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In high school, Sandra Bergamin mapped out her life.
“I was going to be in the foreign service,” Bergamin, now 25, recalls. “I’d see the world. Make a difference.”
As Meat Loaf put it: Two out of three ain’t bad. Bergamin, as planned, is now seeing the world and, sure as heck, making a difference. But somewhere on her journey from 12th grade to the real world, Bergamin lost interest in the foreign service career. And in the real world, for that matter.
So, she’s not a diplomat—she’s a clown. Bergamin only recently left her Alexandria home and ran away with the circus. She’s now back in town with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. The greenest dweller on Clown Alley couldn’t be happier with the way things didn’t work out.
“I don’t work for a living,” she says an hour before show time, bubbly as a freshly cracked Perrier. “I’m with the circus! I play for a living! And it’s wonderful.”
The rest of the Bergamin family—well, they didn’t give up those foreign service dreams so easily as Sandra. Her papa, Dino Bergamin, began work as a gondolier back in his native Venice, Italy, when he was just 9 years old and so never even finished grammar school. After coming to America, he waited tables so his youngest daughter could get a private school education (at Bishop Ireton), then proudly watched her earn that international relations degree at James Madison University in just three-and-a-half years.
“When I first heard about this, I don’t know how I liked the sound of, ‘My daughter, the clown,’” laughs Dino. “I had no schooling, so I wanted only the best for her, and she gets all this education that I never had. And for what? To be a clown?”
Dino knows, however, he has only himself to blame for his daughter’s failure to stick to the stately career path she once chose.
It was he, after all, who took Sandra to the D.C. Armory to see the circus, year after year after year, including that special night in March 1996 when David Larible, a circus lifer and the only clown in Ringling Bros.’ history to be the featured attraction, ran from the center ring to the grandstand and, out of the thousands of people in the arena, pulled her down to the show floor to be a part of his gag. That was all it took.
“I believe in fate. Always have,” says Sandra, looking over to the seat that Larible plucked her from two years ago. “And I think fate had something to do with David Larible coming over to me—why me?—and taking me with him that night. The circus has always been a magical place for me, my whole life. But if David hadn’t come over to me, none of this would have happened.”
After her impromptu encounter with Larible, generally regarded as the greatest clown on earth, Bergamin went home and wrote in her personal journal that she should look into a circus career. But then she sat on that advice and kept a bartending gig at Ruby Tuesday’s, an Alexandria fern bar and eatery. Until the circus came to D.C. Armory again one year later.
And then the gods stepped in once again.
“I was sitting in bed, flipping through City Paper, and I read that clown tryouts were being held the next day at the Armory,” she says. “That happened to be my day off from the bar, so I gave it a shot.”
At the audition, Bergamin, whose theatrical background was limited to one college play and all those nights of serving drunks with a smile at Ruby Tuesday’s, improvised a “He loves me, he loves me not” skit. And she told inquisitive arbiters that she laughs and cries a whole lot more than the average guy or gal. A month later, Ringling Bros. offered her a scholarship to the circus’s Clown College in Sarasota, Fla. She accepted.
Bergamin loved being back in college, even if it wasn’t the grad school her parents had envisioned for her. She learned
all about the history and art of clowning. She learned how to fall without getting hurt and realized the necessity of applying makeup thick enough to make Tammy Faye Bakker blush. She even got the first of many opportunities to personally thank Larible for being her unwitting guiding light. And, best of all, Bergamin received an ornate work uniform—known in circus parlance as “an agent suit”—made from Italian silk, plus a pair of fabulous black leather clown shoes. (Feeling
racy after graduation, Bergamin
got a tattoo of the shoes on the small
of her back.)
But even though she had her outfit and her degree and her tattoo, Bergamin left Clown College without a firm job offer, just a “Don’t call us, we’ll honk your nose when the time comes.”
In January, the honk finally came. Bergamin quickly signed a one-year contract with Ringling Bros., quit Ruby Tuesday’s, and headed off to Charleston, S.C., to join the circus. Lots of people fantasize about running away to join the circus. Bergamin is living the fantasy, in a spotlight no less, and grinning through every second of it.
Washington is only her third town since becoming a clown, and her parents and many longtime friends have attended the Greatest Show on Earth on its current run here. They’ve seen her dance in the aisles with childlike abandon, fraternize with strange animals, and get up from painful-looking pratfalls still wearing a smile as oversized as her clown shoes.
Unlike the elder Bergamins, Larible wasn’t surprised Sandra ended up on Clown Alley.
“It is nice to hear somebody say that I helped her decide what to do with her life,” says mentor Larible. “But she is such a happy person, and she had all that happiness inside her before that night she met me. Now, like all good clowns, she is just sharing that happiness with other people.”
Back under the big top, just before show time, Bergamin admits that she doesn’t know how long she’ll maintain the clowning life. She also confesses that she would have probably been happy if she’d ended up as a diplomat. But not this happy.
“Now, my job is to make people smile,” she says. “That’s my career! Can you believe it?” —Dave McKenna