As most of you know, I’m a big fan of several of the shows in Pigeon Forge Tennessee. Two of my favorites, The Comedy Barn and the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show have members of the shows that were formerly clowns in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. From Pigeon Forge:
Two happy Pigeon Forge clowns are “sad clowns on the inside” this week. Danny Devaney and Billy Baker, former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clowns and graduates of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, are both saddened with the announcement by Feld Entertainment Inc. that the famous Ringling Bros. Circus will soon close “the Greatest Show on Earth” after 146 years in operation. (Ringling Clown College, trained around 1,400 clowns, operated for almost 30 years and closed in 1997).
Devaney, a performer at The Comedy Barn® Theater in Pigeon Forge said, “this news makes me sad. Although it was almost 25 years ago, I spent two years living on a circus train, touring the nation, and performing to a full arena while I was in Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. If you have spent any time around me, you know that if I am not talking about my kids I’m starting sentences with ‘This one time when I was with the circus.’ It was a wonderful opportunity, and I feel so lucky to have been a part of something so great.”
David Fee, president of Fee/Hedrick Family Entertainment Group said, “We are all saddened by Feld Entertainment’s announcement of the upcoming closing of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. My father took me to the circus every year when I was a child, and the circus holds special memories for me. I have always parrticularly loved the clowns.
“To make it to Ringling Bros. is a rare achievement and a very prestigious job for a clown. We are blessed to have two former beloved Ringling clowns with amazing talent currently working in our company as theater performers. These include: Danny Devaney, who is in our Comedy Barn Theater’s show, and Billy Baker, who is a street performing character for The Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud,” Fee said. “Both of them entertain our guests to make memories for a lifetime! Danny is very funny and has a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He can balance a plate on his head, juggle ping pong balls in his mouth, walk on stilts, performs magic and most of all he can make people laugh! At The Comedy Barn Theater, we continue to offer clean family entertainment, and we are still the funniest show in town.
“Billy is one of only 61 clowns in the United States who have been inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame,” Fee said. “He was in the first entertainment troupe at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., and at age 20 ran away to join the circus – not just any circus, but the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’ Billy is a multi- talented performer and a wonderful clown. The City of Pigeon Forge has even declared Billy Baker Day twice. You can see him around town promoting The Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud.”
What do theater clowns do? Devaney said, “I use audience participation, and The Comedy Barn Theater is an interactive show that is guaranteed to make people laugh. People are funny. I love getting random people on stage. I ask myself, ‘What situation can I put myself in, invite a guest to become a part of and then how do we get out of this impromptu routine to get back on track?
Devaney performed his first show when he was 12-years-old. His mother owned and operated a dancing school in Rahway, N. J., and he did magic, tumbling and juggling for dance students who were his own age. One day one of the mothers of the dancers approached him and asked if he would come over to their house and perform at a birthday party. He accepted and performed the same routine he did at the studio when he was just showing off to the dancers. He was paid $25.00 for his first show and then another mother offered him $50.00 if he would do the same show with clown make-up on for her child’s birthday party. Soon Devaney was performing at four to five parties a week.
Eventually Devaney attended Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and graduated from there in 1989. He then toured as a clown with Ringling Bros. for two years. “It was an awesome experience,” Devaney said. “I got everything out of it I needed. I reached my childhood dream of performing with The Ringling Bros. Circus.”
He went on to perform as a clown at Circus Circus Casino in Tunica, Miss., (currently the Gold Strike Resort and Casino), when it first opened, and he stayed there for four years. It was at Circus Circus that he met his comedy partner, Tony Brent, who he worked with for 12 years. After Circus Circus, they worked together at MGM, Epcot and Disney World. They did the pre-show Fantasmic nightly extravaganza show, did a few Disney cruises and were street performers on the streets of the Disney theme parks until they eventually were given a show inside Epcot theme park with full creative control. From there the two went on to star in the “Outta Control Dinner Show” at WonderWorks in Orlando. Devaney was at WonderWorks for five years in Florida and then worked for five years at the Wonderworks in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. He later joined Lumberjacks Dinner Feud and was there until 2012 until he joined Fee/Hedrick Family Entertainment Group.
Fee/Hedrick’s other theater clown, Billy Baker, graduated as valedictorian of his class at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. He performed with Ringling Bros. for seven seasons and was inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame in 2001. He was a regular member of the “Hee Haw” cast the last year it was on the air. Baker said beating out 300 people for the part and appearing on “Hee Haw” “was a real kick in the pants.”
Baker began his career as part of the first entertainment troupe at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo, spent 7 years with Ringling Bros. and was also a featured entertainer at Dollywood for 11 years. Baker has performed in the area for over 25 years and is a Smoky Mountain Comedy Legend. Baker is best known in the local area for his character of “Elwood Smooch.” He has been a comedic performer at “The Comedy Barn®,” “Kick’n Country” and many other shows in town. He is the former owner and performer of the down-home family variety show “Ole Smoky Hoedown” in Pigeon Forge.
Baker said, “I discovered long ago, when you run off and join the circus, the adventure, thrills, fun and lessons learned still remain long after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey train traveled down the tracks without you. It’s a soulful joy, sweet as cotton candy and deep with memories and sounds ofmidnight train whistles, triple time brass bands, the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowds. Time changes everything, and we are all just passing through, but this clown’s life owes a debt of gratitude to those five brothers from Baraboo, Phineas T and Mr. Bailey for making it possible for me to live the dream. Thank you to all the voices and friends who still gather round, when the real world spins out of control. So sad, but so happy I was a part of the magic of The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Baker has lots of circus stories to share, but this is one of his favorites: “We were in Waco, Texas,” Baker said. “There was a drive-in movie theater right next to the arena. After the show one night it was car load night: pack as many people in a car as you could and it was only $3.00 for the entire car load. Well, we couldn’t let an opportunity like that go by. So, we packed 22 people in a Gremlin and went to the drive-in. The look on the face of the guy who took the money was priceless.”
At Fee/Hedrick Family Entertainment Group in Pigeon Forge the shows will go on with their two happy but also sad clowns. But come May 21, 2017, after almost 150 years of clown antics including the great Ringling clowns, Bob Bell, aka “Bozo,” Emmett Kelly, Lou Jacobs and Otto Griebling, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus will retire its clown car for good.
“We want everyone to know despite the recent wildfires, Pigeon Forge is open for business although a few shows are shut down due to the season of the year and will reopen March 3,” Fee said. “The Comedy Barn Theater and The Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud are open now and people can check our web sites for available dates and times.”
The company currently owns and produces many shows in the Smoky Mountain area including: “The Comedy Barn®,” “The Smoky Mountain Opry™,” “The Hatfield and McCoy Dinner and Feud™,” “The Smith Morning Show” and “Magic Beyond Belief™” starring Darren Romeo.
In November and December, the company presents “Christmas at the Smoky Mountain Opry, ™” “The Hatfield and McCoy Christmas Disaster Dinner Feud, ™”, “The Comedy Barn® Christmas Show” and “The Smith Morning Christmas Show.” In addition, the company produces a seasonal “Amazing Animals®” Show in the summer at The Comedy Barn® Theater.