The elite Lawrenceville School is known as a feeder to the Ivy League, with graduates every year moving on to places like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. But nowhere in the Lawrenceville brochure does it mention that one of its most noteworthy alumni went straight to the Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Florida, where he specialized in slapstick comedy.
Tom von Oehsen graduated from Clown College in 1981 and then went back into the upscale education for which he seemed destined, earning a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. But clowning has always been in von Oehsen’s blood, and now, after a successful 15-year career in admissions at private schools, he is once again running away to the circus. He is retiring at the end of June from his job as head of admissions for the Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart to devote himself full time to the nonprofit group he founded, the Trenton Circus Squad, where he plans to teach juggling, unicycle riding, and stilt-walking to a new generation.
Von Oehsen was born in Princeton and raised along with three brothers by an attorney father and homemaker mother. On paper, it would seem that von Oehsen lived a life of privilege, attending first the Princeton Day School, then the Lawrenceville School. But hardship lurked just around the corner. At the same time von Oehsen was attending the exclusive private school, his father was slowly succumbing to multiple sclerosis. Von Oehsen knew he was going to have to foot the bill for his own education.
At the same time, von Oehsen began to realize his hopes of attending a top-tier school were unlikely to come to fruition. His great loves as a student were theater and lacrosse, neither of which were sought-after skills in the upper echelon of universities. One day, von Oehsen was backstage at a play when a fellow cast member brought him a newspaper and jokingly showed him an ad. “Hey Tom, I’ve found the perfect school for you.” Ringling Brothers was auditioning for clown college.
“Everyone laughed,” von Oehsen recalled. But the more he thought about it, the more sense it made. What other job would combine his athleticism with his love of acting? He filled out an application and was accepted.
Barnum & Bailey Clown College, located in Sarasota, Florida, was more of a training camp than it was a college. The course was an intensive 10-week period of instruction in the Florida heat. “When I arrived there were 60 of us,” von Oehsen says. “I was amazed at the amount of talent everyone had.” The college, which operated from 1968 until 1997, trained clowns in the broad Barnum & Bailey American style of clowning. Students were taught circus skills such as juggling and stilt-walking, as well as how to apply their clown makeup so that it could be seen from great distances. Famous graduates of clown college include Penn Jilette, half of the magic duo Penn & Teller, and Steve-O, cast member and human test dummy of the TV show Jackass.
Von Oehsen arrived with no circus skills to speak of, and all around him people were riding unicycles while juggling, passing clubs, and performing other feats. Von Oehsen was exposed to everything from trapeze work to elephant riding.
The training was intense. Every clown rose at 7 a.m. to apply their makeup and worked until 10 p.m. Each one tried the various arts to learn their niches. Von Oehsen worked on a routine where he would play a prankster, stealing the shoes of other clowns throughout the performance. At the end of the show he would ride out on a unicycle that had shoes at the end of the wheel’s spokes instead of a tire.
“My niche was just slapstick comedy,” Von Oehsen says. “I had no problem throwing my body around and falling and getting hit.”
At age 18, Von Oehsen was the youngest clown at Clown College. The others, many middle aged, would trade tales of serving in Vietnam. “They were people who had turned their backs on their lives and were running away to the circus,” von Oehsen says. Many never made it through to graduation. Stilt-walkers fell and broke wrists, and trapezists sprained their elbows and had to drop out.
Von Oehsen survived to the end, receiving his clown college diploma and meeting with Irving Feld, legendary clown and founder of the school. Feld asked von Oehsen where he saw himself in five years, and the young clown displeased him with the reply that he hoped to be in college in five years.
Indeed, upon returning from clown college, von Oehsen went to regular college, an Ivy League one, at the University of Pennsylvania. He supported himself and paid the bills doing tree surgery on weekends. He was working as a tree surgeon shortly after graduation when he was approached by a friend who worked at the middle school at the Princeton Day School. She knew of his clowning experience and wanted him to do a workshop in circus arts during a week the students took off from academics. “After that week, she came to me and said I really should be a teacher,” von Oehsen recalls.
