His big moment came when Bello Nock, the vertically coiffed star of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, walked by between acts. As the Klutz family whipped out their cameras, the clown patted the boy on the head. ''Nice hair, dude,'' Nock said.
To boost the bottom line, circuses are turning to a new marketing tool: the celebrity clown. Under pressure from animal-rights groups and higher costs of maintaining large beasts, and facing competition from live-action shows based on cartoon characters, the $1.8 billion industry is trying to transform these once-nameless sideline acts into major brands. Multimillion-dollar ad campaigns are focused on clowns like Nock and ''Grandma,'' of New York's Big Apple Circus.
In five years Nock's pay package has doubled, to $600,000, while his staff has grown to include a personal assistant and a driver for his 78-foot custom RV. (Other clowns are assigned 4-by-6-foot bunks in a mile-long circus train.) ''Grandma,'' aka Barry Lubin, gets 5 percent of the pre-tax gross of Grandma souvenirs such as $15 rag dolls. David Larible, headliner of one of three Ringling touring troupes, has copyrighted seven of his acts, and in the past two years has sent three cease-and-desist letters to copycat clowns. Larible, 48, says he plans to cut short his contract with Ringling in November to go out on his own. ''I just can't sit in my glory,'' says Larible.
Back to basics: The headliner-clown strategy dates back to the late 1990s, when some of America's roughly 40 circus companies started worrying about flat sales. At the time, circuses were generally building their shows around traditional acts like lion-tamers and trapeze artists, and there was new competition in the form of fast-growing children's live-action shows such as ''Rugrats: A Live Adventure'' and ''Barney's Big Surprise.'' Ringling, which has the lion's share of the market - estimated at 80 percent - retained a series of consultants to determine how to bring in more ticket-buyers.
One consultant advised Ringling to emphasize dangerous stunts to compete with the growing popularity of extreme sports. A branding agency said Ringling should instead invest in a more kid-friendly marketing campaign with cartoonlike characters that kids would want to see year after year. ''We were trying to create an image for kids to recognize,'' says Jan Craige Singer, president of the Big Blue Dot agency.
Ringling had already hired Larible, and in 2000 wooed Nock, a Big Apple Circus clown known for daredevil stunts, who negotiated for more creative control and more time in the ring. Nock appears for roughly 40 minutes per two-hour show, performing stunts like handstands atop a pair of giant hamster wheels that rotate four stories above ground. The circus also boosted Larible's profile, sweetening his contract with royalties for dolls based on his signature gingham newsboy cap and baggy trousers. (Nock and Larible each tour with a Ringling troupe of about 115 performers, doing roughly 450 shows a year in major cities. A third Ringling troupe travels to smaller markets.) Meanwhile, Big Apple Circus agreed to let ''Grandma,'' the 53-year-old Lubin, write its latest show. It also gave him the title ''Director of Clowning.''
Star power: In some cases, celebrity clowns are changing the circus's delicate political equilibrium. Star clowns often get a private dressing room and gourmet-food spreads while other clowns have to share hallway space for costume changes and ride the circus shuttle to local grocery stores. Francois Dupuis, the Cirque du Soleil clown who stars as a big baby in ''Mystere,'' gets royalties - on top of his salary - from licensing his character to the company. Nock, 36, says he currently is shopping for a Hollywood agent to get him a TV deal. ''Grandma'' already has an agent.
Recently, Nock accidentally ran into fellow clown Michael Richter off-stage - bloodying his nose - and didn't apologize. Says Richter, ''He doesn't have to say, 'Sorry.' '' Nock says he had to make his cue and believes he apologized later. And when Nock fell asleep during a screening of a movie recently, other clowns put popcorn in his hair. Kelly Ballagh, who oversees clown alley for one Ringling troupe, says Larible ''is standoffish'' and has refused to prepare his props before the show, like other clowns do. Larible says he allows propmasters to ready his materials, and he prefers spending time with his family and ''those who are serious about their clowning.''
Focusing on a few clowns is part of the industry's overall efforts to cut costs. Clowns are cheaper than exotic animals, even accounting for the star clowns' high salaries and perks. For example, a newborn elephant can cost about $100,000 to buy, plus annual costs of $11,000 to feed, $7,500 to care for, $7,500 to insure and $20,000 to transport. (Ringling has 22 performing elephants among its three troupes.) By contrast, annual salaries for clown-alley clowns generally run from $15,000 to $40,000. For most circuses, roughly 20 percent of the overall budget goes to insurance - and rates for exotic animals have more than doubled in the past five years, according to circus insurer Mitchel Kalmanson. (He attributes the rise in insurance costs to increased ''trip-and-fall'' lawsuits against circuses.) Carson & Barnes Circus of Oklahoma says it cut its menagerie in half over the past 10 years, and saved at least $500,000.
