Who Are These Clowns? : L. A. Circus is out to make a name for itself, and get a Big Top in the process. The troupe will perform in Sherman Oaks on Sunday.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Rip Rense is a frequent contributor to The Times. </i>

One of them has a degree in psychology; another was a French-speaking tour guideat the United Nations. The rest are basically a bunch of clowns.

Together, they comprise the-little-circus-that could--better known as the L. A. Circus. A one-ring, one-elephant, no-tent affair that is making a stab at becoming for Los Angeles what the highly regarded Big Apple Circus is for New York. Or what Canada’s Cirque du Soleil is for Santa Monica.

It hasn’t been trapezey.

“Last year, we only did about eight performances,” said veteran clown Dick Monday, who founded LAC with 20-year trapeze artist Wini McKey and former Ringling Brothers marketing specialist Doug Lyon. “This year in our spring season, we will be doing about 28 performances between April 1 and July 1, and the second half of our season we have already booked 18 days. We’re hoping to get 30. Our dream, of course, is to have a tent some day.”


In the meantime, LAC--a troupe of circus veterans who sometimes started out with very different ambitions--sets up shop at schools, hospitals, parks and shopping centers. This Sunday, the circus, which is largely funded by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, will sprinkle its own portable sawdust (really) into the Fashion Square parking lot in Sherman Oaks--at the south end near Woodman Avenue--for four shows at 11 a.m. and 1, 3, and 5 p.m. in a benefit for San Fernando Valley schools. Admission: $5.

The Amazing Vita Acrobats--four Canoga Park brothers and a cousin who are among the nation’s top contenders for the 1996 Olympics acrobatics team (a new category)--will be there, working their tumbling miracles. Tai, the elephant, will be there. So will table juggler Chester Cable, aerialist Kathleen Kaufman and a live circus band under the baton of Bill Payne.

And yes, Matthew Love, the clown with the master of arts degree in psychology from UCLA, will be there--walking on stilts, juggling, tumbling, playing a 17-piece one-man band and doing what clowns do. So will Denise Payne, wife of Bill and one of three African-American women to graduate from Ringling Brothers Clown College in Florida-- and a former U. N. French-speaking tour guide.

OK, Matthew Love, just exactly how does one go from psych to cirque?

“Well, it’s a circus in education today,” he said dryly at an LAC rehearsal at the Olive Recreation Center. “I started out juggling when I was 14 and my basketball coach said juggling would help me with basketball. I got so good at juggling, basketball was no longer interesting. I earned my way through college by juggling. After I finished my degree, I did private parties, commercials and bit parts. In the end, I found I could make as much money juggling, and it was more fun.”

Payne is a born-again clown. She graduated from Clown College in 1976, worked for Ringling Brothers for two seasons, then quit to join the U. N. After three years, she became a clown again.

“It was definitely fascinating,” she said, caught during a break in juggling practice at the rehearsal. “But I missed performing. I started getting into theater, but it wasn’t the same. There’s something unwritten, I guess, about the circus and being a clown that I missed.”

She eventually did film work, then returned to Los Angeles as a full-time clown for company parties and the Venice Boardwalk before Monday asked her to join LAC two years ago.


“People think it’s really so strange for a lady, especially a black lady, to be a clown,” Payne said. “But it’s not really, when you stop to think about it. Look at all the comedic actresses. There’s Imogene Coca, who is still performing. She’s my hero! Lucille Ball performed all the way to the end.”

Kids are sometimes shocked to find a woman underneath the greasepaint, even though Payne’s clown is a woman--based on one of her aunts who “don’t take nothin’ from nobody.”

“Black kids, especially, aren’t used to seeing black clowns,” she said. “And even though I’m wearing a dress, people most of the time still think I’m a guy! One time, some little black kids came up to me, and I’m shaking their hands, then one of them asked me a question, and my voice is a lady’s voice. This little girl’s eyes just got real big, and she said, ‘You’re a girl clown!’ and her face just lit up. And my heart just went kaboom-- it just melted, because she identified. And I thought, yes! yes!--you can do it too!”

That anecdote points up the goal that is at the heart of L.A. Circus, aside from eventually becoming self-supporting, “to be a multinational-type circus representing all the culture in Los Angeles: African-American, Hispanic, white, Japanese, Korean, Chinese--everybody,” as co-founder Lyon puts it.

“I was asked a question: ‘Do we need a circus, or do we need more police?’ ” Monday added. “It seems obvious to some people that we need more police. But when I pose that question, a lot of people say, ‘Well, I think the circus is pretty important.’ That’s where we’re at in Los Angeles. And we want to utilize the people of this city to make our circus great.”

And to inspire kids--especially in poorer areas of the city--to take up circus arts either for fun, or career.

“It’s a priority,” LAC performance director/choreographer Tiffany Riley said. “When you’re performing for somebody you know only gets to see the ice cream truck every now and them, it makes a difference.”

To that end, LAC has three programs. Under Riley, circus workshops are held in hospitals. Under another former Ringling woman clown, Donna Wood, circus workshops are held in the schools. (“Watching a person turn into a clown is very exciting for them,” Wood said.) LAC also goes to parks on the weekends with circus “caravans,” where kids are able to mingle with the performers before the show and learn the basics of tumbling, juggling, plate-spinning, etc.


“Last week, we were in Lincoln Heights,” Riley said. “One kid who lived in the projects said he was really excited to be there that day because he normally wasn’t allowed to go outside. So this was the first time all year that he’d gotten to go out and do anything. He was about 9. There are a lot of things that happen like that.”

Then there was the time that 21-year-old Babatu Vita, the eldest of the Vita Acrobats (another LAC African-American act), found himself confronted by an affectionate little autograph-seeker after an LAC show in Van Nuys.

“I signed it for him,” Babatu said, “and then he said, ‘Can I have a hug?’ So I gave him a hug. Next thing I knew, there were like 50 kids hugging me, and I just felt it in my heart. It was real touching to me. I felt like a superstar that day. That’s the way they treated me. It’s something I can’t even explain.”

Monday can. It has something to do with circus mystique, he’ll tell you, and the absence of a real circus in Los Angeles--except the annual visit by Soleil, and the small LAC.

“I spent a couple weeks in Europe over the winter,” he said, “looking at the European circus, and it’s just marvelous to see so people go to the circus in a tuxedo.

“Are we small? Intimate is a better word. The L.A. Circus can seat 1,200 people, however not one of those people is more than 30 feet from the ring. So you can really feel the humanity that’s going on in the ring. You can see the sweat form on their brows.”

Spoken like a ringmaster.