Peggy Williams, 72, spent a decade performing for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a clown, and another decade working on the circus’s administration side. She was among the first class of women to graduate from the circus clown college at its winter garden quarters in Venice.
“This was the Greatest Show on Earth,” she says. “Performers were at the top of their game and in the pursuit of excellence.”
Her family was surprised by her career choice following her graduation from college in speech pathology, specializing in deaf studies. “Young ladies became librarians, a nurse or a teacher,” Williams says. “Becoming a clown was way off the charts.”
Williams was not a born performer and, surprisingly, the inspiration to join the circus came in the form of a short article about a casting call in Parade magazine in 1970. Weary of the social unrest happening all over the country—this was the time of Kent State University protest shootings and violent protesting at her school, the University of Wisconsin—Williams answered the ad and became part of the first group of women to enter “clown college” in Venice.
“On the first day, we sat on the ring curve, and when it was our turn, we got up in the middle of the ring to say why we wanted to be a clown,” Williams remembers. “I said I wanted world peace.”
Williams averaged 500 shows a year, each three hours long with 13 costume changes. She learned how to juggle, unicycle, perfect flops and falls, pantomime and walk in extremely large roller skates.
She was mentored under one of the most famous clowns in the circus, Lou Jacobs, known for his signature clown car and red rubber nose. Backstage before his act went on, Jacobs would give Williams important lessons on timing and spatial relations. It was a thrill for the young clown. “I loved those backstage moments more than anything,” she says.
Her time as a clown for The Greatest Show on Earth opened her up to other rich experiences, as well. As one of the first female clowns, she appeared on “The Carol Burnett Show” and the game shows “What’s My Line?” and “To Tell the Truth.”
It also broadened her cultural experiences, since the circus was a melting pot of talent, including performers from Romania and Poland.
Williams remembers fondly her time out of the ring—riding her bicycle around the towns where the circus was performing, camping out in parks, and especially her time on the circus train, where she lived for the better part of 27 years, first as a clown and later as a production manager for the circus.
On the 60-car, mile-long train, animal tamers stayed with their animals. The single ladies, whether contortionists, wardrobe assistants, or clowns, stayed in the same car. “There is no better way to see America mile-by-mile,” Williams recalls. “I loved the vestibule between trains because you could feel the outside.”
Today, she continues her love of the circus as an archive assistant at The Ringling. One of the most important lessons she learned in the ring, she says, seems appropriate outside it as well.
“Don’t take worries into the show,” she says. “Do it with joy.”
The Circus Arts Conservatory and The Ringling are presenting the Summer Circus Spectacular, featuring circus acts from around the world, at the Historic Asolo Theater at The Ringling (5401 Bay Shore Road), 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturdays.