From Clown College to Independent Producer
“I’m a fan,” declares Michael Bongar in the most emphatic tone that this soft-spoken graduate of Clown College can muster. “I’m a fan; I’m a big fan; I believe in artists, and I believe in their ability [to create something that wasn’t there before.] “I love it.”
“It” in case you haven’t guessed is the circus and theatre and the people who are striving to carve out a successful career working in these endeavors. As proof of his fandom, he goes to events all the time. “Sometimes I want to sit in the back, but it’s great even when it’s not great. You can get something out of it. It’s really important to go see stuff.”
It is important to appreciate that aspect of Michael Bongar’s personality in order to understand the kind of work he does today on behalf of those circus and theatre artists. But to understand how it came about we need to look at the things that influenced him growing up and as a young artist himself.
He went to Clown College in ’73. In the 90s when Dick [Monday]was dean, he was a guest lecturer. He would go in for three days. “I talked about business. I told the kids they should feel free to pick up the phone and call me anytime. I consider myself a business man, so I talk about the business side of show business. I own a business that specializes in event entertainment and we do everything with live entertainers. Sometimes we do productions, sometimes we will do a full soup to nuts food catering everything. Whatever they want to pay me for, so long as its legal, I will do it.” he says betraying that sense of humor that got him into Clown College. Imagine Broadway Danny Rose.
“I fell in love with clowns and clowning. It is still my utmost passion. But I love all actors. My father did a number of things when I was in high school. He had a degree in theatre education. Both of my parents were active in the theatre. I grew up with my parents doing amateur theatre, my mother acted, my father acted, and they turned me on to Shakespeare at a young age. So I fell in love with clowns through Shakespeare. My father had been working for GE at the Jet propulsion labs in Cincinnati, on this supersonic transport and when Congress ended that project he quit and became a theatre professor at Thiel College, a small school in western PA.”
Throughout his childhood there were certain bits of pop culture that struck a chord with him. He recalls a lyric from a Bob Dylan song about jugglers and clowns doing tricks. “That really resonated with me somehow.” And then there was the cover of the Doors album with a fire eater on it. “That just fascinated me.” In 1956 when he was four years old, he was living in Pittsburgh, and his father took him to see the very last performance of RBBB under canvas. “I don’t remember a damned thing.” he says ruefully with wry humor.
“So I went to college and got into theatre and on just a whim I applied to Clown College and got in.” He got a contract for Circus World and was eventually offered a contract with the Red show, but at that time he wanted to go back to New York, so he turned it down. He began performing with his first wife. They did an act aimed at family entertainment. Later he and Ron Jenkins, with whom he partnered in Clown College went on to Rudy Bros. Circus. “It was great because they let us do as much time as we wanted. In a way it was better than Ringling. Early on I had people who, when Beth and I were not available for a gig, would ask me to recommend someone else. This was ‘75. I remember recommending two friends of mine and the booker called me back and said they didn’t like them as much as they did you. I was getting grief, so I said I am never going to be an agent again, but if I do I am going to get paid for it.
“Back in those days there used to be events at shopping malls. People would come in to see the show on a stage in the center of the court. One mall said I could come back twice if I booked a circus, and being twenty-two, I said, ‘Sure I could book a circus,’ so that is how I started booking. And then we got corporate events, and I’ve always been good at corporate. My dad was corporate so I knew how to speak their language and be an adult. The secret to business is honesty. No question about it.”
Eventually he went back to Ringling through Dick Monday who became Clown College dean. “I would do these lectures. I’d say to
these kids, ‘Whenever you need any help on anything, call me at any time.’ I’m doing that through altruism as well as selfish interests, ‘cause I book talent, and I can always use new people, and it’s interesting to see who takes advantage of that and who has questions. The people with some humility are often the ones with more talent anyway. Also I believe in training and learning how to do this, acting or anything. I believe in the old school apprenticeship way of learning which is really what Clown College was. How did I learn? I was an assistant stage manager at the Long Wharf Theatre when I was in college. You are there absorbing it through your pores. You learn so much by absorbing. Then you go on, and you may learn acting technique. But, ultimately, you know, you either got it or you don’t.”
