Daniel Jolley pulls one of several balloon animals out of a large plastic bag—it’s a yellow and blue Roadrunner. Daniel shrugs as though it’s nothing special. He reaches into the bag a second time and pulls out another balloon sculpture—Superman. And then another—Batman. After emptying the bag of premade balloon sculptures—including a princess and a Thanksgiving turkey in full plume—he still seems dissatisfied.
“I should have brought some of my original designs,” he says. Then, thrusting his index finger into the air, he adds, “Hold on, I can make you something original right now.”
Daniel withdraws a balloon from a travel case and has it inflated in a quick puff. He puts his hands behind his back and tells me to count to eight.
His arms move and the balloon squeaks and creaks.
Seven-and-a-half seconds later he pulls the balloon out from behind his back to reveal a light blue poodle sculpture. Original or not, what’s unique is how he did it—without looking. Behind his back. In 7.5 seconds.
But Daniel just shrugs. “It’s not a world record, but it’s pretty fast.”
Daniel is a professional clown, one of only a handful working in the state of Vermont—Daniel says he only knows of three. At 20 years old, he already has a lifetime of clowning experience under his belt. An award-winning performer with a steadily rising popularity, an expanding fan base, and an entrepreneurial mindset, Daniel says he doesn’t plan on hunting for a more practical job any time soon.
“I’ve always just loved to entertain,” he says. “I would say that the art of clowning is the art of having fun, and I love to have fun, but as an entrepreneur, I’m also always trying to figure out something new.”
It may all seem like old schtick to Daniel, but with more than 222 balloon designs in his head, puppets, magic tricks, juggling acts, a unicycle, and wit to spare, he’s certainly not struggling for new material. His act is impressively tight, but Daniel says he never had any formal training. Clowning is just in his blood—literally.
A member of the Groton-area Jolley family, Daniel, also known as “Buddy,” began performing around the age of six with his father, Lewy “Jolley,” his mother Miriam “Joy,” and his sister Ariel “Sunshine.” Eventually, younger siblings Nathan “Smiley,” Gabriel “Gabby,” Michael “Tag-A-Long,” and Rachel “Q-Tee” joined the family’s clowning gig.
It all started when his father, having been inspired by a clown when he was a boy, took up clowning around the age of 20. He eventually got so busy that his wife, looking for a way to spend more time with her husband, started clowning along with him. Since then their whole family has spent years entertaining people in area parades, at fairs, and many community events.
As Daniel’s siblings have gotten older, some have decided to pursue other careers—though they still get together to “clown around” from time to time. Daniel, however, has decided to make his alter ego Buddy a full time job. His round face and his voice with its gentle scratch give him a naturally comedic presence. He rattles off witticisms and jokes like it’s chitchat while deftly contorting balloons into all sorts of shapes and sculptures.
Daniel says he made his first balloon sculpture at the age of six. He got his first magic set at the age of eight and his first unicycle at 14. He bought his first puppet at the age of 15 and a year later won second place in the worldwide Axtell Puppets Video Challenge. He was earning money clowning at the age of 12, and when he got his driver’s license at 16 and no longer had to rely on mom and dad for transportation, his career took off
So, yes, it’s safe to say that clowning is in his blood. And while he was trained by his parents and his father’s extensive library of clowning books and DVDs, Daniel says he also had the benefit of the perfect 24/7 training ground: homeschooling.
“You want to be a scientist, you start in school,” he says. “You want to be a clown, you start at home; you start online; you start researching; you start practicing, practicing, practicing.”
Odd as it may sound, Daniel credits his naturally outgoing personality to his homeschooling.
“People say in homeschooling you don’t develop good social skills,” Daniel says, “but I found that homeschooling kept me away from a lot of the pressures kids feel to conform. I don’t care about the ‘cool factor.’ I don’t really care what people think of me, and that allows me to break through social barriers, and it makes me a better clown.”
Daniel says he’s found a sense of freedom in being Buddy the Clown. He says it’s almost like adopting another personality in that, while he’s Buddy, he can have fun in ways Daniel can’t.
And make more money.
The business of clowning, Daniel says, is highly profitable. In the summertime he can pull in $150-$700 or more per event, and he has many events in one week. That’s nothing compared to the $250,000 a year one can make clowning in more metropolitan areas like Boston, Mass., but Daniel says he’s not in it for the money. Things slow down for him in the winter, but he makes up for the lack of work as a substitute teacher at Blue Mountain Union School in Wells River—another job he claims to love.
