By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
It was more than four decades ago, but having a police officer point a gun in your face isn’t something you’re likely to forget.
The year was 1979. Danise Payne was a professional clown traveling with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ red unit, but there would be no water or colorful handkerchief shooting out of the pistol signaling that it was a joke. This was no laughing matter. Payne recalls sitting in the stands of the big top arena in Jacksonville, Florida, on her lunch break. With popcorn and peanut shells from a previous audience scattered about, she found herself facing a White, racist officer. He was hellbent on intimidating her, accusing her of being there to steal.
“He cocked the gun,” she said. “Three seconds later, I would have been a dead clown standing up there. I put my hands up and I went down the steps and I left him standing up there with his gun cocked at me.”
Payne shares this harrowing experience and other more joyous ones in her memoir, “Elbows in My Ear: My Life with Little People, Tigers, and Wardrobe Trunks.” She sat down with The OBSERVER from her Las Vegas home to talk about her years on the road and being living Black history.
Payne was one of the first and still is one of few Black women to work as a professional clown at the highest level. She graduated from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in 1978 and toured with the red and blue units. She has performed with five circuses, including the Black-owned UniverSoul Big Top Circus.
She got her start at Sacramento’s Fairytale Town amusement park, where she performed as a ventriloquist’s dummy, aided in birthday parties and took care of animals. A visitor noticed Payne’s animated facial expressions and suggested clown college.
Payne, then 24, envisioned a career as a dramatic, big-screen actress. “I was going to take Cicely Tyson’s place. That’s how good I thought I was. Which I was not,” she joked.
She auditioned at the Oakland Coliseum, got the job and the rest is history, literally.
Payne is also proud of being part of something special in joining a diverse group of performers who got to travel the world, spreading joy and wonder.
“We’re a different kind of people, the circus people,” she said. “I wish the world were sort of like that. We accept each other, whereas outside the perimeter of the circus, not so much, because that’s where the racism came in.”
Performing with the UniverSoul Circus is a highlight for Payne. The one-ring circus had its first show in 1994 in its birthplace, Atlanta. “People had never heard of such a thing as an all-Black circus owned by a Black man. We came out of the woodwork,” she said of the community’s support. “We were sold out everywhere we went. I’m standing there and I’m looking at people that reflected me. Don’t let anybody tell you clown makeup doesn’t run. I started tearing up because I’ve never seen anything like that. It was like being a canister on the Fourth of July. It just exploded my heart, it was just unbelievable.”
Payne remembers the reaction when they arrived in Harlem, New York, for the first time: “The owner said [we were] just going to march down 125th Street, elephants and all.”
Word got out and the response was phenomenal, Payne said. “People came out of those brownstones, they heard the elephants and they heard our music and saw us walking down there and riding unicycles.”
Payne got off her unicycle and approached a group of young African American girls sitting on a stoop.
“They had never seen a Black woman clown before,” she recalled. “I walked up to those girls and they almost tore my jacket off, they reached up and just wanted to touch me, someone that looked like them.
“In my 25 years, that was one of two moving moments for me to be recognized for who I am and as part of our community.”
The other defining moment came while performing in Gerry Cottle’s Circus in England, during a visit to a small, predominantly White school. Payne was the first Black woman clown to perform there. She heard a heavily accented voice call out the name of her character.
“I look over and I see one little Black girl sitting there. She was the only Black kid in about 300 kids. I went over to her, I bent down and said, ‘Yes?’ and she said, ‘I’m brown too.’ I knew that I had reached who I wanted to reach.”
The incident choked Payne up.
“It just means so much. The purpose of being a clown is to reach our community, wherever we are, whether we’re in England or whether we’re in Australia, or here, everywhere around the United States and Canada,” she said. “That means a lot to me to be able to touch these kids and adults that are there.”
The love of it all has kept Payne at it. The glitz and glamor are just a part of it.
“Just to see people’s reaction and all that negativity disappearing from them and the recognition you get from the audience, thanking you for letting them forget for those two hours,” Payne said.
The veteran clown looked to inspire new generations operating her own clown school in Las Vegas for a number of years. She taught beyond the basics.
“Everything that I did was motivational, that ‘Yes, if I can be a successful circus clown, you can be a rocket scientist. You can be a teacher, you can do whatever you want to do,” Payne said. “The year that I was doing that, Barack Obama, for the first time, was running to become president. I used that also to say, “If I can be a successful circus clown and Barack Obama could become president, you can do such and such.’ All of that was intertwined with learning how to juggle and how to do the different skits [that] we call gags.”
There are clown colleges in every state, Payne said, but there remain few Blacks in the business.
“I wish that there were Black kids learning our craft, learning how to ride unicycles and juggling. I wish that there were because I would love to pass that on and to pass the torch on to someone that could continue that because the circus isn’t dying; it’s actually getting stronger.”
Today Payne is focused on promoting her book.
“People don’t know that Blacks were out there in the circuses. I decided I want to write this book because I love my story. I love my life. It’s a good life,” Payne said.
“It’s really fun. It’s hard; we worked 18 hours a day, every circus, 18 hours a day. Most of the time we would work six days a week, two shows and three shows on weekends. You know within a week if you can make it through the circus world because of that schedule. I loved it. Absolutely.”
Payne has advice for others, whether they have sights on being a clown, an acrobat, lion tamer, ringmaster or any other career that puts them in the spotlight.
“Be true to yourself, that’s the best advice,” she said. “Don’t listen to naysayers. I had so many naysayers, saying you can’t do this, you can’t do that. ‘You’re too shy.’ ‘You’re too dark.’ ‘There’s no such thing as a Black girl clown.’ I had all of this coming at me.”
She pushed all that aside and stepped into her destiny. “I have a saying that I always had the kids say at my workshops that goes like, ‘I am somebody, I can do anything. I won’t let anybody steal my dream because I am somebody every day.’
“Nothing’s impossible to us. People will try to tell you that it is, but nothing is impossible to us as a people.”
“Elbows in My Ears” is available on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. For more on Payne, visit her website, www.danisepayne.com.