Working Stiff: Being Ronald McDonald
I had a friend who was Ronald McDonald. No, really. THE Ronald McDonald. His name was Aye Jaye, a diminutive of Alexi Jankowski. He came from a circus family, had been a wandering clown, and was asked to audition for a clown character at McDonald's corporate headquarters in Chicago. A couple of other guys had preceded him in the part -- including Willard Scott, who claims to have originated the character.
A helping hand
But then in 1965 Aye Jaye was anointed Boss Clown, in charge of hiring and messaging and the standardization of the character. He actually "wrote the book" for rules of conduct that all Ronalds had to follow -- and still do, for all I know. There were more than 300 hired Ronalds at the time in the United States. One of his jobs was to travel across the nation and the world training Ronalds and holding seminars. Also, whenever a Ronald got into a tight spot, he was dispatched to calm turbulent seas.
He had been a comic in a previous life and encouraged my burgeoning stand-up aspirations. He was trying to help me out when he told me of an opening for a Ronald McDonald in the Fox River Valley. Like the House of Representatives, Ronalds were apportioned according to population.
Wisconsin at the time had maybe six or seven full-time company clowns, each responsible for about 40 stores. Each Ronald attended openings and special promotions and was available for-hire for parties and corporate events. He was the public face of McDonalds and subject to much intense moral-code surveillance. You know the drill: A clown, dealing with kids and parents. No weird touching or loud or coarse language. No liquor on the breath or odd body odors. You'd think that kind of thing would be obvious!
A full-dress audition
I auditioned in full costume. Shoes, nose, funny socks, wig, big blowsy tent-like pants sort of thing. How to apply the makeup was proprietary, one of the things in the orientation pamphlet culled from Aye Jaye's book. There were certain absolutes, but everybody got to personalize their spiel.
Spent two hours at a McDonalds one Saturday afternoon on the northern outskirts of Milwaukee. It went fine -- no big deal. I like kids, especially when you can wind them up and let them go. When discipline is not part of the purview. When I say "Stop it!" and the kids can tell I don't really mean it.
I already could juggle and learned how to make balloon animals.
Truth be told? My balloon animals were pitiable. I tried selling it to the kids as part of a "long, straight objects" theme. Worms. Snakes. Eels. Cut pieces of string. Nightcrawlers. Legless reptiles. Mutant lizards. Dismembered arms. Giant fingers. Spaghetti. Ropes. Cables. The kids, once they figured out the pattern, even helped me out. "That looks like a test tube with the round part at both ends." "It's a very skinny vase."
The audition went well enough for me to be offered the part of Ronald McDonald, for the Fox River Valley territory. It paid $60,000 a year, six days a week, 50 weeks a year, so there wouldn't be any time to do comedy at night, and I would have to move to the Appleton area, about 60 miles north of Milwaukee. So, I said, "No. I guess not. Thanks. But no thanks."
I still have a soft spot in my heart for all Ronald McDonalds and clowns in general -- but, deep down in my heart, I agree with you. For the most part, they're kind of creepy.
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The New York Times says Emmy-nominated comedian and writer Will Durst is "quite possibly the best political satirist working in the country today," and the Chicago Tribune calls him a "hysterical hybrid of Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Osgood." This excerpt is a first peek at Will's book-in-progress about the more than 100 jobs he's held in his life. Follow his blog on Red Room to find out about his upcoming stand-up and television performances and to buy his book, The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing: Common Sense Rantings From a Raging Moderate.