know more.”
Lubin purchased his grandma prototype 37 years ago from Goodwill and Salvation Army, after he graduated from clown college in Venice and was asked to join the Ringling Bros. Circus. His first thought was to be a little old man, which would have enabled him to flirt with women. But Arte Johnson was already doing that on a TV show called “Laugh In,” and he didn’t want to rip off the guy.
“I thought I’d do a little old lady,” Lubin said, “but a lot of the audience looked like grandma. People were pointing at me because I looked as if somebody had wandered out of the audience and onto the three rings.”
After nearly breaking a sweat lifting a 3-pound neon green weight, Grandma speeds off to invade a Zumba class. The hardcore women don’t miss a beat. Grandma, however, is attempting some slow ballroom dance moves, spilling water and fixing herself up in the mirror.
“As a clown, trying to create jokes — actual physical jokes that appeal to tiny children, senior citizens, people on a date — the challenge is to find something, a common thread that reaches all of those people,” Lubin says. “‘Grandma’ is a character doing things you wish you were up there doing.”
Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton
“When I was very young, my father would show these movies in a theater that he would rent in New Jersey, where I grew up. I would watch and absorb them, and it came in handy later when I went to college. After I would work all day killing myself, they would show these silent movies. So, I was able to take a nap, get every answer correct and get every intimate detail.”
“He was my mentor in clown college. He was a legend, but I didn’t know it because I don’t come from the circus and wasn’t even a circus fan. He came off the road to teach clown college, and in two seconds, earned the audience’s love and affection. He made you laugh, cry and feel so much in an incredibly short moment. He was a brilliant artist who knew more important to give away what he knew than to keep it for himself.”
Contact Loren Mayo at [email protected].