Twenty years ago, Buffo was Tom Toman, a high school football star (and future minor league baseball player), who spent his spare time entertaining mentally challenged kids. "I put my shoes on the wrong feet, put on an old pair of pants, rolled up one pant leg, smeared some makeup on," he explains, "and that was the beginning of Buffo." He's since moved from pizza parlor gigs to county fairs and his own one-man show (he's even made appearances at the White House and with the Ringling Brothers circus). He also does "big people's parties," like bachelorette bashes, holiday celebrations, and senior citizen group performances.
But it's the little ones who are at the center of Buffo's world. Toman's a former special education teacher of deaf and blind children (which allows Buffo to show off his sign language skills), who instills subtle moral lessons into each of his shows -- like, say, the joy of playing well with others. And it's his unorthodox method of clowning around that's made the Pittsburgh-area-based joker such a regional hit over the past two decades.
In addition to the usual balloon animal making and unicycle riding, Buffo juggles hatchets, meat cleavers, and fire torches; rips phone books and breaks cement blocks; and balances extension ladders on his face. He recently added a "Things You Shouldn't Do at Home" segment to his act, which includes such nontraditional clown activities as fire eating, lying on a bed of nails, and glass walking. "I have a lot of energy," Toman says, "but I'm not too smart. You'll notice that all the things I do require strength and coordination, but not intelligence."
Most clowns "make balloon animals, and we do need all kinds of different clowns," he diplomatically offers, but adds that other clowns are divided on his act. Seems there's a clown organization that requires its members to bare no skin; Buffo, with his exposed bulging biceps, certainly violates that rule. And the peril of juggling chainsaws isn't something that's often discussed at meetings. "But I can crush them all," he says. -- Michael Gallucci