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Clowns in town
Ringling Bros. ambassador clown is a liaison of good spirits

When other kids were praising sports heroes and dreaming about futures as movie stars, Larry Clark was hanging posters of clowns in his room. He was admiring oversized shoes, learning to juggling and, essentially, paving the way toward becoming the next great clown.

"I decided to be a clown when I was 8. I taught myself to juggle, and at 15, I finally mastered that," Clark said. "It wasn't the typical kid way of growing up, but I think this is what I was born to do. I'm still like, 'They pay me for this? Awesome.'"

As an ambassador clown for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus - which will roll into Gwinnett on Thursday - Clark travels the world to spread laughter and cheer. He is quick to note, though, that he is not your stereotypical clown. He's the real deal.

"There are those clowns - not that there is anything wrong with them, I'm sure they are all very nice people - but they are the clowns who paint their whole face and just do balloon tricks and such," he said. "I don't think that's a real clown. A real clown makes connections with people and their facial expressions show."

Real clowns also spend upwards of $600 on a single pair of signature, oversized shoes. Clark's wing-tipped clowning shoes are custom-made and molded to his feet to ensure top performance.

"I have about six pairs," he said. "They are the most comfortable shoes I have ever owned. I would wear them all day, every day if I could. Well, sometimes I guess I do."

At a recent show for the Sunshine House child care center in Duluth, Clark interacted with a crowd of children, who ranged in age from toddlers to 10-year-olds. At times, he acted stumped, confused about how to handle a certain magic trick. At once, the children screamed advice, playing to Clark's spontaneous loss of memory.

"The kids just loved him," said Carla Mendoza, an employee at the center. "I thought he was very funny, too. He played with them and they all enjoyed the show."

In an age when children are bombarded with technology-driven forms of entertainment, from Nintendo Wii systems to the Internet, Clark thinks the circus is more relevant than ever.

"The circus has been around for 133 years. That's longer than baseball and Coke," he said. "It's a pure form of family entertainment. I don't see it going anywhere."

Officially, Clark began his clowning career as a teenager, then went on to work in several circuses. When he was clowning for the Hungarian Circus, he was discovered by a talent scout and became the first non-clown-college graduate to join the Ringling Bros. crew in more than 30 years.

"It was harder to get accepted into clown college than it is to Yale, Harvard and Princeton combined," Clark said. "Some 30,000 people audition each year, and only 28 people were accepted. It's tough."

Clark has also expanded his career onto the big screen, having netted clown roles in films such as "Ocean's 11" and "Big Fish."

"I was also the clown that bumps into Tom Cruise in 'The Firm,'" Clark said. "When Tom stepped off the elevator and pushed me, I said 'Hey, watch it.'"

For three years, Clark was an arena clown touring with the Ringling Bros. circus, and was promoted to ambassador clown last year. It's the perfect job for someone like him, Clark said - someone full of jovial, nonstop energy.

"I love my job, so that magnified my already high levels of energy," he said. "I need something that can keep me on my toes, and this job is perfect. I bring the circus to people who might not otherwise get to see it, like kids in hospitals and seniors in retirement homes. I get to be a fun guy - a mushroom. Ha ha. Get it?"