Burning clown lights up 'O' show at Bellagio

The hobo sits on his chair, casually reading a newspaper, seemingly oblivious that his shoe has caught fire. Movement is almost imperceptible as the flames spread from his foot to his legs, and then to his arms.

Life has beaten him down so far that he no longer feels the pain.

The flames burn orange and blue, and it's funny how he doesn't notice.

Now, in the vernacular of firefighters, he is fully involved. He rises from the chair and slowly walks away, tipping his cap.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Clowning is in the genes, like brown eyes or big noses.

Or addiction.

Maybe one day you realize that you've got the gene so you try a little juggling. Balls at first, those are easy. When that's not enough, you move on to bowling pins. Then come the dangerous things. Knives. Machetes. Flaming torches.

Next thing you know, you're eating fire until even that no longer satisfies and you've just got to go for the hard stuff, the one thing that means you're a serious clown and willing to prove it: Self-immolation.

Meet Ray Wold, burning clown.

Oh, at first it was all white greasepaint, rainbow hair and unicycles. Just like any other clown. But Wold yearned to stand out. To be amazing and unforgettable. For that, one needs a dramatic flair.

Or flare.

"I fell into it," says Wold, 51. "After I learned to juggle, I wanted to learn everything. Someone told me about fire-eating. One night, there was a fire going in the fireplace and I had read a little something."

How did he do it? How did he work up the nerve to put fire in his mouth?

"I just did it. I'm lucky I didn't burn myself."

* * * * * * * * * * *

It starts, like all fires do, with an accelerant.

Coleman camping fuel saturates Wold's fire-resistant Kevlar suit. It burns clean, with none of that choking, black smoke other accelerants produce.

Smelling like a kerosene wick, Wold waits in the wings for his cue; in moments, he will be aflame in front of a packed house at Cirque du Soleil's "O."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Joining the circus was not an option in Wold's family.

He knew this even as he told his father that he, at age 19, was dropping out of his college forestry program to attend clown school. No matter that it was Ringling Bros. Clown College, the Harvard of clowning.

To his father Elton, a real job was a stable one, preferably in government, with a pension and benefits. Clowning, if anything, was a hobby.

The third of eight children, Ray Wold was expected to be practical, like his older brother who worked for the FBI. But Wold was a natural clown, born to entertain.

His mother, Corrine, remembers how 6-year-old Ray was fascinated with the clowns in the Shriner's circus that visited their small South Dakota town.

But clowning as a profession never occurred to him until the day, in 1979, that he started juggling.

Wold had just met with his advisor at Humboldt State University and learned that the job outlook in forestry was not good. Depressed and questioning his future, he stopped to watch some jugglers on campus.

"They asked me if I wanted to try. I did and realized I had a knack for it," he says.

He joined the troupe and soon after decided to leave college.

Money was important to Wold's father, who grew up during the Great Depression. It brought stability. A future. The family had suffered dangerously lean years with Dad eking out a hardscrabble living as a plumber in South Dakota farm country.

One day, the family packed up and moved to San Diego, where Elton got a job with the U.S. Border Patrol at $1.50 an hour. Life was better, but just barely.

Wold credits his father for shaping him into the decent man he is today. But even the threat of his father's disappointment couldn't stop him from going to clown college. And the $1.75 he made from his first performance? Didn't matter.

Six weeks after he first juggled, Wold joined 6,000 people applying for clown college. He was one of 60 accepted.

Wold remembers breaking the news at home. His father put his head in his hands and offered a warning:

"You'll never make any money."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ray Wold pulls his shoulders forward and hunches his back, protecting his bare face from the heat of the flames as they dance high around him. A red hat covers his hair but the only thing on his face is a clown's greasepaint.

By the time his first body burn concludes -- he does two each show -- he has been on fire for nearly three minutes.

The world record for a full body burn is four minutes and 45 seconds, set last year by a stunt man on a German movie set. Before that, Wold says the record was two minutes, 30 seconds, so his nightly performances came close.

