In gentler times young boys would often daydream of running away from home to join the circus. Irv Romig didn't have to run very far. In fact, he didn't have to run at all because he was born under the bright lights of the Big Top. Irvin Hugh Romig was born in Detroit, Michigan on February 1, 1920.   His father, Carl Romig, was a performing cowboy and horse trainer for the Ringling Bros. Circus. His mother, Catherine Rooney, was a bareback rider and aerialist in the family circus act, The Riding Rooneys.

  Romig got his first taste of applause at the tender age of five in the Frank McIntyre Circus. Little Irvin would sit obediently on a trunk in the dressing room, while his parents performed. The dressing room was also shared by clowns Ed Raymond and Marcus Hunkler who decided one day to enlist the tiny tot in their act. They gave Romig a clown face, a swallowtail coat and a huge frying pan and spoon.  Raymond and Hunkler  played a comical version of the tune It’s Three O’ Clock In The Morning on the trombone and clarinet. When they got to the chorus the clowns instructed the youngster to bang the frying pan with the spoon three times. When Romig heard the laughter radiating from the bleachers he knew that sawdust was in his veins and the circus was in his blood.

  The Romig family traveled with various circus shows and rodeos from Canada to Mexico and across the United States. At the end of the season they would settle in the Detroit area. In the spring, the routine  started all over again.   In 1924 a new member was added to the troupe when Romig’s sister Fay was born.

  During the great depression   the family formed their own show,  the Romig and Rooney Circus,   which appeared at local movie theaters like the Macomb in Mt. Clemens, and  the Redford in Detroit. A vintage   poster for   the   show boasts of  “Trained Horses, Educated Mules, Trick Dogs, Clever Ponies, Acrobats, Bareback Riders, Jugglers, Wire Walkers, Aerialists, Trick Roping and Clowns, Clowns, Clowns!”

   By the age of fifteen Romig was a full-fledged circus performer. Known as “Irvie- The Circus Buffoon”, the young clown would do trick riding, a comedy mule act, clown routines and walk arounds. Working with the top circus performers of the day was like a “Clown College” for Romig.  He learned the old routines from veteran clowns and invented many new ones.

   In his autobiography The Show Goes On, Romig said, “If  I could do something that was a little outstanding, that nobody else could do, I took pride in that. I think that got into my head through the circus. Anytime I found something that I could do that others couldn’t, that made me real happy… inside and all over.”

  While performing with the Jay Gould Circus he got his induction notice from the Army. Corporal T-5 Romig  was  the  camp  bugler, horse  and  dog trainer and a member of the Section 8 Gang, a troupe of clowns  who entertained  the servicemen. When  he was  discharged in 1945 Romig decided  to leave  the family circus and strike out on his own.

  Performing with several small circuses, Romig’s reputation as a clown was growing.  In 1946  while in New York with the Jimmy Cole Circus Romig had his first brush with a new medium- television. Cole made a deal with a TV producer to televise his show, which was the first broadcast of a circus on television. “We didn’t get paid extra for the TV show,” Romig recalls, “It was just for publicity.”

  In 1949 Romig met  Rose Dobo,  an AT&T  supervisor, at the Campus Ballroom in Detroit. “I went over to where there had been a line of girls,” he remembers. “I asked the first girl to dance, and she refused. Then I asked the second girl, and she refused. I ended up working my way down the line. I swung around, and ran right into Rosie, and asked her to dance. This is where I met my wild Hungarian, and we’ve been swinging ever since.” The pair was married a year later.

  Romig signed on with the Shrine Circus, an association that lasted for twenty-two years. Knowing that people wanted to see something new, he invented  new, elaborate routines. The old-time clowns were “suitcase clowns”, meaning that their entire act would fit into a suitcase. They did the same tried and true gags over and over again. Romig, being a clever clown, knew he could do better. For the Shrine Circus he created an elaborate train ride gag by converting a small lawn-cutting tractor into a mini steam-style locomotive with coaches and a caboose, built out of small trailers .The train routine was one of the highlights of the show that season. Romig also trained animals for his act, something few clowns had the knowledge or patience to do. Trick horses, donkeys, llamas, a miniature buffalo and various other critters were all part of the act at one time or another.

  The Ringling Bros. Circus heard of Romig’s versatility and invited him to join the “Greatest Show On Earth.” Romig’s new bride Rose got into the act, too. She rode a float in the parade, assisted the aerialists and worked as a seamstress, creating and repairing costumes. The pair even appeared in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1951 epic film The Greatest Show On Earth, along with Romig’s sister Fay, who doubled for Betty Hutton.