Von Oehsen became the drama teacher at the school, and continued to teach his clowning workshop, which was a huge hit with the students. One day he received funding to put on a show for the school and asked for student volunteers. Almost the whole school showed up after school to try out.
The experience made von Oehsen realize that there was a great interest in clowning among schoolchildren. The next summer von Oehsen founded his first nonprofit group, called “Princeton Center Stage,” to provide after-school classes to Princeton Day School and the Waldorf School.
Since then, his program has existed in different forms, later being dubbed the Clown Academy. The Clown Academy was at first a two-week summer camp at the Princeton Academy. Von Oehsen would invite students from Trenton to participate in the clown training and help put on a show in Princeton at the end of the course.
Three years ago the Clown Academy took on new significance when it partnered with the Network of Sacred Heart Schools, a group of schools of which Princeton Academy is a member. In the revised program, the students would learn the same skills, but instead of putting on a show for Princeton residents, they would perform at nursing homes, hospitals, and other places where people needed cheering up.
The students would spend one week training under “simple living conditions,” which meant sleeping on the gym floor, cooking and cleaning up after meals together, and taking turns with the daily chores. They would spend two days of juggling, unicycle riding, trapezing, and clowning, and then begin touring. Through it all, von Oehsen noticed the Trenton kids especially were having a great time with it. “The Trenton kids had an amazing amount of talent and they were so excited,” he says.
Last summer von Oehsen made another major change. Instead of holding the workshop in Princeton, he rented space in downtown Trenton. The kids would put their newly acquired skills to the test at once, touring Trenton putting on shows, and then teaching younger children the things they had just leaned. They performed in parks and nursing homes, and held workshops at the Boys and Girls Club.
“The response was phenomenal,” von Oehsen says. “Kids from these very affluent communities and the Trenton kids — the partnership that they created and the friendship that they created was amazing. It didn’t matter what their background was, it was all focused on the common goal, which was to better the lives of the residents of Trenton. After the first experience of this, I decided it was how I wanted to spend my life: empowering these kids, giving them the skills, and then becoming involved with civic engagement to better their lives and the lives of the residents of Trenton by spreading humor and laughter.”
Hamilton resident Nick Hazell, 16, a sophomore at Nottingham High School, was one of the participants. “At first it was pretty hard,” he says. “You had to learn everything. I knew juggling, and one trick, but I didn’t know anything else beforehand. We had workshops, and we performed, and I discovered that I could do everything if I told myself I could beforehand.” Hazell learned juggling pins, using the diablo (a Chinese yoyo), how to balance things on his head, and how to spin plates. Then the real work began.
The students performed outside of Thunder Stadium, at senior homes, and at a YMCA community event. Hazell says the audiences were surprised to see clowns show up, but quickly warmed up to their performances. “It made me feel pretty great, actually,” he says. “It was really rewarding. I volunteer at soup kitchens, and you get a good feeling from doing stuff like that.” The clown academy gave Hazell the satisfaction of teaching tricks to children as young as six, and spreading joy throughout the city. “This is a better way for me to do good and give back to the community,” he says. “Making people happy is something I can always do now.”
Starting July 1 the Trenton Circus Squad will be von Oehsen’s full-time endeavor. Joining him in the venture is Zoe Brookes, who founded another youth circus skills group, the Stone Soup Circus, in 2008. Now Stone Soup has merged with the Circus Place of Hillsborough. Brookes is serving as executive director of the squad, with von Oehsen filling the role of program director. Three teachers will join von Oehsen in instructing the kids in circus skills.
Brookes is a strategic management consultant who formerly worked for Deloitte & Touche and now works for nonprofit groups. She also runs the Princeton Variety Theater, a community performing troupe. Brookes grew up in Southampton, England, where her father was a professor and her mother was a speech therapist. As a child she loved the theater, but did not like its competitiveness.
