July 27, 2006
Dan Berkley always carries two noses. "I always try to have a spare," he says. "Particularly in a pie fight, it can come off. Doing anything, you're gonna lose a nose."
Berkley knows noses. He's a clown in town with the Ringling Bros. When we met, he'd just jumped off the circus train from Fresno. Applying his makeup off Clown Alley backstage at Staples Center, Berkley explained how a nice boy from "the last exit off the Garden State Parkway" ran away with the Barnum and Bailey and the whole mishagoss.
He didn't. First he got a degree in physics from a college in Maine. Then he fooled around with Circus Smirkus in Vermont and the Pickle Players in the Bay Area, developing a scientist character along the way. Did I mention he's smart? Now, at 25, he's an entertainer in "The Greatest Show on Earth!" (Take that Mandy Patinkin.)
Some of my best friends are clowns. I know that sounds like a line, but it's true. Jewish clowns, too. Back East, there's Dr. Meatloaf and Dr. Noodle (aka Stephen Ringold and Ilene Weiss). They're in the CCU, the "Clown Care Unit" of the Big Apple Circus. Like badchens (Yiddish for clown) for the broken up, they play hospitals instead of weddings.
Here, Berkley takes a header into a pie with 15 other clown pals when an elephant walks into his diner. In a "Smashcar" pit-stop sketch, he reaches the heights -- depths? -- of pratfalling. Yet, his zany behavior onstage in front of thousands of ooh-ing and ahh-ing children contradicts a yeshiva bocher-level interest Berkley has in his art off-stage.
Berkley knows the difference between a badchen and a kachina (a Hopi clown). He learned some of his craft at the funny feet of the wonderful messugenah clown Avner "the Eccentric" Eisenberg. Avner lives off the coast of Maine and is, if not a ba'al teshuvah then not a bad Baal Shem Tov, using humor as a healing tool for the heart and breath. Berkley learned from Avner (and Bill Irwin and other mentors) that clowning "is an evolutionary art."
"You're always trying to come up with something new," he says. "Of course, there are no new ideas. There's your take on it."
Clowning has deep Jewish storytelling roots -- notably the cartoon faith of Krusty the Clown on "The Simpsons." His real name is Herschel Krustofski, and his father, voiced by Jackie Mason, was a rabbi. Berkley remembers a line from the Talmud that Bart Simpson quotes in one episode: "Who shall bring redemption if not the jesters?"
Nicole Feld, circus co-producer with her father, Kenneth Feld, hopes such wisdom is prophetic. Her grandfather, Irvin Feld, first moved the venerable show from tent to arena. This is their 136th year and Feld, 28, wouldn't say whether Berkley is her favorite clown -- "That's like asking me if I love my mom or my dad more!"
"He brought his college background and his interests in physics to his character," Feld says. "Dan's great because he can talk to kids about all kinds of stuff and helps us place the value on education."
Dan starts by putting on his eyes (white, red, black). He can complete his face in 15 minutes. The latex nose goes on with skin adhesive.
"In the medical industry they use it for colostomy bags and stuff like that," he says. "It works well. You really don't wanna lose a nose. Guys that are prone to losing their nose, will paint their own nose red so worst-case scenario, they still have a nose. The nose within. The inner nose." Berkley steps away and powders.
"We powder our makeup to set it, keep it from smudging," he explains. "I bump into somebody, I don't want to leave my face on their costume." He tops off with a two-toned yak wig reminiscent of Sam Jaffee as Dr. Zorba on TV's "Ben Casey."
"I use yak hair because it's tougher," he says, too young for the reference. "It takes a beating. We beat up everything we use."
Did you know clowns wear two pairs of boxers? For the final touch, Berkley pokes a tiny black clown dot into his dimpled chin. In floppy two-toned custom-made shoes, he's ready to meander out -- lime-green smock over orange shirt with dark bow tie, green-and-black plaid pants held up by red suspenders -- for his pre-show "all access" visit with the early-arriving audience. He has been buffooning since 3 a.m., when he did a Univision appearance (Latino audiences are Ringling's bread and butter in Los Angeles).
Berkley likes the Wavy Gravy line: "A clown is a poet who is also an orangutan." "There are a lot of contradictions in clowning," Berkley says. "There are no rules. It's one of those arts where you can do anything. You're limited by what you can get your hands on sometimes and how much time you have to work on it. In Staples, I ran into some Israelis I knew. Not to get all "Up With Laughter" about it, but they said Israel could sure use a circus. Leytzan, they told me, is the word for clown in Hebrew. Dan Berkley is very leytzan.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is currently in Anaheim, through Aug. 6. For ticket information, visit see www.ringling.com/schedule/.
Hank Rosenfeld learned in a Ringling Brothers audition "ya gotta have a heart as big as Alaska" to reach the top row.
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