ROBERT (ONIONHEAD) DUNN
OnionHead is a true legend of a circus clown: one newspaper said that he is the most popular black American circus clown in the world. He is also the only black American clown whose clown face has graced the front page of the New York Times. On April 27, 2000, the New York Times did a three-page story about OnionHead and his life at Universoul Circus.
Born Robert A. Dunn in Miami, OnionHead had one brother and four sisters. All of them attended George Washington Carver High School in Coconut Grove. When he was 18, OnionHead ran away from home with a young white girl from a very wealthy Coral Gables family. OnionHead and the young lady ended up in Harlem, New York, where they were found and she was taken back home.
Soon after, OnionHead lived homeless in the streets of New York for almost a year. In the winter, he would find a large cardboard box, then go up on the roof of an apartment building and position the box close to a chimney to stay warm. Once a homeless man told him to get a lot of old newspapers and tape them together to make a cover like a blanket.
This newspaper would keep him warmer than a blanket. One morning around 6:30, he was awakened by the landlord and the superintendent of the apartment building where he was sleeping. They punched and beat him, then dragged him to the edge of the roof and hung him off the six-story building until he promised he would never come back onto their roof again.
Soon, OnionHead began to get himself together with the help of a man named Charlie Moore. The future clown took on odd jobs doing any type of labor. Then a friend told him about a job as a messenger in a large print shop on Canal Street in Manhattan. In the print shop, he learned to be a paper cutter, and soon began working two jobs as a paper cutter, getting off one job at five o’clock on Canal Street, and then going over to 16th Street to begin working another job at six o’clock.
He also became a taxi driver and owned a few taxicabs.
Then in 1985, OnionHead first started clowning, addressing a great need in the Bronx and Harlem for black American clowns. Over the next nine years, he established a strong foundation as a clown, performing at hundreds of birthday parties and school shows as well as visiting and entertaining kids and their parents in children’s hospitals and at other special events.
OnionHead left New York in 1994 after the passing of his mother and returned home to Miami, FL, to be with his father, Osie Dunn, who was 94 at that time and still working two part-time jobs. While in Miami, OnionHead performed for Ms. Spandrel Rivers and the Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation Department.
In 1997, while watching a NFL football game at his cousin Lloyd Major’s home in Miami, Major’s daughter Kim came in from Atlanta, GA, with a magazine, and on the front cover was a photograph of female clown Danise Payne. (OnionHead and Danise would eventually grow to be good friends over the years.) After reading the magazine article about Danise and Universoul Circus, OnionHead’s cousin told him that he should call them up.
OnionHead did, and the Universoul administrator told him that he should send them any pictures, video, or newspaper clippings that he had.
He mailed all of his information into Soul Circus. A year went by, and he never heard from them. Then one Sunday in January 1998, while sitting in his cousin’s home, watching another game, Major told him that Universoul Circus was at Joe Robbie Stadium. Onionhead immediately went out to Kinko’s and made a resume of OnionHead da Clown, then went to Joe Robbie Stadium.
While walking around the outside of the fence at Universoul Circus, he met Jean Claude, who could speak very little English, and Zeke. Zeke told him to go up to the box office and ask for Cedric Walker, the CEO of Universoul Circus. (Ten years later Mr. Cedric Walker would be the best man at OnionHead’s wedding on April 25, 2008, in Las Vegas, NV.)
After five days of hanging around the circus, OnionHead could not find a way to join Universoul Circus as a clown, so he began to look for other ways to stay close to this circus. He was willing to take any job he could find, even walking behind the elephants with a shovel, scooping poop.
As long as he could stay close, he felt he had a chance to become a clown at Universoul Circus, and he was right. A Universoul security guard introduced OnionHead to a man name Joe Rucker, who had just been hired by the circus to cook for the tent crew, the men who put the tent up and down. Rucker needed an assistant cook and promised to pay Onionhead $500 a week, plus room and board and all the food that he could eat.
Starting on February 2,1998, OnionHead took the job as an assistant cook and traveled and worked with Joe Rucker and Universoul Circus for seven hard weeks in Miami, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, including rain, hail, sleet, and snow.
Joe Rucker only paid Onionhead $300 for seven weeks of work, but Onion did not care about the money. He knew his divine purpose was to become a clown at Universoul Circus. In Philadelphia, Joe Rucker was released from his job as cook, and OnionHead was given a job with the tent crew, doing the hardest job possible.
“Tent master Richard Morella was doing his best to make me quit,” OnionHead said. “I don’t know if Mr. Morella did not like me or just did not like black folks. His attitude to me only made me work even harder than anyone else without complaining. I did not care what job I was given. I did that job better than anyone could have done.
“Martin Luther King said if you had to sweep a floor, sweep your floor like Michael Angelo painted his paintings. He said when
you die and people walked by and looked at your grave, they would say, ‘There lies a broom-pushing young man–a broom-pushing young man lies there.’ So to me, every job that I was given, I did that job as if Michael Angelo was painting his painting.”
As the months passed, OnionHead never gave up. Finally, in September of 1998, he got his big break, and Mr. Walker, USC founder and CEO, let OnionHead do a walk-around every so often inside the tent as a clown. In only seven months, OnionHead went from being an assistant cook to a clown at Universoul Circus. He was not getting paid for being a clown; he was still getting tent-crew pay, but that did not matter. OnionHead was where his heart wanted to be at Universoul Circus. He once said he would have paid them to let him clown.
One of OnionHead favorite quotes is from “If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme.”
And the rest is history that can be read in OnionHead’s book, Million Dollar Clown.
Otis (Bleu) Carson*:
*Otis B. Carson is a friend of OnionHead, who was also born in Miami, FL, and lived in Coconut Grove and attended G. W. Carver High School. Otis Carson is also a coworker at Universoul Circus.