SALT LAKE CITY — For three hours on Saturday, Madison Brown was more than a cute little 4-year-old. She was an obedient, performing circus elephant.
"She wanted to learn how to juggle, but when she found out they were doing animals she was so excited," said Madison's grandmother, Debbie Brown, as she watched her little blond elephant raise her "trunk" and spin in circles.
Madison, her older sister Morgan, and several dozen other children scrambled around the Discovery Gateway Children's Museum learning from professional Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey clowns how to balance, juggle scarves and swirl hula hoops on their arms.
The traveling "Clown College" was formerly just for young adults looking for circus jobs, but now the painted performers have expanded to teach the next generation.
"We see who is the up-and-coming talent, and the kids have fun with the clowns," said Peggy Williams, education outreach manager for the circus. "And not one of them have picked up an iPod. They're doing stuff with each other; we need more of that."
The children all wore homemade clown bows, along with a decorated hat and funny socks. A few even sported bright red noses, although those frequently fell off as the kids practiced tumbling.
After getting their faces painted, the children learned circus skills such as walking the tightrope and listening to the ringmaster as he gave the "animals" commands to roll over and roar.
"When you perform in the circus, you can't just walk (on and) off," Ringling Brothers publicist Lulu Hart explained to the colorfully painted children. "You have to make an entrance!"
So they perfected their hand waving, bowing and "ta-dahs!" in order to be ready for the final performance for their parents.
"We were just looking for something unique and fun to do with (the kids)," Brown said. "And thought 'this is perfect.' "
Zachary Bailey, 8, said he liked learning how to juggle and be a lion, and 12-year-old Julia Hall wants to be a clown because she loves how clowns exaggerate everything — even when they throw pie in her face. (The trick to a good pie throw is to get the person distracted and hit them when they're not expecting it.)
In fact, clowning around is in Julia's blood. Her mom and dad were professional clowns who met touring with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
Mom Valerie Hall, a k a Daisy the Clown, now has three little "clownlets" but is still sharing her love of performing: She bounced around Saturday in a big wig, glittery red nose and oversized black shoes.
"Being a clown is not just about juggling but having a genuine love to want to make people laugh," she said. "You have to love what you do."