Shalom, ‘Grandma’


The Big Apple Circus’ bubbe, overloaded purse in hand and sensible, rubber-soled shoes on her stocking-clad feet, is shuffling away from the big top.

And with her go the ghosts of Barry Lubin’s own Jewish grandmothers, the ones he spent time with all those years ago in Atlantic City. Lubin, who created his alter ego, “Grandma,” the matronly figure with the red smock and the curly gray wig, more than 35 years ago, said he patterned the character after them, and any number of other Jewish grandmothers he saw on the Atlantic City boardwalk in the 1950s and ’60s. Rather than play a traditional clown, he would take his inspiration from them. He spent a career paying homage to them, and to grandmothers everywhere.

Lubin says he remembers Myrtle Weinberg and Ann Lubin, his bubbes, as “warm, nurturing individuals.” But his Grandma, who doesn’t speak while performing in the Big Apple Circus, is really everyone’s grandmother, with no discernible ethnic or religious characteristics. The typical crowd during a recent show was multi-racial and multifaith, including nuns in habit and Muslim women in the hijab. All laughed at Grandma’s antics.

But the laughter for Grandma at the Big Apple Circus will stop next year.

Lubin, who first crafted the role while working for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, has announced that this will be his last season (his 29th) as Grandma with the Big Apple Circus. He’s moving to Sweden.

The circus ends its current New York run on Jan. 8, and takes the show on the road. After its season closes in July, Lubin will settle in Sweden, where he has a girlfriend and post-Big Apple entertainment and education possibilities. “I will seek opportunities worldwide,” he says, preparing for a recent show.

“I am walking away from the dream job,” Lubin says, sitting at a table in a dressing room a hundred yards from the tent in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park. “It’s time for me to do other things with my life.”

As is his custom, Lubin starts getting dressed for work in a converted office near the big top about 10 minutes before he leaves for his job. First, he dons a pair of sweatshorts and a T-shirt. Then, some makeup, a string of fake pearls and the rest of Grandma’s distinctive garb. Then he walks through a warren of trailers and animal cages to make his entrance at the 63-foot-high, 1,619-seat tent.

The circus, which recently opened its 2011-12 season, features magicians and trapeze artists, trained animals and two-legged steeds, jugglers and gymnasts, crowd participation and shills from the crowd, a master-of-ceremonies and various assistants. But Grandma is clearly the star, a sashaying, shpritzing, purse-swaying, apparently befuddled figure who wanders around the ring to the apparent amusement of the other performers and the definite approval of the crowd.

Lubin is 59. Grandma is 36.

As other performers stretch and warm up nearby before the day’s show, Lubin tells why a nice Jewish boy from Atlantic City decided to join the circus.

Partly shy, partly outgoing as a teen, he was chubby, and used humor — as many future comics and comedians do — to build social bridges. In high school, he was, predictably, “the class clown,” the wise-cracking source of classmates’ laughter, though another classmate, Lubin notes with some irony, was voted class clown.

He briefly thought about becoming a dentist, but “blood” — the sight thereof — dissuaded him. Then, in high school television productions, he did in-the-spotlight and behind-the-scenes work. “I had a chance … to act, and that is where I performed physical comedy for the first time.” He considered becoming a TV director. In college, unsure of exactly what he wanted to do for a career, he dropped out, saw an ad for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, applied and was accepted, and discovered his calling; the circus would be a good way “to see America … to travel on someone else’s dime.”

Lubin was a natural.

“I was always a clown,” he says, “just not professionally.”

As a clown he follows a small but proud Jewish line that most notably includes the late Lou Jacobs, who, while working for more than 60 years for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, popularized the clown car, and supposedly originated the now-ubiquitous red rubber ball nose. An inductee into the International Clown Hall of Fame, Jacobs was the first living person whose portrait appeared on a U.S. postage stamp; his two daughters, Lou Ann and Dolly, also became successful circus clowns.

Lubin, also a member of the International Clown Hall of Fame, will be inducted in January into the Circus Ring of Fame, a Sarasota, Fla., foundation that recognizes individuals “who have made significant contributions to the circus.” He’s served for a decade as director of clowning and creative consultant to the Big Apple Circus’ production team, mentored other clowns, trained the 800 clowns who take part in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, taught at the Clown College, produced a television pilot for Nickelodeon Networks and worked as a creative consultant for NBC’s “Cheers.”

