HUTCHINSON, Kan. — When J.B. Holdren was 8, his father told him that “God put you on this Earth to make people happy,” and Holdren said he tried to live up to that every day while working as “Bardo the Clown,” a sign painter and artist at the Kansas State Fair for nearly seven decades.
Holdren was found dead in his trailer at the fairgrounds Tuesday evening, fair General Manager Denney Stoecklin said. He was 93.
A spokeswoman for Elliott Mortuary in Hutchinson, which is handling funeral arrangements, confirmed his death to The Associated Press.
Holdren worked in a paint shop near his trailer, creating signs that adorn all parts of the fairgrounds, from circus wagons to trash barrels and walkways.
“My biggest memory of him is him walking down the Midway at the Kansas State Fair — my dad and him,” said Warren Hardy, whose parents were friends of Holdren’s. “Bardo would have about 50 balloons hanging on him and all kind of trinkets on his neck. And he had this obnoxious horn — it was obnoxious ... but it got people’s attention, and that is what he wanted. He wanted the attention of the kids, and that kid would leave with something from Bardo.”
Born Dec. 7, 1919, Holdren moved to Hutchinson with his family in 1921.
He served in the Army during World War II and became a professional clown when he returned to the U.S. He claimed to have worked for the Ringling Brothers Circus and traveled the country performing for several years.
Holdren spent each summer at the Kansas State Fair, working as its official sign painter. For years, he would drive his camper to the Pima County Fairgrounds in Arizona to work as a sign painter when the Kansas fair ended.
But he had lived and worked at the Kansas fairgrounds year-round for the past decade, Stoecklein said.
Holdren slowed down as he aged and hadn’t played Bardo for a while, but he still went to work every day at his paint shop.
He told the News in November that he went to work each day because he still enjoyed his job.
“I do this because I still have the passion,” he said. “I love what I do. I’m kind of a fixture, I guess.”
Stoecklein said fair officials would try to preserve the signs Holdren made and will consider other ways to commemorate his life.
“He always said when it was his time he wanted to be on the fairgrounds,” he said. “He got his wish.”
Holdren’s son, Jon “Bix” Holdren, died at age 24 in a motorcycle accident in California in 1979.