This article originally appeared in the Daily News on May 31, 1989.
A marriage proposal is nothing to clown around about. Just ask lovebirds Ron “Toto” Johnson and Rene Coker.
Despite his red rubber nose, his black lower lip and the blue dots on his eyebrows and chin, Johnson was serious when he popped the question in the back seat of a carriage in Central Park.
And though she was garnished in pink from head to toe - big pink wig, oversized pink dress and floppy pink shoes - Coker wasn’t messing around, either, when she accepted.
“We’re taking this very seriously,” said the bride-to-be. "It will be like a normal wedding.”
Well, not exactly - unless you call getting hitched in the center ring normal.
Johnson, 22, and Coker, 23, are clowns with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which opened last night at the Spectrum.
And next Wednesday, just before the afternoon matinee, Johnson and Coker will be married in the family circle . . . ahhh, center ring.
Only instead of a tux and wedding gown, the couple will be in their work clothes: red nose, blue dots, pink hair, pink shoes . . .
The dozen or so bridesmaids and ushers also will be clad as clowns.
Common Pleas Judge Bernard J. Goodheart, a good-natured jurist known for marrying couples gratis on Valentine's Day, is scheduled to do the honors.
The couple met four years ago while learning to put on happy faces at Clown College in Venice, Fla.
Johnson had been getting laughs since he was 10, performing as "Toto the Clown" at birthday parties and food festivals in his hometown, Naugatuck, Conn.
Coker, of Conyers, Ga., "didn’t grow up wanting to be a clown.” She got more applause than yuks singing in high school musicals and at fairs.
In between the pratfalls and slapstick, Johnson and Coker became friends - admiring friends. “I thought he was cute, and I guess he thought I was cute,” said Coker. “But that’s as far as it went.”
Following graduation from the 10 1/2-week college, Johnson and Coker were selected to go on tour with the circus.
“We were still just friends," said Johnson. “I had a girlfriend in Connecticut. Rene had a boyfriend in the circus. He rode a motorcycle. He did loop-the-loops inside this big globe.”
After the first year, Coker quit the Greatest Show on Earth and went home to chase more earthly pursuits like teaching makeup and physical-comedy classes. “I just wanted to get away for a while," she said.
That was the last time Johnson and Coker saw each other until the Clown College had a reunion in December 1987. By that time, Johnson’s girlfriend back home was history. So was Coker’s cyclist and his loop-the-loops.
It wasn’t long before the clowns got serious. "I couldn’t stop thinking about Toto,” said Coker. "I didn’t want us to be apart anymore.”
So Coker returned to the circus. But because there were no clown vacancies, she had to settle for working in a concession stand, selling programs and “light-up swords.”
Last January, there was an opening in the funny ranks. Coker put down her sword and picked up her wig. She was a clown again!
Next Wednesday, her father - who won’t be “clowned up" - escorts his daughter into the center ring and gives her away to a real clown.
There will be no honeymoon. Not enough time.
The newlyweds will immediately go from the ring to the alley...
UPdate: René Coker and “Toto” Johnson divorced in 1994, but they remain good friends. Coker, who lives in Georgia just east of Atlanta, stopped performing shortly after they married. Johnson, who lives in Davenport, Iowa, still dons the clown make-up at festivals and conventions, but he performs mostly in a magician-friend’s traveling educational science program. He hosts experiment-driven shows and workshops at schools and libraries in the Davenport area.