[The "angel" isn't the one wearing all white. Nor is he the better clown of the pair. L-R Nick Weber, Tom "Popcorn" Sink, spring 1998]
There are few secrets on any circus lot; in clown alley there are none. Perhaps it goes with a trade where an artist counts on getting caught with his pants down, thousands watching, band aroar.
I was late getting to perform on a large tented circus, but by the time I got there at the age of 56, I had a guardian angel to show me the ropes and share those secrets. He was my age, had been on Carson and Barnes Circus before, knew everybody on the show and above all knew clowning—as art, craft and trade. His name was “Popcorn.”
In 1957, when I ran away to the Jesuits (where the sophomore novices were actually called angels), Thomas “Popcorn” Sink ran away with a movie house magician’s spook show. He never left show business and quickly found the circus as a métier meant for him.
In the usual sense Popcorn was anything but an angel but for me he was a godsend. He knew everything about the rough and tumble of getting a laugh when you’re in competition with other acts, jealous performers and unsophisticated ringcrew. I only knew the refinements of theatrical comedy and the carefully engineered, highly focused venue of a tiny circus I had crafted and controlled for over two decades. He wasn’t educated in literature or theater and he knew it; he was possessed of highly refined circus comic instincts and new that. He was gracious with me but I learned to read in those tiny eyes when he thoroughly doubted the soundness of an idea I proffered.
“Why do you always break from me to turn and address the ringmaster right there?” I was hoping he could tell I wasn’t happy.
“You don’t know?”
“No. And it always breaks our rhythm in the exchange we set up. The timing is off.”
“Is the timing on by the time my pants drop to get the laugh?”
“Always.” I had to admit it.
“Well when I turn away to talk to John, I’m undoing the first suspender.”
I never complained again. I should have known. He was meticulous about everything. Casually his manner might seem sloppy, and so did his clown character. But everything was plotted and weighed out with the care he used when refilling his own shotgun shells for ring explosions. Because he looked so ordinary he seemed harmless. That was another secret: The public didn’t meet him with anticipation or anxiety.
Their mistake. His easiest and surest gag demanded almost no energy from him except in the laugh he always indulged afterward. Standing at the outside entrance to the tent while the public was arriving, he held an old-fashioned bulb bicycle horn—one of those tarnished brass numbers capable of delivering a deep, loud “boop!”—down at his left side. Where he stood, there was always a heavy black electrical line crossing the grass from the generator to the concession wagon. As an unsuspecting patron, couple or family approached the cable—and Popcorn—he would calmly point and say “Watch out for the snake!” and then boop the horn. It was a flawless panic inducer. No matter how many times we all saw him do it, showpeople would gather one more time to see that snake come to life.
Now Popcorn knows a lot more secrets or has cashed them all in for a grand one. Last weekend he died and whatever the Musak in heaven has been, it just got re-scored for a booper horn. I haven’t seen him in years and I now I really miss him.