For four days in February, Byron Simmons can be found carrying around a “stool sample” in public. If you see him at the Tangier Shrine Circus next week, he may even ask you to hold it for him.
The stool sample is actually a little wooden toilet inside a prescription bottle that Simmons uses as a prop to make people laugh.
“We all have our own shtick,” said Simmons, a Tangier Shrine clown since 2001. “I hand that to Mom and Dad while I’m taking a picture or signing a book. It’s fun for me and I think it’s fun for them.”
Simmons, 56, of Omaha has performed as Boing in the annual Tangier Shrine Circus as well as in local parades and festivals where Shriners were invited to attend.
The 87th annual Tangier Shrine Circus will hold a seven-show run Thursday through Feb. 21 at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs. The circus will feature high-flying acrobats, animal acts, a human cannonball, the Shriners’ Keystone Kops and, of course, clowns. While the Shrine hires a Texas-based producer to arrange the circus acts, the clowns are all local — members of the Tangier Shrine, 2823 S. 84th St.
Simmons said he can walk down the street out of costume and no one would know he’s a clown.
“One of our clowns is a professor,” he said. “We have clowns from all walks of life: actuaries, lawyers, construction workers, police officers, corrections officers ... it’s quite the diverse group of folks.”
When he’s not clowning, Simmons is a warehouse manager for Midstates Construction Products. This year’s circus will mark his 150th performance.
“I’m into the second generation where now I have parents come up to me and say, ‘This is Boing. I remember him when I was a kid,’ ” Simmons said with a laugh. “Yeah, thanks, that makes me feel good. The other guys don’t let me hear the end of it for the next three days. … Somebody keeps putting wrinkles in my makeup kit.”
Of all the things that have changed with the circus in the past 15 years, Simmons said, the use of phone cameras is the most noticeable to him.
“Before, if you didn’t have a camera on you, you didn’t take a picture,” he said. “Now everybody takes a picture. The first few years (cellphone cameras) were out, not everyone knew how to use them. So we were caught posing for long periods of time while moms and dads tried to figure out how to take the picture.”
A Tangier Shrine member who wants to become a clown is required to attend the shrine’s Clown College. Mentors are assigned to each new clown and lessons are given in makeup, costuming and clown etiquette.
“One of the things we do is to make sure we don’t touch anybody when they don’t want to be touched,” Simmons said. “When I take a picture, my hands are exposed. I put my hands in the air.”
This year’s circus is the second for Shriner Drew Bartholomew. The 28-year-old heavy equipment operator from Tabor, Iowa, will perform as Glich, a superhero clown with his own emblem, cape and wild hair.
“I can fly — I just need to book tickets through Southwest Airlines first,” he said. “I can go really fast — as long as the cops don’t pull the car over.
“I also have the ability to make people laugh, and that’s the biggest and most important power I have.”
Bartholomew, the father of two young boys, said he was drawn to the Tangier Shrine because of its community service, work with sick children and family-oriented atmosphere.
Proceeds from the Shrine Circus benefit the Tangier Shrine Center, which helps support 22 Shrine Hospitals across the nation, including care for children in areas such as orthopedics, burn care and spinal cord injury.
“When you go into the Shrine, you make friends with people you may never have met otherwise,” he said. “Everyone from correction officers to HVAC guys to graphic designers to heavy-equipment operators — it’s just a wide variety of people who come together for the same cause.”
Bartholomew said he enjoys entertaining other people and felt like the Tangier Clown Unit — which boasts 50 to 60 members — would be a “natural fit” for him.
In addition to the circus, the clowns can be found in area parades as well as making special trips to local and Shriner hospitals.
However, Bartholomew said his first circus was “nerve-racking.”
“When you become a clown, you think it’s just going to be small groups of people that you entertain,” he said. “When you walk out onto the main floor during a circus performance and there are thousands of eyes on you from the stands, it brings on a whole new level of nervous.”
That apprehension quickly disappeared, he added, and Glich the clown seemed to be a hit with the crowds.
“They loved me, my character and what I do,” Bartholomew said. “It became a new addiction for me.”
Simmons, who has mentored many of the Shrine’s clowns, said not everyone can be a clown: people have to be “wired” for it.
“I can put makeup on anybody, I can give anyone a costume, but if God didn’t make you a clown, I can’t really do much,” he said. “You have to enjoy it. It’s too much work not to. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the most fun, too.”
Run away and join the circus
What: 87th annual Tangier Shrine Circus
When: Thursday through Feb. 21; shows at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 11 a.m. and 3 and 7 p.m. Feb. 20; 1 and 4:30 p.m. Feb. 21
Where: Mid-America Center, Council Bluffs; parking is free
Tickets: prices range from $15 to $30 through any Ticketmaster location or online at ticketmaster.com
Many attractions, plus a Circus Fun Fair
The 2016 Tangier Shrine Circus will feature a variety of acts, including the Xtreme Dominguez Riders and the Motorcycle Globe of Death, Human Cannonball Jennifer Smith, aerial acrobatics by Circus Aerial and more.
The Tangier Shrine also holds bicycle giveaways before each show, said Jack Schram, the Shrine’s circus chairman. Participants register before the show and winners are announced at intermission. Last year the Shrine gave away 84 new bikes.
In addition to the show, kids get up-close interaction with the animals as they ride on elephants, camels and ponies at the Circus Fun Fair, which is open one hour prior to each show. The fair also hosts a variety of games, carnival rides and a petting zoo.