Jim Williams, better known to a generation of circus fans as Happy the Clown, died Sunday in Baraboo.
During his 30 years at Circus World Museum, Williams became the grinning face of the historic site. He was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1995.
“Jimmy was a dedicated career clown who managed to create lasting memories for generations of local Baraboo residents as well as guests worldwide visiting our community,” said Greg DeSanto, the Hall of Fame’s executive director.
Williams was born in 1943 in Milwaukee. He was working as a clown at Mayfair Mall when he was befriended by Circus World wagon master Ernest Zimmerly, who introduced him to Chappie Fox. Williams came to Circus World in the early 1960s, then traveled with the Kelly Miller and Cole Brothers circuses.
He later enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a medic/ambulance driver, but returned to Circus World in 1967. Williams remained at the museum, eventually becoming its display director, until his retirement.
Williams supported up-and-coming clowns like Jed Crouse, a Baraboo pastor who moonlights as Presto the Clown.
“Happy was willing to take me under his wing and invest in me with not only props and memorabilia, but he also blessed me with his vast wisdom and generous encouragement,” Crouse said.
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Another grateful protégé was Dave SaLoutos, who shared a dressing room with Williams in 1978, his first season as ringmaster. SaLoutos is now the museum’s performance director.
“He was one of the people who shared his passion and love for the circus with me,” SaLoutos said. “A major influence on the direction of my life, Jimmy was always helping people out, with all kinds of things.”
There’s a Facebook page dedicated to Happy the Clown, and Williams won the Baraboo Gem Award this summer for his contributions to the community. He was a longtime fixture at clown conventions and camps, and was a regular visitor to the International Clown Hall of Fame once it moved to Baraboo.
“He was able to visit the guests and tourists and share some of the magic that made him Happy the Clown,” DeSanto said. “He will be missed, but his legacy will live on.”
Williams died at St. Clare Meadows Care Center. Services will be held Saturday at 3 p.m. at Redlin Funeral Home. Visitation will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at the funeral home as well as from 1 p.m. until the time of service Saturday. Memorials may be made in Williams’ name to Circus World or the International Clown Hall of Fame.
“He truly cared about people and did the best he could to make this world a better place,” SaLoutos said. “As Happy, he was concerned about making people laugh and helping them forget about any troubles, if even for a short time.”
Editor's note: This article has been changed from its original version to reflect the correct age of Jim Williams at the time of his death.