Joe DeSoto still wears a “onesie” to work as a “ ‘fraidy cat’.”
“Asked 10 years ago if I’d ever be a clown in Ringling Brothers,” DeSoto said, “I’d probably just have laughed.”
Which is the main object now.
The Lodi High School graduate is part of the six-member clown “alley” in the new-look Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus that’s being staged six times today through Sunday at Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena.
It's “Out of This World”: With ice and high-tech lasers. Galactic “good v. evil.” Aerial (Cirque du Soleil?) antics. No more elephants.
“I’m still kinda finding myself,” said DeSoto, 27, who’s been clowning around professionally for 3½ years and joined Ringling Bros. in 2015. “It’s great working for families and entertaining kids.”
He’s also made the performing transformation from hopeful YouTube-ing to entertaining 18,000 people at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. He’d maxed out at 3,000 prior to that.
“That was huge,” he said of the June 14 performance. “I was nervous. Once you’re on stage, though, you’ve done so much rehearsal there are five others I can trust who are funny and can pick up the pieces.”
For DeSoto, a 2007 Lodi High graduate — he admits to being a life-long clown, in the positive sense — lots of them involve his costuming and makeup, which can require as much as an hour to fully assemble before he becomes “Fredo.”
“It’s essentially like a onesie," he said. "With wigs. Big shoes. Fredo, he’s very much like a ‘fraidy cat.’ We try to make sure each of us is a recognizable archetype. He's cautious but at the same time serious. He’s really, really curious and always getting himself into trouble. All the compromising positions he possibly can.”
Lots of the clowning around is improvisational, keeping people mirthful as music plays between the central acts fly and spin around.
A University of Southern California theater graduate, DeSoto had been taking clown classes when emails and Facebook interaction led to a September 2015 trip to Ringling’s Las Vegas clown audition. Somewhat astonished, he was among those selected.
“It was so much fun,” he said. That led to a “lot of ensemble work. Largely to improve. Getting together as a group. Doing pratfalls and just generally kinda finding that play area. ... That fun bubble on stage. Have fun bringing out the best in those around you.”
DeSoto, who lived a somewhat itinerant existence with his mother on California’s county-fair circuit, also attended circus prep camp. He was prepared for such a “romantic” odyssey.
He and clown partner Dave Honigman, a Long Beach friend with whom he'd taken clown classes, “sort of shadowed” Ringling Brothers. That “led to generally living on the train and learning about life on the road. Life on the tracks, as it were.
“It’s such a huge life adjustment. Living on a train and moving from city to city. It’s such a romantic lifestyle. It feels like something out of another age.
“There are little hints of past. Classic Ringling posters. Pictures of former clowns. Remnants of a rich history. I like to stand in the vestibule and watch the scenery go by — being able to see America in a way I'd never thought of. Going coast-to-coast.”
He certainly knows Northern California.
Born in Santa Rosa, DeSoto and his two sisters moved to Monterey in fifth grade and Lodi in sixth grade. Mom Michelle Wakeham is an assistant fair manager. Dad Mani Rosales is a lumberjack and younger sister Nicole Rosales is enrolled in Lodi’s police academy.
“Always lean, lanky, very skinny,” DeSoto would to do funny, rubbery body contortions for his dad, $1 each.
He participated in theater as a Carmel High School freshman: “I really, really enjoyed it.” That led to USC and clown college. He’d done performance art and skateboard wrecks on YouTube.
Though he “always liked” (William) Shakespeare and Italian commedia dell'arte, he started becoming “fascinated by the circus and physical comedy.”
Two years after graduating from USC, he was learning from John Gilkey, a progressive Cirque du Soleil performer. He’s a clown, juggler and physical actor who “never wore a red nose or baggy pants.”
DeSoto has an “option to extend to a second year.
“What’s great is I started in California, where all my friends and family can see me before I set sail on this new journey. For the next year of my life. What a great opportunity to be in this very loving environment. Everyone is so warm and welcoming. The shows have been been so much fun. Friends and family can see what I’m doing.”
— Contact Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tsaurorecord.