Clowning on campus

Joe with his balloon creation. Photo by Sydney Fairbanks / Jambar Contributor

By Sydney Fairbanks
The Jambar Contributor

Of those who came to Kilcawley Center’s 50th Birthday Celebration on April 10, few can say they were at its grand opening in 1974. However, one special guest was among both crowds to provide entertainment to the Youngstown State University community.

Jocko the Clown, the stage name of Youngstown resident Joe Sullivan, has been clowning since he graduated from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey College of Clowns in 1969. He attended YSU and graduated in 1979 with a degree in advertising and public relations.

“I worked here at Kilcawley Center once a year every two years doing Jocko the Clown, the balloon man — the Mr. Joe Show, which was a clown without makeup,” Sullivan said.

Joe with students. Photo by Sydney Fairbanks / Jambar Contributor

With his 2024 return to YSU, Sullivan entertained attendees as he sculpted elaborate balloon animals and joked with those he gave them to.

Growing up, other kids were interested in sports, but Sullivan spent his time at the library reading books to learn skills he still uses as Jocko the Clown today. In addition to balloon sculpting, his show includes juggling, puppetry, performing magic tricks, music and plate spinning.

Sullivan said he takes inspiration from entertainers he watched in his childhood, such as Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo.

“We would watch on TV the Ed Sullivan show — which was the old Sunday night show — and if there was a juggler on Sunday night, Monday I’d be at the library trying to find a book on how to juggle,” Sullivan said. “Whatever I saw on TV that was interesting to me at that time is what I wanted to become in my own little imagination.”

Sullivan said he wanted to have unique skills and enjoyed seeing people’s reactions to them.

“If you learn to juggle and nobody else was juggling, you stand in recess and you juggle three tennis balls or whatever. The kids say, ‘Oh, that’s different. He’s a different sort of person,’” Sullivan said. “People reward you for what you’re doing. If you’re doing something that they enjoy, they reward you and then you want to do more of it.”

Sullivan decided to pursue a career in entertainment around 1967 after he performed his learned skills at the library where he borrowed his books.

“I would go and show the library [staff] a trick that I learned to do,” Sullivan said. “Toward the end of the summer, she asked me, ‘Would you like to come and do a show — a presentation — of what you learned this summer with these books?’ I thought, ‘A show? Show business, sure.’”

Sullivan said he realized he can turn his interests into profit after began performing at libraries across Youngstown, getting paid $30 each time.

“They said, ‘We’re gonna take you to some different libraries so you can do a report on what you learned this summer reading the books,’ and every time I turned around, there was a little envelope. That feeds into the idea that I can actually be paid to do this, and it started from there,” Sullivan said.

When Sullivan was a junior at Ursuline High School, he made connections with other clown performers in the Youngstown area by bonding over a coveted clown makeup brand, Stein.

Through connections, Sullivan earned the opportunity to attend the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey College of Clowns, which was an eight week program only 18 people in the country were invited to attend. Sullivan dropped out of high school and pursued an extension course for exchange students so that he could graduate when he returned from Florida in 1971.

After graduating from clown college, he went on tour with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

In his career, he also volunteered his draft in the Army under special services entertainment alongside other performers, such as Bobby Goldsboro and the Ramsey Lewis Trio. He also worked at The Vindicator for 19 years in the circulation department.

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