NEW YORK—When it comes to Ronald McDonald, McDonald's doesn't clown around. It won't even admit that there is more than one Ronald.
For four months now, McDonald's Corp. executives have been meeting at headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., trying to decide just how to script a Ronald revival. The Golden Arches is mostly mum on the matter, saying only that the 40-year-old character will start showing up more -- and in unexpected places. Maybe he'll even perform his new dance "Do the Ronald."
In 1999, McDonald's ad agency, Leo Burnett, hired a Los Angeles stylist to refashion Ronald's wavy red hair, and it spent months studying whether to increase the width of the red stripes on his socks.
So protective is McDonald's of the character's mystique that men who play Ronald are never to admit that they do. Ronalds in costume aren't to say who they are in civilian life.
That rather annoyed Craig A. Oatten, a police chief in Michigan, when a Ronald, in full red-and-yellow regalia, got into a fender bender near Saginaw a few years ago. Asked several times, the Ronald steadfastly refused to give his name for the police report.
"If we get someone who refuses to identify themselves, we'll take them to the local jail," Oatten said. But, because there were no injuries involved, he said, he spared the clown a trip downtown.
McDonald's keeps a roster of about 250 Ronalds worldwide, according to marketing experts familiar with the program, and franchisees, with some support from the company, pay for Ronalds as an advertising expense. Each major market in the U.S. has at least one Ronald, with large cities employing several.
Ronalds often have schedulers, chauffeurs and bodyguards. Thanks to McDonald's franchisees, a Ronald in Nevada got a motor home so he could travel more easily.
"Kids would throw rocks from the parking lot. Sometimes you would get protesters," explained Jeff McMullen, a former Ronald, of Appleton, Wis. "Ronald can't handle that."
Typically actors, or ex-Ringling Bros. clowns or teachers, Ronalds make about $40,000 a year on average. A Ronald busy handling 400 shows a year can make close to $100,000, while the highest-paying Ronald, who appears in national commercials, earns more than $300,000, according to former Ronalds.
Asked about Ronald's salary, McDonald's ducks the question. "Ronald doesn't go out to work," said Amy Murray, a director in U.S. marketing. "He goes out to have fun."
McDonald's trains and recruits many Ronalds through CW & Co. Productions, a company based in Clayton, Calif. One of its methods is to place ads in clown magazines. One reads: "Clowns Wanted! We are looking for clowns to fit high profile, permanent positions. Must be willing to relocate."
Many amateur clowns covet the gig. "To be a Ronald is a lifelong career," said Janet Tucker, past president of the World Clown Association.
To preserve the illusion that there is only one Ronald, the chain forbids two Ronalds from ever appearing together except at a secret biennial convention McDonald's holds -- but won't talk about -- in which Ronalds brush up on their skills.
McDonald's own Web site seems to intimate that there is more than one Ronald. On World Children's Day last November, according to the site, Ronald was everywhere. He posed for pictures in Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, New York and Russia.
Asked about that, Larry Light, McDonald's global chief marketing officer, stood pat. "There is only one," he said.
After repeated grilling on the multi-Ronald question, McDonald's officials released a statement, attributable, they said, to Ronald: "If I told you all my secrets, they wouldn't be secrets anymore. Let's just say that between you, me and Santa, it's magic."