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Clown ran away with circus

WANT TO GO?

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey presents Dragons

WHERE: Charleston Civic Center

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today and Friday; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday

TICKETS: $15 to $85

INFO: 800-745-3000 or www.charlestonciviccenter.comCHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It still happens. People really do still run off to join the circus.

Andrew Hicks, a 21-year-old from Goldsboro, N.C., put college plans on hold and ran off to become a clown for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey right out of high school.

Hicks, who performs with the circus this week at the Charleston Civic Center, said he grew up dreaming of joining Ringling Bros., and before he was in middle school, he'd taken up clowning. He started off performing at his father's Chik-fil-A in Goldsboro, and then clowned at parties and events around town.

He also met a couple of former Ringling Bros. clowns, who became mentors and helped him arrange an introduction to the Greatest Show on Earth while he was still in high school.

"I reached out to Ringling Bros.," he said. "I told them, 'Hey, you're coming to my hometown. Is there any kind of way I could meet with someone or anything, just to let you know I'm interested?'"

The circus did one better. They set up an audition.

"They brought me in during the pre-show," Hicks said. "That's the part of the show where the audience can come out and meet the performers."

He described it as "the most nerve-wracking experience of his life" and not just because Ringling Bros. was there. There was a crowd, and the circus had invited local media.

"They'd made a publicity event out of it." Hicks said. "They brought me out there, gave me a stage and said, 'You have four minutes: Go!' "

When it was all over, Ringling Bros. invited him to a more formal audition at Coney Island after he graduated.

"Shortly thereafter, I was notified that I had a contract."

The circus put him in a training program and assigned him to one of the three touring shows. He started working almost immediately.

The boss clown told him, "I'm putting you in the show tomorrow because I can fit your skinny butt in anywhere."

Anywhere turned out to be the clown car.

Hicks said these days he's a sort of all-purpose clown, though he does have his specialties. In the show, he rappels from the ceiling, rides a unicycle and juggles.

"There's a lot of juggling during the free show," he said.

Juggling is one of Hicks's favorite things. He taught himself and swears he can teach anybody.

Before he ran off to join the circus, Hicks attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a boarding school. His senior year, he was a resident assistant in the dormitory and part of his duties included leading community-building activities with the other residents of his hall.

"The school really pushed that," he said. "And I was like, well, I love to juggle. I'll teach everyone to juggle."

So, he did. Hicks said he taught 30 people to juggle in about a week.

"The thing about juggling is that it's really addictive. Once you get started, you're juggling all the time."

Pretty soon, Hicks said, the other kids were stopping by his room, showing him the tricks they'd learned.

Hicks has been with Ringling Bros. for almost three years now. In the beginning, he thought he'd stick with clowning for a few years and then return to school, become a veterinarian. Now, that seems farther away all the time.

"I love the circus," he said. "I'm taking it a year at a time, but right now I don't see myself doing anything else. It's a career."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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