  Looking to settle down to raise a family Romig decided to try his hand at TV. He got an appealing offer from Pete Strand, programming director at WXYZ.  After two auditions, Strand decided to hire Romig for a new weekly children’s show. Tip-Top Fun starring Ricky the Clown went on the air in October 1953. Strand insisted though that Irvie change his clown name to Ricky- easier for the kids to remember.

  The early shows featured Laurel and Hardy shorts, a peanut gallery of about twenty-five kids, Bambino the donkey and Ricky the Clown’s songs and antics. The show performed well in the ratings, often beating  Roy Rogers at rival station WWJ. To the dismay of  Tip-Top Bread, the show’s sponsors, FCC regulations stipulated that you couldn’t use the sponsor’s name in the title of a program. So Tip-Top Fun became the Ricky the Clown Show

  Ricky became so popular that his show was expanded to five days a week. Many of his circus friends were guests on the show, like famous clowns Otto Griebling, Ernie Birch, Felix  Adler, Jackie  LeClair and  Happy Kellems.  Other performers on the show were  Kay Hanneford  and  her dog act, unicyclist Don Phillips, and Gloria Peebles with  her trained  dogs and monkeys. The show became a family affair with Romig’s sister Fay Snyder and her dog act, his father Carl with various  animals  and his adopted sister Grace McIntosh on the flying trapeze.

  In 1956 programming director Pete Strand created a different type of program for Romig, the Robin and Ricky Show. Robin, played by the pert Lolly Deene, was a waitress at a fictional lunch counter. Romig played Ricky the busboy. The lunch counter angle appealed to the show’s sponsors, making it easy to weave the commercials for their food products into the fabric of the show.

  By May of 1958, Robin and Ricky flew the coop. Strand returned the show to its original circus format, along with a small increase in the show’s budget. Romig still spent a lot of his own money building props and gags. Games and prizes were now a part of the show, along with cartoons and Fonda the Llama. Since Romig was collecting a menagerie of animals for the TV show, he decided to create a small zoo and amusement park in the backyard of his home in Birmingham, Michigan

  Rickyland featured trained animals, train and airplane rides, a circus museum and fun house, circus acts, a picnic area, donkey rides and of course, Ricky the Clown. At the end of the day each child got a balloon, a bag of popcorn and a picture of Ricky. Admission was on the honor system; a bowl was put out front for donations. Romig recalls only one occasion when he saw any money in the bowl. When he went to count it at the end of the day, the money was gone. Rickyland closed after only a year of operation because it became too expensive to feed the animals and maintain the grounds. 

  Romig was very proud of the fact that he had the only kid show in the country with an automobile dealer, Hanley Dawson Chevrolet, as a sponsor. The dealer even insisted that Ricky himself do the commercials, rather than staff announcer, Larry McCann. Ricky the Clown was also a popular guest host, filling in for other WXYZ kid show personalities who were on vacation or too ill to perform. On more than one occasion Romig would get a frantic call from Pete Strand asking if Ricky could get down to the station in fifteen minutes, because so-and-so was unable to make it to work that day. When Romig subbed for a vacationing Soupy Sales, he insisted that Soupy’s puppeteer Clyde Adler be allowed to show his face on air, something that Soupy had never done before. Romig wrote a sketch where an incompetent plumber, played by Adler, was sent to Soupy’s house to fix a leak. By the end of the show water was cascading everywhere.

  In 1962 Romig was partnered with Johnny Ginger for Action Theater, an hour’s worth of Three Stooges shorts, with a little bit of live comedy from the duo thrown in for good measure. By 1965 Romig packed up the old clown shoes, greasepaint and bulbous red nose, ending a twelve-year run at WXYZ.

  Romig continued his association with the Shrine Circus and still did many personal appearances, parades, industrial shows and private parties. In 1986 Ricky the Clown became Professor Ricky, when Romig signed with OmniArts in Education, a Detroit-based arts education program that brings live artists and musicians into the public schools to entertain and educate children. In 2001 Romig was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, joining other luminaries such as Charlie Chaplin, Red Skelton and Emmett Kelly.

 

 Irv Romig passed away on May 23, 2010 after a short illness. His body may have been 90 years old, but he always had the heart, the curiosity and sense of wonder of an eight year old boy; a boy who sits at the window and daydreams of being a clown in the circus.