When James McGrath graduated from Oakton High School in 1999, he was not voted “Class Clown.” In fact, he described himself as more of a “quiet nerd,” who frequently dyed his hair green or orange and dreamed of one day becoming a rock star. Eight years later, McGrath has crowds going wild — however those crowds are primarily comprised of elementary school students.
Coming out of high school, McGrath followed the path of most high school graduates and attended college at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, but some time during his second year, between Psych 101 and study program that put him to work at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. for a couple months, McGrath turned from his conventional trail and began down an unorthodox path that led him to his current profession — as a clown.
After a couple of intensive classes at a camp for potential clowns, McGrath, then a tall, lanky college sophomore, walked out with a diploma, a loud tacky Hawaiian shirt, board shorts and a signature red nose. Taking the name of Cricket after the beloved Disney character from the film “Pinocchio” (“My co-workers at Disney World used to call me Jiminy Cricket,” McGrath said.), he became a freelance clown, entertaining kids at birthday parties and county fairs. While McGrath completed a bachelors degree in psychology and a minor in religious studies, one night after watching a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performance, McGrath decided to seriously pursue being a clown for a career and find a way to join the circus.
“After bothering the right person, I sent in my resume and a tape of myself performing a couple of tricks and stopped the small gigs and street work all together,” McGrath explained. “Although it was fun watching people throw change into a hat on the sidewalk, I was ready to join the circus.”
In a few months, McGrath was making the circus his family and visiting cities across the U.S. with Barnum & Bailey.
“One of my favorite activities when we’re not rehearsing for a show, is to visit the cheesiest sights American has to offer. Attractions like the ‘Largest Frying Pan on Earth,’” McGrath said with a laugh.
The average clown begins their career in their early 20s, McGrath became a clown for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baileys at the age of 25 and marvels at the talent the other clowns have to offer. The current crew includes a 15-year-old juggler as well as clowns that still perform night after night well into their 50s. Regardless of age, McGrath tries to acquire tips from his co-clowns to improve his character.
Two of his favorite acts during the circus performance are ‘Smash Car,’ a satire on the popular American sport of NASCAR, and the classic pie fight gag, where cream pies are thrown onto the painted faces of these comical characters.
“Though I do not have a large role in ‘Smash Car,’ it’s so funny to watch these hilarious characters. The pizza delivery guy, the 70s hipster and his giant afro, the bubbly redneck and my favorite — Igor the Evil Race Car Driver,” McGrath explained. “Even though they are just riding around in circles, this parody of NASCAR keeps the children laughing ’till the end, when they smash their go-karts.”
Some children on their first visit to the circus express sheer horror, but others express pure delight while watching the clown performance.
“When I was little, I loved to watch the clowns perform and now I’m actually one of them performing the acts. It’s an amazing feeling,” McGrath said.
He hasn’t completely forsaken his degree in psychology and admits to sneaking in a psychological journal during the long rides from city to city, but clowning is certainly his true passion.
McGrath enjoys opening fan mail from pleased fans throughout the country. They send him crayon-drawn pictures and letters expressing their happiness when seeing him and his fellow clowns.
One night after a string of shows at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. two weeks ago, McGrath boarded a Metro car occupied by families returning from the circus performance. McGrath took a seat across from a young child still feeling a rush of excitement from the show. Dressed in casual attire and out of makeup and costume the character of Cricket was undetectable and in his place was a 20-something college graduate who overheard the excited chatter of the child.
“That night, for the first time the child was speaking about me. Out of all the other clowns, out of all the other performances the circus had to offer, that night the child found my character the most memorable,” said McGrath, who will perform with the circus at the Patriot Center at George Mason University’s Fairfax campus through April 8. “I tell myself I’ve made the right decision by choosing this career when I see children overwhelmed with joy during the performance.”