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Grandma's Pinch of the Chic on PBS

November 24, 2010 By:
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The Bubba of the Big Top?

What do you think they have in that seltzer bottle but 2 cents plain!

But Barry Lubin is no plain Jane -- or Sadie -- of a Bubba: When the Atlantic City native dresses up to go to work, he wigs out: For without that schmear of lipstick, the rogue-rouge and that ragged mop-top reminder atop his head, the Big Top would be bereft of its favorite Grandma.

"She never ages," says the seemingly ageless entertainer himself, a magna-cum-laughter graduate of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College who is center stage in the one-ring cyclone that is the Big Apple Circus, performing "Dance On!" at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park in New York.

New, too, is the fact that Lubin and the Apple corps are the focus of "Circus," a six-hour sawdust sensation being seen on WHYY-TV12 (next up on Nov. 24) just as it's being released on DVD/Blu-ray (ShopPBS.org/education).

The legendary Big Apple is no small potatoes; its Brit-born genesis in 1974 has ceded to one of New York's most famous home-evolved attractions and Lubin has lubed the laughs since signing on in 1982.

Born in Atlantic City, just a salt-water taffy tug from the ocean and now a peerless performer with the Steel Pier in memory recall, Lubin's diving horse-around antics evoke earlier innocent times when slot machines were called Pokerino and winning big meant trumping the odds to take home an oversized stuffed animal.

Could it be that Bert Parks got it all wrong, that he missed the call on the real Miss America: Here she is -- Grandma -- our ideal?

Well, she is as American as Apple pie-in-the-face. And if it's small-town America that the circus calls up from the arena aura, maybe it's because the audience is never more than 50-feet away from the action.

Audiences put their hands together for Grandma and her handbag, a source of wonder for what's in it. Grandma, is that a brisket "Scene" sees inside?

"Eww!" oy vays Lubin. "That would smell horrible. Maybe some old popcorn, but no brisket."

Easy to see the mistake. Grandma is an orthopedic shoe-in for those little old Bubbas he recalls lurching along the Boardwalk in the '50s, when "luck be a lady" referred not to gambling but maybe getting a free appetizer at Child's Restaurant or a sample from Mr. Peanut.

A case of Jewish genes -- or, in this case, DNA in the designer-less dress Lubin wears for the show?

Well, avows the 59-year-old entertainer, he can't categorize Grandma as solely Jewish, but he concedes she may have had a kugel or two in her creation; she is based on his Bubba and all those nice elderly women strolling the boards -- not that they all were Jewish ("I never asked for their identification cards," he jokes).

But "they were all shaping aspects of my character," and they've moved on as he has.

"Yes, now when I go down to Florida during [winter] break, I see them down there, with the babushkas on their head, wearing the heavy winter coats -- and it's 80 degrees!"

To a great degree, Grandma may be Jewish because, well, Lubin is. Grand thoughts on Grandma's origins: "I was brought up Jewish, my culture is Jewish, my comfort is Jewish," he notes with pride.

"And when I see Jewish members in the audience, I feel a special connection."

Does it make him feel like soaring? Because that's what he does as part of his act, taking along an audience member for a ride near the top of the Big Top. This day, he has taken a young girl with special challenges along for the ride and it has touched the clown's heart.

Lubin is near tears as we speak. It touched, he concedes, his neshama. A Jewish heart? "A human heart," he says.

To err is human, and maybe he is guilty of just that in the way he used to think of Atlantic City, as "a nice dying town."

"I felt I had to move out of there," says Lubin of sooner than later.

But lately, he's rethinking his image of A.C. "Now I think back and realize how much I loved its peace and sense of life, its ocean, the Boardwalk -- I was so lucky to grow up there.

"How I would love to live there today."

Not that he has the time. Appearing with the Big Apple (and its dozen shows a week) and being called on to perform by major European circuses, it almost doesn't leave time to catch his -- proteges. Along with his act, Lubin is the Big Apple Circus director of clowning and production consultant.

He is also a longtime member of the International Clown Hall of Fame, a long way from his drop-out days at Emerson College.

Flop as student only to fill out those floppy shoes? It was more an act of indecision as to what he wanted to do in life, where he would earn his ticket to ride.

But first: "I drove a taxi for a while -- and I picked up a lot of clowns during that time."

Cheers to memories -- and a nosegay bouquet for a red nose and finding success after studying at the circus college, where Grandma first made the grade as a character. As for cheers -- that's part of his rollicking resume, having served as a consultant for a clown-themed episode involving Kelsey Grammer on TV's "Cheers."

But then everyone knows his name. Lubin relishes appearing recently alongside special guests New York Mayor Michael Bloom and actress Meryl Streep, doing a comedy routine. "I am one of the luckiest people in the world," he claims.

Luck sometimes takes a breather as Lubin can tell you. As described in "Circus," he discovered he had thyroid cancer and had to take some time off.

"But I was out for only four weeks," he says, and he is back in the "cycle of love; I got back my health."

And he has gotten back some of that old college try; after dropping out of Emerson College after his first year so long ago, the erstwhile freshman is freshly back in a major way, actually working at the major he wanted to take: TV directing.

He has done just that for MTV, Nickelodeon, and CBS's "Circus of the Stars."

He is one himself. But go tell that to those attending the 20th reunion of his class from Atlantic City High School. Of course, that was 20 years ago, but Lubin is as lucid about the reaction as if someone had just thrown confetti in his face. Career as snicker? "They made fun of me because I was a clown," as if he were some bozo, he says.

Ah, some seltzer down the pants for them. Much has changed since for Lubin; he faces esteem on Facebook, where former classmates fall all over themselves -- without floppy shoes -- to talk about his bigtime/Big Top career.

Pinch of the chic for Grandma? Still, there is a continental divide of opinion when it comes to what he does for a living. Americans often think of clowns as child-fare; across the Big Pond, the Big Top is something else: In Europe, home of the one-ring circus, residents put away their childish things and see it for what it truly is -- an art.

Everybody now recognizes Lubin for the artist he is -- if they don't mistake him for one of "The Golden Girls." With his wig on, "some people say I remind them of [the late] Estelle Getty," one of the "Girls."

But that's okay, he's heard that Getty had been told "she reminds people of Grandma."

And showtime always reminds Lubin of the love he has for what he does. "God has carried me this far," he says of the Greatest Showman Beyond Earth, "and I don't think He'll drop me now." 

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