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At 80, world’s oldest clown has no plans of quitting

At 80, the world’s oldest clown has given up tightrope walking but Oleg Popov, the most famous Soviet-era jester, still tours half of the year and has no plans to hang up his trademark red nose.

“The Sun Clown”, as he is also known, never fails to enthral young and old with his oddball character based on a figure from Russian folklore — one who appears stupid but really isn’t.

“I love to make people laugh, also in private,” the Russian told AFP on a recent tour in The Hague, laughter sparkling in his lively blue eyes.

“I am very happy, if I could live my life over I would become a clown all over again.”

As the drums rolled under the travelling big top of the Great Russian State Circus, the ringmaster heralds “the one, the only, the unique Oleg Popov!”

To loud applause, a small man with a shock of straw-coloured hair under a black-and-white chequered cap shuffles into the ring — just as he has done for six decades.

Alone in the spotlight, Popov — who in 1981 won the Golden Clown award, the “Oscar” of the circus world — chants softly in Russian, clutching an old umbrella handle sprouting a bunch of multi-coloured balloons.

His black jacket is too short, his red, blue and black-striped pants stop at his calves. His bow tie, like his nose, is red and his face lightly made up.

Between performances of hoop-jumping poodles, flying acrobats and a trained elephant, Popov entertains with a trick that sends soup ladles flying into ice buckets.

To the crowd’s delight, he then uses a bicycle pump to “inflate” a fellow clown who rises inch-by-inch from a collapsed pose on the floor.

Accompanied by a circus orchestra, Popov and his 49-year-old German wife Gabriela also juggle and do magic tricks — no vocabulary required as they communicate with their audience in the universal language of laughter.

“The work of a clown is interesting because it is art, and art is like an endless ocean,” the octogenarian told AFP between shows, taking a break in his circus trailer filled with costumes, balloons and old-fashioned suitcases.

“What Charlie Chaplin was for the movies, Oleg Popov is for the circus,” states a tribute to Popov on the Great Russian State Circus website, referring to one of the clown’s own idols.

It likens his reprises to “poetry”, saying he “bathes the circus ring in sunshine”, hence the nickname.

Born Oleg Konstantinovich Popov into a poor family in a small town near Moscow, he joined the Russian State Circus school in Moscow at the age of 14, spending 10-hour days learning juggling, tightrope walking, trapeze work and acrobatics.

After a sickly childhood often spent hungry, Popov’s gift for hilarity soon earned him payment in the form of food coupons for performances at Russian collective farms or sports clubs.

At 19, the clown, whose clockmaker father disappeared under the Stalin regime, was given a full-time job at the government-run Russian State Circus. His big break came in 1954, when he stepped in for the head clown who had broken his arm.

Popov took over as head clown two years later, the same year he left Russian soil for the first time on a tour of western Europe. It was the first-ever foreign tour by a Soviet circus, arranged by the Kremlin to bolster its image abroad.

“I was not allowed to leave the circus, we were watched permanently by KGB agents” tasked with preventing defections, he recounts in a rare serious moment.

Popov has since performed all around the world, including France, Australia, the United States, Japan, Israel and Cuba.

His current current employer, the Great Russian State Circus, credits him with helping “bring about a rapprochement between East and West through the language of the heart”.

The clown now lives on a farm about 30 kilometres (18 miles) from Nuremberg, where he and Gabriela, his second wife who became a circus performer after their wedding in 1991, raises horses, dogs, rabbits and white rats used in their shows.

Popov tours each year for six months, giving more than 200 performances mainly in Germany but also in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

“For the rest of the time I watch birds flying in the sky,” he says.

Ringmaster Thierry Dourain said Popov never let his fame go to his head. “He does not assume any airs, not even when (Russian Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin phones him on his birthday.”

And quitting is out of the question.

“He thinks he will die in the circus, that one day God will call him from his dressing room or the ring,” said circus director Willem Smitt.

Marie-Laure Michel / AFP / Expatica