America's Best Clown: Bello

His dazzling stunts, goofy gags and big-top hairdo have made the circus a great show again

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I like to call him Bello Nock--his clown name and his family name. Although he doesn't act like it, Bello, who keeps his real first name secret, is aristocracy. Members of the Nock family (their performance roots date back to the 18th century in Switzerland) have been circus artists and great clowns for generations. I saw Bello's uncle Pio Nock in the Ringling show when I was 22, and I applied immediately to the Ringling Bros. Clown College. Bello's thoroughly American accent--he speaks many languages, but all of them like a guy from Florida, which he is--doesn't mask his European take on the art of circus. That's not a better point of view than the American, but it is different.

Trained from childhood, Bello, 32, has a grounding in almost every circus skill. This is one of the things that separate him from those of us who found our way to clowning from the theater. He is an incredible acrobat (and one of the strongest men I've ever known), and so when he does a bit about setting up a trampoline, of course he gets in trouble and finds some great gags. He's caught in the springs, first his foot, then his whole body, but he finishes with world-class trampoline work--going breathtakingly high, swooping into a suicide dive, tucking at the last second, then getting caught in the springs again.

Bello and I once put together a two-minute number for a TV show. Bello when he's not performing is a lot like Bello when he is--wide-eyed, charged with energy. We never actually did the gig--the schedule didn't work out or something--but I'll pay him these compliments, from one clown to another: first, I had a great time--Bello is one of the sunniest and most generous men I've ever known. Essentially I was just there that day as a comic feed, and elder statesman, to feature some of his trampoline business, but I didn't want to be blown completely out of the water. As with any great practitioner, he had me on my toes and trying to get on my best game. It was a wonderful afternoon.

So is Bello Nock a "clown's clown"? That's a hard one, because--this little essay notwithstanding--clowns tend not really to talk about one another too much. But if you get past the unanswerable questions like, Who's the best? or Who's the funniest? or Whose gig would you most like to have? and you just ask, Whom do you like to go see? then it gets easier. There are only a few clowns I love to see again and again, and Bello Nock is one of them. He's really, really good, and he has a really good time; his work fits the circus ring, and he loves the crowd. And his high-layout somersault with his pants falling off just really gets me, it always has.

Bill Irwin is an actor, choreographer, director, performance artist, playwright and clown. He won a MacArthur "genius award" in 1984