From Clown to Corporate Hero, Joel Talks Entertainment

Joel Feature Image

In 1982, Joel Heidtman never thought he’d be trading in his iconic red clown nose for a corporate red tie. And even less thinking that he’d one day win Employee of the Year for MGM Resorts, topping thousands of fellow employees. We’re not clowning around here. It’s a true story, even the part about MGM Resorts Chairman and CEO Jim Murren riding a six-foot unicycle!

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

joelheidtman2Growing up in a rural area outside of Columbus, Ohio, there really wasn’t much to do besides fishing, feeding the chickens and juggling. After graduating from high school the young entertainer spent six years as a clown with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus followed by gigs at Disneyland, Disney World, the Kinoshita Circus in Japan, Circus Circus Hotel, MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park, Fantasy at Luxor and at the Excalibur Hotel. He’s won the “Excellence in Performing” prize at the Wuhan International Arts Festival of China and was formally invited to perform for Kim Jong Il in North Korea.

THE CORPORATE CLOWN

Joel HeadshotFor the past 10 years Joel has trained and worked as a Suite Assistant for the Monte Carlo Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, more specifically on the luxury 32nd floor. He has become a Diversity Champion and a graduate of the hotel’s Aspire leadership training program. So he’s doing something—okay a lot of things—right. In November 2015, Joel was selected out of 62,000 employees to spend a day with the Chief Operating Officer of MGM Resorts International, and other senior executives, discussing corporate culture and its influence in the workforce.

So how does a funny man from Ohio transition from riding a unicycle to climbing the corporate ladder? VegasReport sat down with Joel to discuss everything from why he stopped performing to how he puts his circus skills to work in corporate America.

VEGAS REPORT:
At what point (and why) did you realize it was time to retire from performing?

JOEL HEIDTMAN:
In 2005, after being onstage five or six days a week for twenty years, my contract ended abruptly at Excalibur. Hurricane Katrina had just hit New Orleans, and MGM had just bought Excalibur/Luxor/Mandalay Bay. Their casino in Biloxi was under water, they were cutting costs and the entire strolling entertainment program at Excalibur was eliminated. Married and with a child, I had grown accustomed to being in one place and I didn’t want to travel full time again. I wanted to stay in Las Vegas and I needed the benefits and stability of being a full time employee.

VEGAS REPORT:
What kind of response did you get from prospective employers regarding your performing background?

Clown Joel HeidtmanJOEL HEIDTMAN:
Much to my surprise no one cared. The former employers on my resume may have caught some interviewers attention, but all they really wanted to know was if I was qualified for the job I was applying for.

VEGAS REPORT:
Were you prepared to transition with work skills or other non-entertainment related work history?

JOEL HEIDTMAN:
The skills that I had developed off stage over the years were absolutely invaluable, but it took me some time to comprehend how valuable those skills were and how to present them effectively in an interview.

I speak three languages, but I do not have a college degree. I can talk to anyone about virtually any subject, but I had no hotel operations experience. What I discovered later through some classes is that I have some qualities that couldn’t be taught, and that these qualities are what most hiring managers are actually looking for. One of these is a high level of emotional intelligence, and another is empathy, wonderful qualities to have in the business I am in now.

VEGAS REPORT:
What advice would you give other performers who are ready to retire from the performing side of entertainment?

JOEL HEIDTMAN:
Be patient, embrace change and understand that this is going to be a challenge. If you have been onstage professionally for any length of time you are a survivor. You have dealt with victories and defeats onstage in front of people – and if you can handle that you can handle just about anything. When I started working at the Front Desk years ago my performing friends asked me “How different is it now?” I told them that “When I used to go to work people applauded, and now when I go to work people yell at me!” As I became more skilled at the front desk, and more prepared for whatever situation came up, the issues became more manageable and my success increased.

VEGAS REPORT:
Did you consider continuing in the entertainment field—on the backside, non-performing end?

JOEL HEIDTMAN:
I would have loved that, but when I was looking for work I didn’t see any opportunities that I was qualified for. At the same time, I was a little worried that if I chose that path I would be spending the rest of my life backstage telling everyone how great I used to be onstage. I really wanted to see if I could succeed in an entirely new career.

VEGAS REPORT:
What skills did you find helped you land your current job? Do you still use those skills today?

Clown Joel HeidtmanJOEL HEIDTMAN:
I learned how to work hard, be dependable and get along with others during my years with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Gunther Gebel-Williams was a tremendous inspiration to me. He never missed a show, and even though he was the star of the show for thirty years he was absolutely the hardest working person there by a mile. Working with three hundred people doing five hundred shows a year teaches you a lot, and I definitely still use those skills today.

VEGAS REPORT:
What is the biggest difference between performing and a corporate job?

JOEL HEIDTMAN:
In my opinion there is no difference, it is just another circus.

When I was juggling, my job started when I walked onstage and it ended when I walked off. I look at this job as an extension of that, but I am “onstage” from the minute I step out of my car in the employee garage until the minute I get back. Life itself is a show, and appearances are everything. The guests have expectations, and so does management, and it is my job to exceed those expectations.

VEGAS REPORT:
Once a performer, always a performer. Do you miss the stage, the lights, the attention?

JOEL HEIDTMAN:
No. I never performed because I needed the applause or the attention. I juggled because I absolutely loved it, and I clowned with Ringling because I enjoy making people laugh. What I do miss most is the challenge of trying something extremely difficult onstage in front of a paying audience. Towards the end of my career I was juggling at a pretty high level, and occasionally attempting tricks onstage that I had just accomplished for the first time a few minutes earlier. I do miss that pressure.

VEGAS REPORT:
How did you manage to stand out in a company of thousands to move up the corporate ladder?

Clown Joel HeidtmanJOEL HEIDTMAN:
By being myself, by never pushing anyone down to promote myself, by treating coworkers like guests, and by treating guests like family. Many people in the company know that I am a very proud graduate of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Class of 1986. Four of the top five senior executives at MGM Resorts International have sat on my unicycle that is six feet tall (Chairman  & CEO Jim Murren was the first to get up there). My mother worked at Ohio State University for forty years, and I learned a lot watching her. I watched her treat the interns, the guests, her employees, the professors and the President of the University all the same – equally, with dignity and with respect. She has absolutely been the key to my success, and I call her every single day on the way to work.

VEGAS REPORT:
Where do you go next? What is your ultimate goal in your current job?

JOEL HEIDTMAN:
I was offered a wonderful promotion working in the casino as a host, but for the time being I have decided to stay right here on the top floor of the Monte Carlo. I am very happy in this position, and my schedule allows me evenings and weekends off with my family. I coach youth soccer and tee ball and we are active in our church, so my family time is my number one priority. My goal in this position is to continue to be so effective at what I do that return guests will check to be sure I will be here before they book their next reservation. That is what I find extremely rewarding.