Interviewing Flip the Clown

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While sorting through a basket filled with my old notebooks, I ran across a questionnaire from my school years. Though I couldn’t find a mention of which grade I was in when this was completed, a good guess is that I would have been about 12 or 13 years old.

Asked to rank future professions on my wish list, I aimed big. Astronaut, doctor, teacher were all circled without hesitation, because, why not?

But in paragraph form, this is what I had written as my future goals. “My best job would be to talk to people who have really cool jobs and have them tell me all about their life. I would write it all down and then write stories about all that they tell me. That would be the best thing I could ever think of doing.” The thought of my own byline on top of this fun was a dream beyond imagining.

I was born for storytelling. The best way to learn to be a storyteller is to love to listen. I’m not sure how old I was when I first started taking notes, but I do know that I began keeping a journal when I was in grade school. My mother, who kept a journal and loved to write long and newsy letters to friends and relatives, encouraged my fascination with the written word.

Memorable story

One of my first and most memorable stories was published in our local newspaper when I was in my first year of high school. The notes for that interview were in the same basket as the school questionnaire.

I interviewed a woman who had been turned down repeatedly by Ringling Brothers’ clown college. Finally, in 1970, she was accepted. She was interviewed by Barbara Walters and appeared on the Mike Douglas show after becoming Ringling’s first woman clown.

Having been a creative child, Maudie Bayless took jobs as a Good Humor ice cream lady, car hop, switchboard operator. She described being drawn to circus life. She saw herself as living a split personality of sorts as an adult. She was one part responsible parent, the other a circus clown traveling 15,000 miles a year.

She had met her husband, a tiger groomer and trainer, and they decided to settle down and have a baby. When their daughter was only 7 months old, he died of cancer. She had no idea how to go on. “But, the first time the circus came to town, I said to my mom and my little girl, ‘let’s go!'”

She described the pay as good, considering having no bills. Meals and gas are provided on the road, and working 7 days a week suits her fine “because it never feels like work.”

Typical mom

As we talked, I recall she seemed the typical mom. But when 4:30 showtime drew closer, Mrs. Bayless became Flip the Clown. The transformation was spellbinding. In full clown makeup, purple hair and big green shoes, this creature seemed miles away from the human form. She had outlasted many performers who lacked her ability to transform into the magical.

Driving her own trailer which doubled as a home, the days kicked off at 5 a.m. when the crew packed up and moved on to the next booking. When the school year rolled around, Flip’s 11-year-old daughter was sent to Irving, Texas, to live with her aunt, while her mother and grandmother remained on the road until the 4-month winter shutdown. They would reunite in Texas.

This spunky clown told me she had no desire to quit clowning. “You watch those kids light up and it’s all worth it. I hope to still be doing this 10, 20, 30 years from now. Sink roots and live just to pay bills? No thanks.”

The story of a determined woman clown may have been my first written account shared with others. I knew in my bones it would not be my last. Not if I had an ounce of the same pluck that Flip the Clown carried.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.

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