Brookes is trained as an engineer and studied business at London Business School before moving to the U.S. in 1999. While living in New Haven, Connecticut, she visited a small community circus called the Rag and Bones circus and was thoroughly won over by it.
“I developed a strong interest in community service and circus as a tool for social change,” she says. “The circus has a very particular aspect of it where it’s incredibly inclusive because there is a wide range of contributions that can be made. It is by nature noncompetitive but still demands a great deal of its participants.”
Brookes says participating in the circus can help children develop many positive traits such as grit and being able to take managed risks.
“Imagine learning to stand on someone’s shoulders,” she says. “It’s not a very difficult skill, but the idea of standing on someone’s shoulders seems scary. People tend to respond by going, ‘Oh, you could get hurt!’ But if you communicate with the person whose shoulders you’re going to stand on, and learn some simple moves in terms of how you control your body, and have the support of a couple of people around you to catch you, you might do that pretty early on in your circus experience. Then you’ve learned to trust the person whose shoulders you’re standing on, how to control your own body, and how to trust the people helping spot. You’ve achieved something that you and the people around you thought wasn’t possible. You feel amazing, and you know what the world looks like from eight feet in the air.”
Furthermore, the person learning the shoulder stand probably failed a few times along the way and improved by hearing constructive criticism. It’s a whole bundle of life lessons in a short period of time.
“It just feels like a very compelling and enjoyable sense of joining and learning to do new things,” Brookes says.
Brookes eventually ran the circus group, which changed its name to the New Haven Community Circus. In 2008 Brookes took a break from consulting, moved to Princeton, and founded Stone Soup. She is no longer involved in running Stone Soup, which is now managed by people who were in her first group of students. Last year she was doing some consulting work for Isles, a Trenton-based nonprofit group, and had the idea of starting a similar group in Trenton. As it happened, Von Oehsen was thinking the same thing, and the two decided to join forces.
The Trenton Circus Squad’s six-week summer classes, for kids 11 to 16, are taking place at the Wire Works at 675 Clinton Avenue in Trenton. Currently, the group is seeking individual donations for funding. Once those ramp up, von Oehsen says he will start approaching foundations for funding. “We fit a lot of what foundations are looking to fund, which is great,” he says.
Von Oehsen says the first three years of the program will be a “start-up” phase while the group finds a permanent premises and builds its brand. In the long run the group hopes to fund its activities through paying participants or their sponsors, donations from participants and families, and an annual show. Over time he hopes to train several entire troupes of performers, each of which will perform shows as well as workshops where they will teach skills to younger kids. He expects more than 1,000 students to participate in the first three years, plus 1,200 more children in circus workshops.
In August the participants in the pilot Trenton Circus Squad will visit the American Youth Circus Festival, an annual three-day event being held this year in Portland, Maine. The American Youth Circus Organization, of which Brookes was once an executive director, is sponsoring eight of the students, with the Circus Squad raising funds for the rest.
About half the kids are expected to come from Trenton with the rest being from outside. The first pilot class of 12 students was a mix of Princeton circus students and children referred by Homefront, a nonprofit group serving needy families.
Von Oehsen says another reason for offering circus classes is that the kids in the pilot program last year wanted to come back. “It was such a satisfying experience for them,” he says. “Driving around Trenton, they were starting to get recognized. There was this kind of positive reinforcement. This is one of those disciplines that the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.”
Clowning around crosses class lines, von Oehsen says.
“Background doesn’t matter,” he says. “If you’re wealthy or homeless, these kids are all equal, and they are supporting one another, and they appreciate the hard work they are doing. The camaraderie and teamwork that occurs within that squad is just an amazing thing to see. Whenever they performed, there was an energy and an excitement that really does transfer the audience, and they just embrace the kids.”
The Trenton Circus Squad, 609-751-2712. www.trentoncircussquad.org.