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Circus clown and biography fan

Barry Lubin: Circus clown and biography fan

Tony Cenicol/The New York Times/The New York Times

Though he’s far from done clowning, Barry Lubin, a.k.a. Grandma, will bid adieu to the Big Apple Circus when the tent comes down May 13. It’s a fitting bookend to his circus career. In 1974, Lubin, on a lark, auditioned for Ringling’s Clown College at the Boston Garden.

BOOKS: What are you reading now?

LUBIN: I just finished “Gun, with Occasional Music” by Jonathan Lethem. My daughter, who supplies me with a lot of my reading material, recommended it. It’s surreal and very visual, which is the kind of book I like, less wordy and more descriptive.

BOOKS: What else do you like to read?


LUBIN: Ninety nine percent of what I read is autobiographies and biographies. I read biographies of people I admire including a fairly recent book about Jerry Lewis, “King of Comedy” by Shawn Levy. That was interesting and somewhat controversial. George Burns wrote four autobiographies. There’s a lot about his relationship with Jack Benny and the practical jokes they would play on each other. Nothing made me laugh more than Burns’ stories. Not a lot makes me laugh. I also read Emmett Kelly’s biography, “Clown.” It was very interesting and gave real insight into how he developed his career. Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, “The Essential Lenny Bruce,” was really influential and so was Sammy Davis Jr.’s, “Yes, I Can.” That’s an autobiography, I learned later, that is candy-coated.

BOOKS: Of the show-biz biographies you’ve read, which do you recommend for general readers?

LUBIN: It would have to be [Charles] Chaplin’s “My Autobiography.” It’s very reflective of the politics of the time as well as business and show business.

BOOKS: What are your reading habits when you tour?

LUBIN: Sometimes I will get sucked into a book backstage during a show. But I’ve had to stop because I’ll get so involved that I’m afraid I’m going to miss a cue and that’s a big no-no. So I tend to read in the morning.


BOOKS: Was there any assigned reading in clown college?

LUBIN: Absolutely no books. But I’m about to teach a class. The required reading for that is “Acrobats of the Soul” by Ronald Jenkins. It’s a wonderful analysis of artists from vaudeville to present day clowns, including me.

BOOKS: When did you become a serious reader?

LUBIN: In my early days with Ringling, 37 years ago. We had hours between shows, and we were stuck inside an arena. I’d go up into the stands and read.

BOOKS: Do you find many readers in the circus?

LUBIN: No. We have a Chinese troupe, and they are always on the Internet. They will be backstage during the show trying to find WiFi some place.

BOOKS: What else do you like to read?

LUBIN: I’m an avid reader of John Grisham books. I’ve read so many that some times I will dive into one and realize 20 pages in that I’ve already read it. Here’s an interesting story. During a performance I sat in a person’s lap in the audience like I do some times. The guy looked really famous. I realized he’s the guy who wrote “The Hunt for Red October.” I was sitting on Tom Clancy’s lap! I had to take his hat off and throw it several rows because that’s the bit. I got to talk to him after the show. He considered himself a guy with very little talent who got lucky. We should all be that lucky.


BOOKS: Any other author’s whose laps you’ve sat in?

LUBIN: No, but Anna Quindlen comes every year to the circus with her family, so I know her because of that. Sometimes I go out during intermission and talk to people in the front row. She was there one night. I was looking for a divorce lawyer, so I asked her. She said, ‘This is wrong on so many levels.’

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