But who cares about world records when you're setting yourself on fire?

You're. On. Fire.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Life is not all hijinks and pratfalls for a circus clown.

Even after reaching the clowning pinnacle, the Ringling Bros. Circus, Wold earned only about $100 a week. Subtract $35 to the circus for room and board, and he was right where his father warned he'd be: Broke.

One day, while Wold swept up circus trash, legendary clown Lou Jacobs pulled him aside and told him the circus was no place for a great clown.

"Hey Clownie," Jacobs said to Wold, "you should take your talents and go somewhere. Don't stay here. You're never going to make good money in the circus."

To hear that from a master clown, Wold says, "was great, great advice."

After his 1980-81 contract ended, he headed home to San Diego. Balboa Park had a rich history of supporting the performing arts, and people lined up every day as early as 4 a.m., hoping to land one of the coveted spots for street performers.

It was a risky proposition but Wold had the invincible attitude of a 22-year-old and an unshakable belief in himself.

His first day's earnings reinforced that faith as it equaled his weekly circus pay. Still, Wold struggled for a few years, living out of his van. He showered at a local gymnasium during the day and spent his nights in a parking lot near the Naval base. There were no days off, no sick leave. When he fell off his unicycle and broke his right arm, he still performed.

"I had to do all my tricks with my left hand," Wold remembers. "I was juggling three machetes with my left hand and that's pretty hard and dangerous, especially when it's your only functioning hand.

"But I had to make a living."

* * * * * * * * * * *

A crew, often including his wife, Chrissie, meets Wold backstage to extinguish him. They spread out two fire blankets, one for his props and one for him. He lies facedown as a stagehand folds him up like a burrito.

They are so practiced their actions seem almost casual. But they are not; the cast and crew has a clean safety record for a reason. It helps that they have done this four times a night, five days a week since 1998.

Six thousand shows and counting. More than 12,000 times Wold has been ablaze. He has never missed a show.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ron Severini, former dean of clowns at Ringling Bros. Clown College, taught a slew of clowns in the 1980s. One went on to become a human cannonball; others have done some amazing clown things.

Then there's Ray Wold.

Of all Severini's graduates, he's the only clown who sets himself on fire.

Wold, the guy whose wife has to peel a boiled egg because it's too hot for his fingers. The same Wold who eventually had to quit performing on cruise ships, not because he had a bigger gig but because he sunburns too easily.

"It was all sun and beaches and I can't take sun and beaches," Wold says. "I'm too fair-skinned."

So how does a clown go from squirting seltzer and squeezing into tiny cars to setting himself on fire?

Try desperation.

In 1990, Wold was still on a cruise ship, where the entertainers depend on audience feedback to keep their jobs. Problem was that passengers were staying away in droves from "The Juggling Antics of Ray Wold." The star of the show knew his onboard future was bleak.

He needed something big, something different. No, make that something wild.

Maybe if he set his tie or his handkerchief on fire, people might find that hilarious. So, with then-girlfriend Chrissie's help, he tested the flames.

There was no "ah ha" moment for him. Wold's whole career had been a series of gradual breakthroughs and this was no different. He simply thought of the most difficult thing he could do. If he did it well, he was confident audiences would love it.

"So many people are trying to be entertainers out there," Wold says in a soft voice. "They try to take the easy road and copy what others are doing. To be original, to be unique, that's the hardest road. The only thing that was really in my mind was how to entertain people and be a success. I was willing to do just about anything.

"Even above my own safety, I wanted to entertain."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Cirque creators first saw Wold on fire in 1997 at a major circus festival in the real Monte Carlo, where only the best and most unusual acts perform. He would become a star, one of but a few performers featured by name in a Cirque production.

Then again, most performers don't set themselves on fire.

Temperatures outside Wold's suit climb to 900 degrees when he is ablaze. While the materials protect him from being cooked, the heat is still overwhelming.

"Walk in front of me, I walk real slow with this suit on," he says to an observer as he exits the stage.