“Working with kids is great,” he says. “The whole thing, my name, you know, ‘Mr. Jolley,’ and the fact that I’m a clown, the whole thing just sounds fun. The kids love it. And it is fun! They’re my target audience, and they’re at school most of the day, so where better to learn about them then being in school with them?”
Clowning also comes in handy at his church, Bible Baptist in Barre, where he entertains at Vacation Bible School and uses his clowning as a means of ministry. In fact, Daniel’s faith is very important to him. He actually gave up clowning for a year after high school to attend Ambassador Baptist College in Lattimore, N.C., where he studied Bible theology. At the time he was curious to see if the Lord had any work for him as a missionary or pastor, but, in the end, he felt he could do his best with clowning.
“God has everybody where they are for a purpose,” he says. “I’m just trying to do the most I can to glorify Him through what I’ve got.”
When asked if his faith makes people leery of hiring a “Christian clown,” Daniel says it’s actually more accepted than not. He says he doesn’t preach at the kids, but that his Christian values help give parents a surety that his act is family friendly and clean.
In fact, “dirtying up” his act is something Daniel expresses an outright refusal to do. Verbally, he draws a comparison between Terry Fator—the ventriloquist who won 2007’s America’s Got Talent—and Jeff Dunham, a comedian and ventriloquist ranked as the third highest paid comedian in America behind Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, according to Forbes. Daniel says that because Fator’s act has remained family friendly his success hasn’t been anywhere near as monumental as the controversial, edgier Dunham.
“I will not compromise like that,” Daniel says. “When entertaining becomes a money vacuum that’s when people compromise and I don’t want to do that.”
One thing he does like to do with his clowning gigs is make them educational, which is partly why he enjoys his job as a substitute teacher so much.
“At school, I learn what the kids are learning and then I integrate it into my program,” he says. “I’m working on incorporating an anti-bullying message in the routine, especially for school audiences. That’s a big thing in schools right now.”
Entertains are teachers, Daniel says, and the sad part is most entertainers don’t realize that.
“Bill Nye the Science Guy, SpongeBob, they’re all educators,” Daniel says. “Entertainers are big role models. Kids listen to you, they learn from you.”
In July 2011, Daniel attempted to set a world record by making the largest continually connected balloon sculpture—an anniversary cake to commemorate Lamoille County Field Day’s 50th anniversary. The sculpture was to be 20 feet wide, over 24 feet tall, and made up of over 10,000 balloons.
“But the number one killer of balloons is humidity,” Daniel says, and, unfortunately for him, the heat index on the day of his attempt was 103 and the temperature outside was 94 degrees. With 15 volunteers helping him, Daniel managed to complete 80 percent of the sculpture, but weather conditions the following night destroyed much of the work they had done, and Daniel didn’t have enough supplies to repair the damage.
Daniel says he wants to attempt another world record sometime in 2013. He’s in the process of researching and is trying to pull in balloonists from all over Vermont to help him out. He hopes to use the event to raise money for charity, but also wants to raise enough money to have some people from Guinness World Records come and document the event.
In the meantime, Daniel is busy this winter building a traveling bubble blowing unit to tow behind his mini clown-Corvette. He hopes to have it ready in time for next summer’s parade season.
It’s apparent that Daniel “Buddy” Jolley, is no weekend warrior. He’s seriously invested in his clowning act and intends to keep shaping it into a full-fledged business.
“Most clowns out there do it as a hobby,” Daniel says. “They do it in their spare time. Clowning, on the low end, is something anybody can do, but when it comes to making it a business you’ve got to develop a professional act.”
Daniel says he goes through about 5,000 balloons every two weeks, and on top of that there’s the constant need to maintain his custom clown costume, his props, and toys. Daniel is a member of the COAI (Clowns of America International) and the WCA (World Clown Association), and he’s also a certified, insured performer.
If you want to be a successful clown, he says, you’ve got to take it seriously. Unfortunately, he adds, clowning is a dying breed. Due to the nature of the exposure clowns get in the media, he finds that more and more older kids are uninterested in clowns, even leery of them; while little kids love him, teenagers are afraid of him.
“But I don’t plan on getting out of this any time soon,” Daniel says. “I want to invest in school type shows, keep my act local, but maybe do some traveling, like maybe look into getting some cruise line shows.” He shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m just always trying to figure out something new.”