In the late 1970s, West Ender Jeff Gordon was a four-time All-American springboard diving champion trying to find a use for his college degree in art and anthropology. So he did what most liberal-arts grads do: He went back to school. Gordon attended Ringling Brothers' clown college, performing for several years with Ringling Brothers before going on to a 13-year stint with New York City's Big Apple Circus and various Broadway, film and TV roles. Three years ago, "Gordoon" hung up his big red nose and moved back to Pittsburgh. He still clowns around, but his new act is running Who New?, a furniture shop in Lawrenceville, with his partner, Roger Levine.
So, you ran away with the circus ...
When I got out of college, I wanted desperately to travel. One day, after deluging the Delta Queen steamboat with letters, I got a ticket in the mail that said "Meet us in Minneapolis; we need a bartender." On the boat I met some circus people: Joe McKennon, curator of the Ringling Brothers Museum in Sarasota, and his wife MaryAnn, who was this delightfully eccentric woman with white hair to her ankles, a puppeteer and a showgirl. We became fast friends.
I had already applied to Ringling Brothers and been rejected. I told Joe this and he said, "What do you want to be a clown for? Don't you know clowns are the bottom of the social strata in the circus?" I said, "Yeah, but it's something I want to do." Joe called Doc Henderson, the famous veterinarian, who called Frosty Little, the boss clown, and in five days, I had an audition with Ringling Brothers! I got off the Delta gangplank in Pittsburgh and my friend Dan, who played the boat's calliope, started playing "Be a Clown" and the circus theme as the boat chugged away down the river. I was crying and so happy at the same time.
Did diving help your clowning?
I was never interested in aerial work, unless there was water underneath me! But my first year in the circus, my acrobatic skills let me be featured in this act with a bunch of Hungarian acrobats. We ran down a ramp, jumped on a springboard and did a leaping somersault over three elephants.
Have you performed for anyone famous?
I performed with Big Apple at Lincoln Center for three months every year for 13 years, so I've entertained hundreds of well-known people. Robin Williams performed with us when he was doing research for Moscow on the Hudson. Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, all the big-named people would come to the circus, then backstage to have pictures taken. I lived in an Airstream trailer parked 6 inches from the Metropolitan Opera; Beverly Sills would come by as she was going out the back door and say "Hi."
Why do you think clowns freak so many people out?
There's an unfortunate, pervasive American attitude promoted in film and television that clowns are evil incarnate. A clown is a fascinating character in theatrical history, and here people think that anyone can be a clown if they put on a rainbow wig and twist a balloon at a kids' party. Clowns are actually supposed to be wise fools who hold a mirror up to human nature and deal with all of its paradoxes. One moment they'll be a stumbling oaf; the next, brilliantly mischievous with skills that show virtuosity. Most indigenous societies have a clown-like character in their rituals that has license to make fun of authority, to stand outside of the action and comment on it, then step inside and participate. In a good one-ring circus, the audience identifies with the foibles of the clown. Ultimately, a clown is about our real human need to laugh, both at others and at ourselves.
What in the heck does clowning have to do with all the mod furnishings in your store?
Design from the '50s and '60s -- that time of post-war optimism -- shows a sense of whimsy and delight that interests me. The look was colorful, light and bright, and maybe even silly. I've always been engaged by the sense of humor in Modernism.
Most circus performers reach a point where, now that they've run away from home and joined the circus, they want to run from the circus and join a home. I was on the road for almost 23 years, and it was time to come home and have a domestic life. I still perform, just more regionally, and on these trips I collect things for the shop. I'm finding this balance between my opposites: the security of a home life mixed with the adventures of the road.