He walks to a special corner backstage where he puts on and takes off his fire suit. A stage hand reaches up and angles a fan over Wold's head as he peels off the steaming fire suit. Wold reaches into the "O" pool and splashes cool water on his face and neck.

* * * * * * * * * * *

His lower leg was a seeping, raw mess, the skin gone.

For weeks after the burn, Ray Wold endured pain like none before. Not when he burned his shoulder while narrowly escaping a flaming straightjacket. Not when a flaming chef's hat slipped from his head and into his face, turning it into something resembling a blood-swollen strawberry.

You can't work with fire for 20 years and not get burned, but this was the first time the pain forced Wold to his knees. Like all his bad injuries, this one happened during a freelance gig a few years ago. Aside from some singed hairs and blisters, Wold has never been injured during "O."

"I've never seen him cry," says his wife, Chrissie, 64. "But there were days he had tears in his eyes, it hurt so much. He was always on his hands and knees trying to alleviate the pain."

For weeks after the burn, he crawled from bed to bathroom in the mornings. Standing was a gradual act because the blood rushed right to his wound and rudely awakened every damaged nerve ending. Still, he suited up twice a day, five days a week, lighting himself on fire every time.

"It was awful. I don't know how he did it," Chrissie says.

Such dedication is a family trait, says his mom, Corrine. Wold had perfect attendance in school, too.

"Our family, they're all real workers. They put work first, it doesn't matter what it is," she says. "But Ray goes a little extreme, he goes whether he's sick or hurt."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Wold strips down to his clown outfit -- green pants and red vest -- preparing for his next scene. It doesn't involve fire.

He looks exhausted, like he's been locked in a sauna all day.

When he's on fire, Wold explains, it feels soothing, like a heated massage. One day, he thinks, what he does may become a form of physio-therapy. That's just how relaxing if feels.

Right now, however, Wold looks dazed. Pensive. And when the stagehands finish with him, he is alone on his bench.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Setting himself on fire is the easy part of Ray Wold's day.

That's a little burning man humor. But even as he says it, you know there's some truth to it.

The hard part? Balancing the successful performer driven to leave a circus legacy with the simple man haunted by his childhood.

Despite holding one of the premier circus jobs in the world, Wold was restless with the simple fact he was fulfilling someone else's creative destiny.

He needed to make his own mark, so he and Chrissie started Amazing Clowns. The business, replete with its own clown headquarters, provides everything someone needs to throw a rocking kids' party -- entertainment, bounce houses, games, cotton candy machines. You name it, they likely have it.

They average about 30 events each weekend, and while he's not at every one, he's responsible for them all.

Financial security played a big part in Wold's freelance career; it's hard to escape the lessons learned when each day brought the threat of being on the street with nothing.

"I wanted a second job because where I come from," Wold says, leaving his thought unfinished. Unsaid is that a man can never work enough; that's what his father Elton taught him.

"I don't want to put all my effort into Cirque. It only takes them saying we're not going to renew your contract and it's over."

If nightly and weekend jobs weren't enough, the Wolds are featured each Wednesday at Town Square's literacy program. Ray promotes reading by donning clown gear and entertaining kids and parents with his sweet personality and cool juggling tricks. Chrissie reads the books and leads sing-alongs.

Children and animals flock around Ray "like bees on honey," Chrissie says. "Even the kids who are afraid of clowns, they all come around to him."

Come July, an Amazing Clown television show will debut on Vegas TV, KTUD 25 Cable 14.

Ray, who has also authored a children's book, simply will not stop.

Once, fed up with his insistence on working despite injuries, Chrissie wondered what he was trying to prove.

"Is this for your father that you work so hard?" she asked.

His reply: "Maybe."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Wold sits for a few minutes on his bench, waiting for his next cue. He's more than a flaming hobo in "O," showing off his amazing juggling and cool hat tricks.

He stares into space, rubbing his hands methodically. Right around the knuckles. It's like they hurt from the heat, but he later he explains that he's just getting old. He massages his hands to stay limber for juggling.

He is, after all, a clown.

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.