Just clowning around: Interpreter realizes dream he’s had since age 8

Bill Wilkison has dreamed of becoming a clown since he was 8. He became one in July when he graduated from the Mooseburger Clown Camp in Buffalo, Minn.

By Hannah Kiefer
Ever since Conner Prairie Interpretation Manager Bill Wilkison was 8, he’s dreamed of becoming a clown. “Like any kid, I wanted to run away and join the circus,” he said.

For a week this summer, his dream came true.

In July, Bill was able to attend Mooseburger Clown Camp in Buffalo, Minn. The camp is run by a woman who used to be a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus clown and her training came from an actual clown college. Clown colleges have been shutting down in recent years, especially since the announcement that the Ringling circus is shutting down. Bill said the Mooseburger camp is one of the few training grounds left for clowns.

Bill Wilkison takes a moment during a training break to pose with Mooseburger Clown Camp founder Tricia Manuel (left) and instructor Julia Bothun. Both are former clowns with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus.

This summer wasn’t the first time he contemplated attending a clown camp or college. After high school, Bill considered going to clown college but the option just didn’t seem viable. Instead, he went to Ball State University to study theater. But his spirit of adventure kept bringing him back to the idea of being a clown. “That’s what drew me, always,” he said.

In college, an advisor gave Bill some advice as he debated what to do with his life after graduation. “He said, ‘You need to go out and fail,’” Bill recalled. “That was the best advice I ever received.”

That advice freed Bill to pursue adventures, from jobs in Chicago to moving back to Indiana. Before he joined Conner Prairie, he worked at Crate and Barrel but he said even there he found that theater could happen anywhere. The sound of the cash register, he said, was considered their “applause” at the store. “All these stops along the way were kind of like being in that clown car across this map,” he said. “This route led me back to, ‘I really want to learn to be a clown.’”

So this summer, Bill (left, with Mooseburger Clown Camp founder Tricia Manuel) applied for clown camp. He was accepted and was able to raise enough money to attend the camp, along with earning a scholarship. Only 75-100 people are allowed into the program at a time, making it fairly competitive.

During camp, Bill learned the ins and outs of being a clown, from putting on clown makeup to finding his clown persona. “I had never gotten training before that trained me so well (for anything),” he said. “When I left there, I was a clown.”

Bill learned that there is a right and a wrong way to have a pie fight. He learned magic tricks and practiced the art of slapstick comedy.

One thing that he was told at camp really stuck with him. “I was told that 98 percent of the things that you worry about never happen,” he said. “That was a revelation to me. It was very freeing and within that freedom to me lives the brain of the clown.”

Although clown camp is now behind him, Bill brought that and so much more back with him and is already incorporating it into his interpretation at Conner Prairie. Camp taught him how to make a connection with the audience, much like Opening Doors teaches at Conner Prairie. Now, he can better interact with younger visitors, he said.

Even if he’s not in clown makeup, that doesn’t mean Bill forgets that part of himself. “The other day, I was in Create.Connect and I was just in blue shirt, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t a clown,” he said. “You can make the connections without the red nose and big shoes.”