Tom Lima is familiar with the smell of greasepaint, but he longs to hear the roar of the crowd.

Lima ("Spell it l-i-m-a, as in lima bean"), an aspiring clown from Falls Church, was one of 23 men and women who auditioned in Baltimore recently for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

"As a kid," said Lima, 25, "I was always called a fool. And when I grew up I wanted to be a kid."

Lima entered show business as an apprentice magician and in 1975 he began working as a juggler and stand-up comic. He says he also taught himself to ride a unicycle and has started a club for clowns in Bethesda.

He now works as an accountant, but has been following the circus up and down the East Coast because he wants so much to be a clown. He was making his third try for a place at Clown College, the professional training school in Venice, Fla., the circus' winter home.

Lima's every movement was classically clownlike as he teetered on a board balanced on a large ball, drew successively larger balls from his mouth and made comical faces for the tryout judges, Ron and Sandy Severini, the deans of Clown College. Also closely watching his style were a dozen or so circus clowns.

Kevin Cole, 24, of Arlington, was the other Northern Virginian at the auditions. Slimmer and taller than Lima, he juggled and rode a unicycle when it was his turn to impress the judges. A native of New York, he took physical education and juggling courses at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Two years ago, he says, a friend who was clowning urged him to enter the auditions.

Lima was one of 12 persons who was asked to remain and talk with Severini. Cole was not. Severini said, however, that applicants won't find out whether they have been accepted by the college until shortly before the 10-week, tuition-free course begins in September.

Auditions for Clown College are held in major cities throughout the country each year and are open to anyone willing to, as the Cole Porter song puts it, "Be a clown . . . act the fool."

"Sometimes you can tell right away if someone is going to make it," said Sandy Severini. "There is no formula, but we can see if they are dedicated, if they really want to become circus clowns and how they react to what we tell them to do."

Her husband said applicants must be in "good physical health" to be able to perform the clown stunts.

The circus' two units, the 111-year-old Red and the 112-year-old Blue, alternate their shows in some 80 cities during their 20-month touring cycle. Last month's auditions were in the Baltimore Civic Center, where the Blue show was performing.

If Lima and Cole are among the 60 or so persons chosen from the more than 5,000 applicants the college considers each year, there is no guarantee they will land a job with the circus. Ron Severini says that usually about half of the 60 trainees are hired.

New clowns must serve a three-year apprenticeship. A spokesman for the American Guild of Variety Artists, the union of circus performers, says they then will earn "between $250 and $350 per week," although pay is negotiable.

The circus' Red unit will be performing in Washington this month. Washington auditions for Clown College will begin at 10:30 a.m. April 13 at the D.C. Armory Starplex.