A PBS documentary series last year, “Circus,” about the Big Apple Circus, focused on Lubin and his successful battle against thyroid cancer a few years ago.

He’s fine now, but that experience caused him to “reassess my life and my career,” he told The New York Times.

In street clothes, with closely cropped graying hair, Lubin looks the part of … a middle-aged Jewish professional. When he’s not on stage — or in his case, in the ring — he’s not “on,” not a joking kibitzer. He talks quietly, answering questions about his life.

Hired out of Clown College by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, he worked as a regular clown until developing his Grandma persona at the circus’ winter quarters in Venice, Fla. He wasn’t strong on physical skills; he needed a distinctive character.

Grandma was born.

A person of indeterminate gender perambulating around the ring would stand out, could be a star. “If I were a regular clown,” he says, “I wouldn’t be noticed. I worked with 28 clowns on Ringling and knew that in order to stand out I had to be different. Different meant looking like someone from the audience, not the stripes and plaids and big shoes and outrageous wig colors.”

By the time he joined the Big Apple Circus — a 34-year-old troupe and circus school that was based at first in Battery Park, and is credited with influencing the creation of Cirque du Soleil — in 1982, Grandma was a fixture.

These days, no one overlooks Grandma.

Lubin had no problem donning female — but decidedly not overtly feminine — garb. “I’m not insecure about my masculinity.”

As Grandma, who initially looks like a spectator who accidentally stumbled into the ring, Lubin is a good-natured insider and outsider, a silent Greek Chorus whose facial expressions comment on the other performers. “I consider myself part of the audience, in awe of the surroundings and the thrill of the circus, much more than [a part of] the world of the circus,” he says. “I really feel that way, and Grandma is a reflection of me.”

And of his own grandmothers, and the countless grannies he had noticed on the Atlantic City boardwalk and in Miami Beach, where his family vacationed.

He keeps their memory in mind while on the job. “They got to spoil us. They spoiled the kids and returned them to their parents. That’s the role of Grandma.”

The product of a “typical” Conservative Hebrew-school-and-bar-mitzvah upbringing who frequently gets invited to families’ seders and yom tov meals while on the road, Lubin says he offers a short prayer before every show. “I pray to be present. I pray to be of service.”

“I have,” says Lubin, “a close relationship with God.”

As Grandma, he has performed, by his own estimate, in front of 20 to 30 million people in person, and in front of tens of millions more when part of the Big Apple Circus cast marching down Broadway in the televised Macy’s Parade. He’s also done the David Letterman show, and several other TV shows.

During his Big Apple Circus performances, his eyes, he says, are trained on individual audience members with whom he can establish a quick, personal rapport while walking up and down the aisles. He’ll make a quick aside, a shrug, an “Oy!” for obviously Jewish kids.

After the show, the makeup comes off in a minute or two, and he will join the departing parents and children, listening, unrecognized, to their comments. He enjoys the anonymity.

“At the beginning” of his career, he says, “it was all about me.” The recognition. He’s matured. “At this point it’s all about the audience.”

Clowning, Lubin says, is a “very spiritual” job. He gets to make people laugh, “This is a service job.”

After leaving the Big Apple Circus but not retiring from the clowning profession, Lubin — who retains proprietary rights to his Grandma character — will line up his own performances and teach “physical comedy.”

Lubin says his grandmothers died before he became Grandma.

Would they recognize themselves in Grandma? Probably not, he says. Grandma is an amalgam, not a reflection of any single person.

Lubin says his late mother “kept waiting for me to get a ‘real job’… a real, conventional profession.”

Then he started appearing, as Grandma, on NBC’s Today Show. At least 15 times. And his mother came to his shows, seeing how he had found steady work brightening peoples’ spirits. Then, he says, “she ‘got it.’”

What would he tell young people interested in following in his footsteps as a clown?

Don’t do it—“unless you really want to be it. It’s not easy at all.” Clowning is hard work — “very hard work,” Lubin says.

Is he happy he became a clown? “Oh God, yes,” he says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”