The Greatest Clown on Earth

By staff December 1, 2001

Circus clown Bello Nock has been receiving lots of attention lately, both because of his starring role in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and because he was chosen the world's best clown by Time Magazine. But Sarasotans have followed the career of this native son, now 33, for a long time, ever since he began performing as a child with his family, The Nerveless Nocks. Bello is more than your seltzer-and-baggy-pants clown, however; his routines display an amazing physical ability, combining daredevil stunts with goofy gags. And then there's that hairdo.

Q. What was your first bit?

A. When I was three or four, my brother and my dad dressed me up as a clown for the Dumbo circus routine-the one where the house is on fire and the clowns are trying to put it out. I was the baby at the top of the house. We did it as a sort of surprise for my mom.

The next morning, everyone was busy and they didn't have time to get me ready for the matinee. So after the show that night, when they tried to take the makeup off, I said no. I went to bed with it on, and woke up the next morning with my face print on the pillow, because I didn't want to miss another show. And I've never missed a show since.

Q. So you just knew that's what you were going to do for the rest of your life?

A. I was born to it. My family started the family circus in 1840 in Switzerland, and our circus performance heritage goes back to 1772. It drives my wife crazy sometimes, because I'm always looking at things in terms of how it could be a routine. One day not long ago a bunch of us were sitting around talking about what was the most comfortable pair of shoes we owned. And I said my clown shoes were the most comfortable. My wife said, "It's not that. It's just that you're happy when you're in them."

Q. Did your father train you for the circus?

A. I give credit to him for the way he did it. He would do a handstand in such a fun way that naturally you wanted to learn how to do it. It was challenging, but it was also play time, and before I knew it, I could do a handstand.

I had a unicycle before I had a bicycle. I rode it to school. That was normal to me. Of course my father never said we had to do it. He just asked us to try it for 30 or 40 years. (laugh)

Q. How do you stay in such great physical shape?

A. I have three kids. That's it. Seriously, in the Ringling show I ride a motorcycle on a high-wire, I do the sway pole, I do these things three times a day on Saturday and Sunday. And I practice for hours every day. That's all I need.

I have the physical part down to a science, but I do it like a buffoon. You know, someone who walks on a high-wire has practiced it a long time and can do it blindfolded. With me, instead of making it so dramatic you can hear a pin drop, I look like I'll fall, and people relate to me like it's them up there. They see me more as a normal, ordinary human being.

Q. Growing up on the road, did you ever miss what people would consider a normal life?

A. No. My dad's idea was that we're going to try everything we can to keep normality. So even if our RV was parked maybe 20 feet from the circus elephants, we'd still go to the zoo when we got to a city, because that's what people do. I try to do this with my three kids as well. I'm living my lifelong dream, but I want to make sure they don't hate it. When I was a kid I remember we spent six months in Germany, three years at Disney World, 25 summers in the Wisconsin Dells-I met my wife there, in third grade! That gave us some stability.

Q. How did you develop your look?

A. American clowns usually wear more of a mask. But the way I do my makeup, there's not a mask between me and my audiences. With or without makeup, I'm the same person.

Q: How about the hair?

A. When I was 14, I got a crew cut. We were doing a water circus and were in the water a lot, so my hair was a mess. Well, a crew cut works good-unless you're a fair-skinned, natural redhead. I burned the top of my head, and it was very painful. So I l let it grow out. I've got eight inches there now, with some assistance in hair products. I say I use a mixture of Rogaine and Viagra. (laugh)

Q. Who are some of the clowns who have influenced you?

A. Charlie Chaplin was a big influence, how he looked at comedy sometimes in a romantic way, sometimes with a "gotcha" approach. And he never stopped calling himself a clown after he got famous. With a lot of people, once you make it, you're a "comedian."

Buster Keaton, because he was very physical. And my uncle, Pio Nock, was a clown. I watched him a lot when I was young.

My dad never worked as a clown, but he had such a deadpan way of telling a joke it took a while for people to get his jokes. Sometimes the laugh in a show is a "boom," sometimes it's what we call the grenade laugh-it hits three days later.

And I get 90 percent of my comedy from kids all over the world. I have a trampoline, a unicycle, a foot-high portable low-wire, juggling props and stuff like that, so kids are always coming around and asking if they can play with them. I have to watch them carefully-but I do it with a notepad. Because they're so natural. Most of my comedy comes out of things that look like an accident.

Q. How did you come to work with Bo the elephant?

A. When I was coming to Ringling, I didn't want to copy something they already had. Kenneth Feld asked, "How about a partner?" I said no. With me, I know I'm going on with a cold, a broken leg, a ruptured spleen. I look at my show like going to the Olympics; I've got to win the gold medal of the audiences' hearts. And I wasn't sure anybody else could match that intensity.

But he looked at me and said, "Bo?" And I had to say, "Wow, you're good." Because working with Bo gives me a great prop, and it gives Bo a great prop. You know, they call Bo the smartest elephant in the world. He does power tricks, like handstands and walking on the rolling tub, but he also does silly tricks, like playing a trumpet.

When we did "Monday Night Football" in Tampa Stadium, the halftime show, we thought, well, Bo can kick and throw a football, so we'll do that. We had to get this ball about three feet long to work it, but by the time the shop made it and we got it, we didn't have time to practice. So the elephant steps back, I back way up like you don't believe, because I know how far he can kick a normal football. He kicks-and the ball goes maybe six inches. The crowd roars.

I called Larry, his trainer, over, and said, "Let's do it one more time." So this time I moved way in, and of course he kicked it so hard it knocked me down. The audience loved it, and none of that was planned.

Another time with Bo-my hair usually sticks straight up. Well, after practicing 12 hours a day, it was starting to flop a little. I'm sitting there hugging Bo, his trunk's around me like a snake, and the cast of 160 people turns to look at us. I give a sigh, Bo gives a sigh-and blows my hair perfectly back into place. Everyone just died laughing. And somebody like Kenneth Feld, you figure he's seen it all. If you can make him laugh, it's great.

Q. When you're not traveling, Sarasota is still home?

A. Oh, yeah. We travel so much, to us a vacation is just staying home. And in Sarasota the climate is great; you can practice and paint scenery year-round, go to the beach without having to pack a bag. There are always good shows to see, great restaurants. And there's that circus heritage. It's like a family, even if it's not all blood family. I don't think anyone loves Sarasota as much as circus people. They can't wait to come home.

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