Nic Rainone: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Nic Rainone: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Nic Rainone as a baby with parents “Bonkers” and “Poppy”

Nic Rainone as a baby with parents “Bonkers” and “Poppy”

The promenade in front of Dallas’ Performing Arts Center following the June Lone Star Circus show is bustling with hyperactive balloon-tugging children. Their harried parents — pushing strollers and, in some cases, sporting novelty fake red noses — travel doggedly in their tiny wakes.

At the center of the afternoon’s waning pandemonium, Zerp stands alone. He dons traditional tramp-clown makeup and garb — an exaggerated frown, tattered hat, size-20 shoes and a delicate rubber nose, which was bequeathed to him, he later says, by Russian clowns called Aga-Boom, whom he idolizes. The baggy attire swallows his small frame, making him look like a tot playing dress-up. For this reason, his firm handshake and poised greeting — “Nice to meet you, we can talk back here” — seem sort of paradoxical.

Then again, clowns generally are ambiguous that way. Though they bring hours of joy and laughter to the masses, they are also the sadistic lunatics of Stephen King novels or the seemingly suicidal element in a rodeo or bullfight.

Zerp, whose actual name is Nic Rainone, thinks what Hollywood has done with clowns is “hilarious and amazing.”

“I love the idea of ‘It’ and ‘Killer Clowns from Outer Space’. On stage, clowns follow rules, but in movies, there are no rules and clowns can be murderous maniacs,” he says, adding, after a pause, that he is intrigued by a “culture that takes something everyone loves and makes it into something terrifying.”

“My earliest memory is of being a clown.”

Rainone possesses many of those complex characteristics that, all at once, so entice, alarm and bewitch.

Inside his dressing room, the 24-year-old removes his fedora, exposing a buzzed head, and strips down to his shorts, revealing a wiry physique and a sprawling topography of tattoos.

Nic Rainone: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Nic Rainone: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

“This is my mom,” he says, pointing to an exquisite ebony-haired figure inked on his inner arm. His mother, once a locally famous clown, “got tired of being funny,” Rainone says, “and decided to turn to the dark arts, witchcraft and fortune-telling.” Today she goes by Valentina Burton and sells psychic readings out of her Northeast Dallas home.

“My earliest memory is of being a clown,” he says. “I was a baby clown. My parents were clowns, Poppy and Bonkers. They had a TV show. The show was canceled after the studio flooded. Then my mom built a small stage, a mini traveling circus, and we toured.”

Interesting side note: Poppy and Bonkers’ marriage ended before their professional partnership dissolved. “They divorced shortly after I was born,” Rainone says. “Later my dad told me they kept working together even after the breakup because they wanted me to be able to be around both of them.”

The traveling trio kept performing until Rainone was about 10. Growing up, he split time between his dad’s Lake Highlands home and mom’s Richardson one, and he attended Richardson ISD schools, including Richardson High School. His dad lives in Arkansas and is a working musician these days. His grandparents also were performers.

Possibly because it is in his blood, and for other indefinable reasons, Rainone has been “obsessed with clowning since basically birth.” Yet he did not immediately jump into professional clowning. During a time of what he calls “teenage rebellion” he joined a peace-punk band called Rocket for Ethiopia, which is still intact today.

“It is a political statement group. We talk about governments funding weapons of war and the lack of help for, for example, starving people in countries like Ethiopia … I don’t eat meat,” he continues, expounding on his social stances. “I eat mostly vegan, in protest of the farming industry.” Rocket’s music is chaotic, he explains, but the message is peace. He tends to drink too much at shows. And that sometimes leads to fights or other injurious situations, he says. A dude punched him in the ear outside a Fort Worth venue a few weeks ago.

“Then the guy ran away when he realized it didn’t faze me,” he says. Rainone derives amusement from things that would upset most people. “I guess there is something wrong with me.” He says that a few times.

In 2010, Ringling Bros. Circus held Clown Alley tryouts at Dallas’ American Airlines Center; no doubt Zerp nailed the audition, a competitive affair that required a hurried showcase of comedic timing, skills, improvisational abilities and charisma.

“You know people think clowns, they can’t do anything else except make balloon animals, when in truth, we are more — we are actors, we portray a character. We [he gestures toward the other Lone Star clowns in the hallway] … are theatrical, funny clowns.”

The things he loved about Ringling Bros.: living on a train, performing to an arena of some 500,000 rollicking fans.

What he did not like: The music — earsplitting Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber tracks featuring lyrics that were decidedly unfriendly for families. After about six months with Ringling, he traveled the East Coast with the Cole Bros. Circus, what he calls the “real circus,” for several months.

Today he is a member of the Lone Star Circus, a Dallas-based nonprofit performing arts and educational organization.

Through Lone Star, Rainone has become a teacher and mentor to aspiring performers, including Lake Highlands’ Kameron Badgers (who was featured in a 2013 Advocate article).

“Going into the studio with Nic every week is like being an apprentice to a master,” Badgers says. “When I took karate, we had to bow to the sensei before every lesson as a sign of respect. Nic would be surprised if I bowed to him, I think, but I certainly respect him.”

And while he might be training Kameron on a Thursday — teaching the boy to be himself, read his audience, smile and relax even while juggling knives — he might be drinking, fighting and/or screaming into a microphone (albeit righteous messages) come the weekend.

“I don’t think I’m an alcoholic. Well, at least I know a lot of the people I hang with drink more than me, ” Rainone says, maybe teasing. Maybe not. In this young man there is evidence of the archetypal tortured artist — the guy who needs a little pain and suffering to fuel his craft. Or, should we say, crafts. In addition to circus arts, Rainone is a prolific creator of street art. When asked if that means graffiti, he deflects and mentions that he is also an amateur paranormal investigator. He’s not a kook, he says. “Most of the time I am trying to debunk rumors of hauntings and things like that.”

He says he was “born a clown” and he’ll always be a clown. But he’ll also probably continue to dabble in assorted activities, for better or worse. Someday, he adds, he wants to open his own haunted house, to entertain.

The Lone Star Circus’ biggest show falls in December and is held at the Dallas Children’s Theater.