It is easier to get into Harvard than it was to get into Clown College in 1977. (Located in Venice from 1968 to about 1997, Clown College was the creation of Irvin Feld, president of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.)
For the Clown College Class of 1977, there were 5,000 applicants. Fifty were admitted.
One of them was Chuck Sidlow, a 17-year-old from Philadelphia, son of a produce dealer. He was going to an art school, but destiny and the encouragement of some professional wrestlers among others would lead him in another direction.
Sidlow’s high school English teacher signed him up for an audition for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College happening in Philadelphia. Although he had been the class clown in high school, he had never been to a circus nor had he ever seen a clown. Despite not knowing what to expect nor what would be expected of him, he headed off to the audition.
He was and is funny and caring, and thanks to his professional wrestler friends, he even knew how to fall without getting hurt. He had some art talent and, possibly his biggest key to success, he had a work ethic that did not quit.
“Chucko” was one of the 50 of those 5,000 who made it to Venice in the Clown College Class of 1977. On a roll, at graduation, he then was one of the eight given a contract to join the Greatest Show on Earth. Within a few more years he became the youngest Boss Clown in the Ringling Circus and then a teacher at Clown College. Clowning has taken him around the world, including to Japan where he met his wife Noriko. He returned to the Sarasota area in 1998 to “create and develop the Humor Therapy Program and help build Circus Sarasota (now The Circus Arts Conservatory.)” This is from the Circus Arts Conservatory website.
Recognized as “The Youngest Boss Clown in the History of the Circus,” and featured at The Ringling Museum of Art and Circus in an interactive exhibit, Chuck is known fondly throughout the community as a recognizable figure in the circus arts.
Back in Venice where his career began, he continues to clown around, but with many new and different fans.
Last Thursday, “Chucko” was entertaining residents of Luke Haven at Village on the Isle in Venice. The audience was diverse. A few, but not all, are there for memory care.
Sidlow started by singing “Sunny Side of the Street” while Noriko played the piano. He spotted a latecomer in the doorway. She was dancing to the music and singing along with him. Without missing a beat, he made his way back to her.
As the song ended, Sidlow told those in his audience that he was there to share the “history, mystery, magic, music and memories of his career in circus,” so much of it right here in Venice.
“I always start with a jingle from an old radio show,” he said, referring to the old musical “jingles” used as commercials in the early radio days. He chose the old Halo shampoo, which has changed to “Hello everybody, hello.”
“Forty-two years ago, I was 17. I came here as a student at Clown College, which was right over there (he pointed in the direction of the old Venice Circus Arena to the east of Village on the Isle. (It was torn down by the city in 2014.)
He spoke of the Ringling clowns he met that first year, ranging in age from 28 to 77.
“It was easy for me,” he said. “I was taught respect as a child.” Most in the audience could relate to that.
He had set the stage. He picked up his small wheel-aboard piece of luggage and put it on the table.
The magic was about to begin. While he had arrived in a clown costume of sorts, he was not wearing his makeup.
As he talked about how the makeup is applied and why, he took all of us along with him back stage into Clown Alley where circus clowns prepared for the show, dressing and applying the makeup that would magically transform their characters in such a way that they would stand out even in a giant arena with wide eyes, mouth and a large red nose, plus a wig and layered clothing that began with the giant shoes clowns wear.
Next came a large pair of red polka dot bloomers, a red-and-white-striped shirt, baggy white pants, a special tie, colorful jacket and finally, the special makeup which is lightly powdered at the end to keep the oily finish in place.
“We hate to say ‘goodbye,’” Chucko said with a nod to another famous clown, Red Skelton. “We wish you love and happiness in everything you do.
“May God bless you until we meet again.”
As he went into the audience to shake hands, one of the residents, Pat Sapiano, told him how much she learned from his talk and how much she enjoyed the program. She was not alone.
Fortunately for the residents, he will return for another program in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, today, June 12, he is appearing at the Gulf Gate Library from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. in a special event for children from 4 to 11 in Meeting Room AB. The library is at 7112 Curtiss Ave., Sarasota.