Entertainment focus: Ringling says it hasn't altered its animal lineup. But it and other circuses have reduced the number of acts. Ringling's two major troupes each have 16 acts - ranging from a tiger trainer to a married couple who blast out of a cannon - down from 22 per troupe in 1995. Forty years ago, the circus had 65 acts. In the past 10 years, Ringling cut by a third its number of its clown-alley clowns, to 14 in its two larger troupes, and in 1997 closed its Clown College. Ringling says it has fewer acts in part because its shows are an hour shorter now, and some performers do several routines within the same show. Other circuses have hired fewer performers to save money, but Ringling cut its show because, it says, kids' attention spans are shorter. The days of the three-rings are numbered, too: Though three-ring circuses were common until the 1980s, roughly 90 percent of today's circuses can support only one ring, according to circus historian Timothy Tegge.
Kenneth Feld, chief executive of Ringling's closely held parent company, Feld Entertainment, says recruiting Nock was a ''golden'' move. Feld wouldn't disclose details of the company's finances, but says Ringling sold 10 million tickets last year, a gain of 10 percent over the previous year. (Feld said some of the revenue gains stemmed from adding the circus's third troupe last year.) Big Apple Circus, a nonprofit company - it supports charitable programs - also said ticket sales were up. Smaller circuses are reporting similar gains, citing everything from their new star clowns to higher gas prices that keep families close to home.
Outside pressure: The emergence of the power clown also comes at a time when circuses are responding to claims by animal-rights groups that animals shouldn't be caged or made to do tricks. A number of circuses have begun to swap exotic elephants and sea lions for poodles and housecats, often rescued from animal shelters. Others, like Florida-based Cole Bros. Circus, have given up animals altogether. Elvin Bale, Cole's vice president of operations, said animal-rights protests and a brief tiger escape last year ''definitely played a part.'' Last year, Cole licensed the right to use Marvel Comics characters, and beefed up the roles of its four clowns so they could interact with Spider-Man.
Of course, there have been famous clowns in the past, though many of them started their careers as acrobats or jugglers and ''retired'' into clowning when they got old or injured. Otto Griebling, the great tramp clown, was first a bareback rider; Emmett Kelly, the scruffy sad-faced clown who gained fame during the Depression, was a former aerialist. Lou Jacobs popularized the clown-in-a-tiny-car routine and performed for Ringling until he was 84 but was never a headliner. Outside the circus, only Bob Bell, aka ''Bozo,'' became a household name, starring in the daytime show ''Bozo's Circus'' on WGN-TV in Chicago for nearly 25 years.
The modern circus industry has evolved in recent decades, with European-style one-ring circuses such as the Pickle Family Circus of San Francisco in the 1970s, and Cirque du Soleil in the mid-'80s. In recent years, clown themes also have played well in theaters. Bill Irwin, a Pickle alumnus, won a special Tony award with fellow clown David Shiner for creating ''Fool Moon.'' This year ''Slava's Snowshow,'' which features Russian star clown Slava Polunin as a put-upon everyman, is an Off-Broadway sleeper hit. Another production of ''Slava'' will open in San Francisco in April and already has sold $1 million in advance tickets.
Such clown clout has allowed some stars to push for perks like easier schedules. At Lubin's behest, Big Apple hired ''Grandma Lite'' in 2001 to substitute for him during 80 percent of the circus' spring and summer touring shows. At first, some fans sent unhappy letters to the circus, and sales of ''Grandma'' souvenirs dipped briefly. Lubin says he needs the time off to spend with his children and at corporate appearances. ''You can call it unethical or greedy, but if it were up to me, there'd be a thousand Grandmas all over the world,'' he says. A Big Apple spokesman said the circus had to accept his terms because it needed his character.
Not all smiles: Many other clowns disapprove of celebrity-clown impersonators. Giovanni Zoppe, who runs a small, 1800s-style Italian circus staffed mostly by relatives, says, ''I'm still totally against clown cloning. It's taking away who you are. It's making you no better than Ronald McDonald.''
But big-name clowns, a few of whom prefer these days to be referred to as ''comedic artists,'' say they deserve the extra benefits. The best have bulked up the daredevilry of their routines, adding more ''Fear Factor''-type elements like dangling from high wires and making ''suicide'' dives into trampolines. As Nock explains, clowning used to be defined by performers like Marcel Marceau, who mimed smelling a rose. ''Then the next generation said, 'Let's take that and make a glass rose. That's artistic,' '' says Nock. ''But I took that glass rose, and I ate it.''