Over the years the people who have called and asked questions are the people who have continued in his life. “I am always willing to give someone advice about negotiating a contract or about career development, but I’m not a manager; I produce. I book my own stuff, and if I can fit people in that’s great. I’m not an agent, either. People over the years have asked me to represent them, but what am I going to get out of it? Why is anyone in business? There’s only one reason to be in business.
“When I do my lectures I tell people your ego is your enemy. Which is hard for performers and hard for me to sell myself, yet I can sell other people. If I see them and am excited about them I want to help. People like Joel Jeske and Mark Lonegran and the people from Parallel Exit, or Mark Gindick, the Bindelstiffs, the guys from The Happy Hour, Matt Morgan, the Troubadour Theatre Co., the Midnight Circus in Chicago. I used to book David Shiner when Fool Moon was on, and everyone wanted him for corporate events.”
Sometimes Bongar’s relationship with talent goes beyond using them in the events he produces. He is deeply involved in helping Mark Gindick , who is perhaps best known for being one of Barry Lubin’s Grandma clones. Mark is attempting to put together a one man show called Wing Man. Of his involvement as producer Bongar says, “That is a journey of love and discovery. He’s committed to it, and I’m here to help. I’ve helped him as much as I could. It’s been a growth project; we’re still searching.” That help has gone so far as to his putting his own money into the show, as has Mark. (One of the biggest “No-No’s” in the business.) A smart producer never invests his own money. “And I was always a smart producer until…” he says with a shrug. “We got to a point where we thought we would have money (but didn’t) and we had to decide whether or not to continue? The money didn’t come through. Stuff’s expensive.” Producers are supposed to make money by managing projects. “One out of fifty times they have a success. We’re talking about workshops. Pre-Broadway workshops have even less of a success rate. But everyone has these dreams, and they mortgage their houses. Our attorney said, “Whatever you do don’t put your own money into it.”
Then there is the matter of the Bindlestiffs, Keith Nelson and Stephanie Monseu. Bongar is on their board of directors. “ I am a fan,” he says again. “I love it. I book them when I can, and get work for them and the people in their cast. We sit down four times a year and we go over their mission, their direction. Keith and Stephanie are two extremely talented people. A good example. They didn’t come through Clown College. The came from outside the circus norm, yet they have embraced it and brought in people like Hovey Burgess to learn everything they can from the traditional world of circus. I feel I know them to be growing and exploring and finding new ways of doing things. To an outsider it may seem to come in fits and starts. Some of that has to do with putting money into mounting new productions and finding someone to put money into it instead of having to raise your own funds. I know they are looking to grow and find directors and new ways of exploring the art form. It’s a matter of the environment around you and the opportunities that may arise.”
As a producer Bongar says he is always looking for people who are going to do things differently. “I don’t like stuff that’s slick or formulaic which is what has happened to our friends up in Canada.”
Although most of his work is in New York City, he has moved upstate to Peekskill, New York and works out of his home with his wife Tina who is his partner in Bongarbiz. He gets into the city to see things a couple of nights a week, and occasionally he still performs, his comic character Magic Mike.
Before applying to Clown College he did as much theatre, most of it experimental, as he could both in New York and London. It was that environment that moved him to apply to Clown College. “And I fell in love with it. Coming out of theatre in New York, clowning seemed like a dying art form at the time until Irvin Feld came along.” It was his first introduction to the circus. “I wanted to find a new way of doing theater, so that is what motivated me. Clowning was about breaking down the fourth wall.”
Today he is more or less out of the circus business. “I do events in hotel ballrooms; they are not very circus oriented. I have singers and dancers, you name it, music, (I’m really into music and dance. I love dance. I do a lot of just plain parties here in New York, where they are looking for caricaturists or a psychic, something new and different. “ For a long time he had a successful association with the David Letterman show. He sent Letterman acts like “Is this Anything?” and people like Grinder Girl and Hula Hoop Girl for years. All told he now does about one hundred events a year. “Different sized stuff, from a solo performer to a hundred performers. I love what I do, and going to these things.” He has been doing it for over forty years. “I found it was a good way to make some money. I do corporate events,” he says with more than a trace of the comic in his voice, “for the same reason that Willy Sutton robbed banks.”