When it comes to Ronald McDonald, McDonald's doesn't clown around. It won't even admit that there is more than one Ronald.

For four months now, McDonald's Corp. executives have been meeting at headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., trying to decide just how to script a Ronald revival. The Golden Arches is mostly mum on the matter, saying only that the 40-year-old character will start showing up more — and in unexpected places.

McDonald's keeps a roster of about 250 Ronalds world-wide, according to marketing experts familiar with the program. Each major market in the United States has at least one Ronald, with large cities employing several.

Ronalds often have schedulers, chauffeurs and bodyguards. Bodyguards?

"Kids would throw rocks from the parking lot. Sometimes you would get protesters," explains Jeff McMullen, a former Ronald, of Appleton, Wis.

Typically actors, or ex-Ringling Bros. clowns or teachers, Ronalds average about $40,000 a year. The Ronald who appears in national commercials earns more than $300,000, according to former Ronalds.

McDonald's trains and recruits many Ronalds through a Clayton, Calif., company, CW & Co. Productions.

Many amateur clowns covet the gig. "To be a Ronald is a lifelong career," says Janet Tucker, past president of the World Clown Association.

To preserve the illusion there is only one Ronald, the chain forbids two Ronalds from ever appearing together except at a secret biennial convention McDonald's holds in which Ronalds brush up on their skills.

Ronald McDonald was the brain-clown of two people: Washington advertising executive Barry Klein and renowned Ringling Bros. clown Michael "Coco" Polakovs. At the time, Klein's clients included a McDonald's franchisee and a local "Bozo the Clown" television show. Klein persuaded the franchisee to run commercials on the Bozo show. After the kiddie show was canceled in 1963, Klein regrouped with Bozo, then played by Willard Scott, who gave the McDonald's clown his name: Ronald McDonald.

When McDonald's decided to make Ronald a national figure in 1966, the company dumped Scott, fearing it would be hard to find people in each market with his build, recalls Klein. "That was a heartbreaker," says NBC's Scott. "I was too fat."

To mass-produce Ronald like its burgers, McDonald's created a guide in 1972 called "Ronald and How." The book details everything from how to apply makeup to how to behave around children. According to someone close to the company, the book advises Ronalds "never to initiate a hug" with a child. Instead, Ronalds are to turn slightly to the left and pat the child on the back.