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This boss has a staff of nothing but clowns

John Seelmeyer

So your friend thinks she manages a bunch of clowns? She ought to walk a mile in the big floppy shoes of Jay Stewart.

There’s a guy who manages bunch of clowns.

Fifteen, in fact.

And not just any clowns off the street, but some of the most talented clowns in the world.

As the Ringling Bros.

and Barnum & Bailey Circus rolls into Reno this week, Stewart will be working as boss clown, holding first-line management responsibility for a group of frenetic funsters.

Like so many first-line supervisors, Stewart works alongside his team.

His character, Esther the lunchroom lady, is short-tempered and full-figured and so popular that Stewart stays in character throughout the show.

“Esther has taken over,” he said the other day about the character that he named after his grandmother.

As befits a manager who wears a wig, curlers and a fat suit through much of his workday, Stewart’s management style is decidedly informal.

“I’m either on Clown Alley or on the floor,” he said.

“That’s the management style I’ve tried to have.

If they need me, I’m there.

And I get just as down and dirty as they do.”

He doesn’t have an MBA in Clown Management.

Instead, Stewart’s master’s degree from Wake Forest University is in theater arts, and his daily management routine draws on his academic background, his experience teaching at a clown academy and more than a decade of experience in clowning.

“The best training was just being in the show,” Stewart said.

“It gave me the hands-on knowledge of what it takes to make the clowns look good.”

He’s now in his fourth year as Boss Clown with the red unit of the Ringling Bros.

and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Like any supervisor, the 38-year-old Stewart juggles multiple responsibilities:

* He motivates his team, no easy trick for an organization that’s on the road 11 months a year and presents 500 shows annually.

“They see themselves as artists, and I encourage them to do their art,” he said.

“I rely on their professional pride.”

* He coaches employees as they build their skills, offering suggestions out in Clown Alley about ways that a new bit might work better.

“I enjoy tweaking the bits,” Stewart said.

* He mentors young members of the clown team some are in their late teens about the pitfalls of the business.

For instance: Don’t go wild when the circus arrives in New York City.

Stewart tells clowns, “Those kids who are coming to see the show don’t care if you stayed up until 5 in the morning.” * He enforces the dress code.

(Yes, clowns have a dress code.) He makes sure his team members are dressed appropriately for a family show and makes sure they look presentable when they’re traveling as well.

“When you get off the bus, you don’t want to look like a freak,” he said.

* He conducts weekly staff meetings.

* He evaluates performance he does it informally, and doesn’t use a form prepared by the human resources department and makes recommendations about renewal of clowns’ contracts for another season.

* He recruits good help.

“You never stop looking for talent,” he said.

Hundreds of people each year inquire about the possibility of running away with the circus as a clown; successful candidates complete an audition and make the tough decision to uproot themselves from home for a life on the road.What’s he looking for? For starts, Stewart said, a job seeker needs to be able to drop his trousers in front of 10,000 people.

* He make sure props and costumes are clean and in good condition, and orders supplies for the clowns’ gags.

Stewart is responsible, for instance, for making sure that the clown have an ample supply of shaving-soap blocks.

They shave the soap into water, whip up suds with an electric drill and fill pie plates.Why not use aerosol cans of shaving cream? With the vast quantities used by a troupe of clowns, cans are too expensive and too heavy to carry from city to city.

If all this weren’t enough, Stewart also faces another challenge.

His wife, Kristen Stewart, is one of the clowns he manages.

“It makes it a little dicier,” the Boss Clown said.