In 1949, seventh-grader Larry Kibbey, was struggling to keep up in school. His reading level was much lower than his classmates and his teacher didn’t want to pass him through to eighth grade not reading on grade level.
“So, she took me to the library and said, ‘this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to find some books that you want to read about and you’re going to pick out 12 books and at the end of the semester you should be able to read at an eighth grade level,’” Kibbey said.
When the young boy told his teacher that he enjoyed books about circuses and clowns, she decided to give her pupil some motivation to finish this daunting task.
“She said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you get your reading level up to an eighth grade level by the end of the year, I’ll get you into the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus as a clown,’” Kibbey said. “She wrote them and they made the deal.”
It took Kibbey the rest of the year to accomplish his goal, but he finally read the books to the teacher’s satisfaction and she kept her end of the bargain.
“They let me out every Friday while the circus was in town,” he said. “I’d go up to the reform school and the head clowns would meet me there. That night, they dressed me up as a clown and put me out into the rings with them. I fell in love with [clowning] and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Since then, Kibbey has become a professional clown and helped to train more than 4,000 professional clowns from all over the world through the Houston Clown School.
He began clowning in his home state of Michigan when he was still in high school and only took a hiatus from clowning to serve in the US Marine Corps. Then, in 1968, he and his wife Carolyn moved to Iowa so he could attend college.
“The mayor of the town there used to hire me to stand out in the street and wave people into the restaurants,” Kibbey said. “I would stand out there with a stop sign in a clown suit and hand out literature about the town when people were driving through.”
After college, Kibbey and his family moved to Houston and have made their home there ever since. But, despite putting down roots in the Lone Star State, the professional clown and his family also traveled all over the country, performing as clowns and advertising for carnivals.
“We traveled with Murphy’s Bros. Carnvial which later became Worldwide Amusements—the largest carnival in the world,” he said. “We’d arrive three days before the carnival and go to the TV station and the local school and hand out tickets to the carnival.”
Clowning became a way of life. Kibbey’s wife and children became clowns and the Kibbeys became the largest family of professional clowns and magicians in the world.
In 1976 the family decided to open up the Houston Clown School to teach others the tricks of the trade and bring other families together.
Through their school, they have not only had the chance to train professional clowns, but they have also had the chance to “clown for the Lord.”
“We get calls all over the US asking us to do church youth camps and church reunions,” he said. “We’ve been just about everywhere in the country with it.”
The Kibbeys have also helped teach object lessons in church services, trained clowns at prisons, cheered up patients at children’s hospitals and taught classes on Christian college campuses. Their expertise in this area is so wide in fact, that they have written a book called “Learn to Clown for the Lord,” and offer a class in the subject at their Houston campus.
And because these clowns answer to a higher calling, Kibbey wants his students to have good moral character as well.
“Our clowns have to agree to a few things before we will teach them,” he said. “They can’t drink or smoke or fraternize with the opposite sex. Their language also has to be pure. They can’t be cussing and clowning at the same time.”
But despite the strict rules, Kibbey believes that everyone has the ability to be a clown, and that clowning is a great legacy to leave future generations.
“It’s a good thing to pass from father to son,” he said. “If something happens to me, one of [my family members] can step right into my position.”
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