The Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 9, 2001
July 9, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 39


Time Out With...
Bill Spink, of Homewood Plant Ops, aka Bill the Balloon Dude

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

At Johns Hopkins, a common enough question upon meeting someone is, "Who did you study under?" A not so common response, however, begins with the word "Frosty." That's the answer you'll get when you are talking to William Spink, maintenance mechanic and part-time clown.

In an institution awash with degrees, Spink, who has worked in Homewood Plant Operations and Maintenance for nearly 25 years, has a distinction of holding a unique one, conferred by Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Clown College in Virginia. During his clown college days, Spink was the pupil of Frosty Little, Ringling Bros.' legendary master clown.

Bill the Balloon Dude will headline the Hopkins Picnic on June 20.

Spink--who also goes by the names Bill the Balloon Dude, Bill the Magician and Choo-Choo the Clown--is the founder, owner and star attraction of BNJ Party Productions, a live-entertainment business he started with his wife, Janet, and granddaughter Ashley Marie Nobel.

Bill, both the Magician and the Balloon Dude, will be performing at the 2001 Hopkins Picnic, to be held on Friday, July 20, at the Evergreen House meadow. Spink performed at last year's picnic as Choo-Choo.

The Gazette recently sat down with Spink, in between his maintenance jobs and clowning around, to see what life behind the makeup is like.

Q. When did you first want to become a clown?
A. About 15 years ago, I guess. I'm a model-railroad builder, building half-scale circus models and trains. The club I belonged to then was the Mason-Dixon Railroad Society, and we would do big displays all over and I would have this whole circus set up in the middle of the train displays. I remember, a friend of mine once said, "Bill, as much as you like those circus wagons and all that stuff, you ought to dress up like a clown when you put your trains out." That kind of sparked it.

Q. What was clown school like?
A. I went on a part-time basis during my vacations. First off, it's about how to come about a character and what you need to do to develop a character. Then it was the makeup thing. I took different courses on how to do makeup properly--that is, to put it on in such a way that I wouldn't be scary to children. And then I learned how to accessorize my wardrobe to match my makeup. The clown character I came up with is a train engineer character. That is why he is called Choo-Choo.

Q. So, there are different types of clowns?
A. Yes. You have your white-face clown. You have your tramp, your hobo, your auguste, which I am. I'm the silly, funny pie-in-the-eye type of clown. I'm not a serious clown. I get down on the ground, roll around, catch the pie in the face.

Q. You didn't actually practice getting pies thrown in your face, did you?
A. No, not really. It's just part of the territory.

Q. Is there a final project before you earn a degree?
A. I guess the final "project" is the appearance. Your makeup can't look like it was put on with a spoon or anything like that.

Q. Have you ever performed in a circus?
A. I do work with a couple of circuses when they come to Baltimore. I've worked with the Royal Hanneford Circus and the Royal Palace Circus.

Q. What kind of magic do you do?
A. Our show consists mostly of light illusions--very good close-up magic. We do the Hindu basket, doll house, zig zag and dancing cane. We call it clown magic. It's a magic that any child 2 years old to an adult who is 80 years old can enjoy. It's funny and has a lot of participation with the audience.

Q. How do you learn your tricks?
A. I go to an awful lot of seminars. I attend at least 10 to 12 a year, on balloon art, on magic, on clowning. I always try to keep myself real fresh.

Q. What is your most popular trick?
A. I love doing Malini egg bag. It's a trick where I have this cloth bag, roughly 8 by 8. I take the bag and I shake it up. I pull it. I beat it. I slap it with my hand and turn it inside out. Then I have somebody put their hands in it. And when that is all done, I reach in and take out a real egg. And I do this feat without any sleeves.

Q. What will you be doing at the Hopkins picnic?
A. I'll be doing balloons throughout the event, and we are going to do a half-hour child's magic show.

Q. Have you performed at other Hopkins events?
A. I've done Spring Fair for the past two years.

Q. What other events do you do?
A. We do company picnics, in-house birthday parties. Our business is any type of party where you want a magician and you want clowning.

Q. How many balloon creations can Bill the Balloon Dude do?
A. In my repertoire of balloons right now, I guess I can do at least 40 different types of balloon art.

Q. What is the secret to making a proper balloon animal?
A. Not breaking the balloon when you are twisting it. That comes with time and practice.

Q. Balloon art is all a series of twists, huh?
A. There's the ear twist, the apple twist. There are so many twists that you use to come up with the character. That is the hard part, remembering which twists are in each balloon.

Q. What is the hardest part about being a clown?
A. I guess the hardest part is getting ready for your performance. Putting your makeup on, your wardrobe, making sure everything is just perfect. I'm very particular about how I look. I make sure my makeup is always the same. Once I learned how to do my face, I stuck with that face throughout. All my characters are copyrighted, as is my wardrobe. And to have copyrighting, you have to be able to keep the makeup the exact same way.

Q. For would-be clowns out there, what advice do you have?
A. Both being a clown and a magician take a lot of dedication, a lot of practice and a lot of work. It's not just going in somewhere buying a trick and doing it. I stand in front of mirrors for hours just practicing it. I practice a new trick for at least a month so that I have it down before I present it to anybody.

Q. Do you bring any aspect of your performance persona to work?
A. Well, I use the guys in the shop as my guinea pigs when I get a new piece of magic. I have a captive audience.

Q. What is the most satisfying part of being a clown or magician?
A. Seeing a child's face after I've performed a trick. Whatever time and trouble that went into learning how to do it, when you see that smile in his eye, you can say this is all really worth it.

This is the first in an occasional series of informal conversations with staff and faculty who do unique work or have unusual outside interests. If you know someone you think others in the Hopkins community would like to read about, please write to Lois Perschetz, Gazette editor, at