by JIM KNIPFEL
September 25, 2016
Twilight of the Clowns
[Author’s Note: In the wake of so many creepy clown sightings across the US and Europe over the past eighteen months, most recently in the Carolinas, Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, and Georgia, all I can say is, well, I fucking told you so. Here’s a sample from just the past few weeks:
Clown sightings creep into southern Kentucky — Creepy clown sighting in Water Valley? — Threats of creepy Alabama 'clowns' locking down schools across state, causing problems for police — Creepy Clown Reports Continue, and Clowns Are Not Happy.
time also seemed right to go back and take another look at a story I wrote in
His real name is Lou Johnson. His stage name is Max. Max the Clown. He was there with the rest of them at the NCAC (National Clown Arts Council) convention in Seaside Heights, New Jersey last September.
Max was a good clown. Won the individual skit competition. Yet Max had one very serious thing working against him. On top of his big shoes, his bright red suspenders, his black and yellow striped shirt, his basic tramp clown makeup and bright red nose, he had one tragic flaw. Nobody had bothered to tell him that the age in which he could get away with sporting a Charlie Chaplin moustache was way, way past.
My former editor Derek and I just called him “Nazi the Clown.”
I’ve always hated clowns. And I’m certainly not alone in this. Everybody I talk to — everybody over the age of ten, it seems, is terrified of clowns. Except, of course, the clowns themselves. And only clowns, it seems, find other clowns funny.
Popular culture has long reflected this fear and cynicism: from Krusty the Clown, The Simpsons’ bitter, chain smoking, hard-drinking, mean-spirited Bozo-style television host, to In Living Color’s streetwise Homey the Clown, to the Joker, to Pennywhistle in Stephen King’s It, to John Wayne Gacy — the party clown who just loved children to death, to silent horror films like Laugh, Clown, Laugh and He Who Gets Slapped, to those foul-mouthed carnival dunking clowns. I used to work in a small video store near a trailer park that stocked (I counted one day) nineteen films featuring axe-wielding clowns. Then there was Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Bob Goldthwait’s alcoholic clown extravaganza, Shakes the Clown (which is, admittedly, a pretty miserable film — unless you happen to watch it the day after getting back from a clown convention).
We, as a culture, seriously hate our clowns. My friend Bob Hires calls it “the Dark Ronald Syndrome” — the image of the evil clown which sneaks and snakes it’s way through American society.
It’s no surprise, really, that the image of clowns has come to this, because in a way, that’s where it began. There’s hieroglyphic evidence that a form of clown existed in ancient Egypt. We know that the Greeks and Romans both had their clowns. Clowns worked the courts of the Middle Ages. The interesting thing is that until the Middle Ages, the clown and the performing freak were essentially the same thing. The jesters and fools who entertained kings, along with wearing bizarre costumes which presaged the bright outfits worn by today’s clowns, were often dwarfs who were deformed in some way.
It was only after the Middle Ages that the clown and the freak split — the jokester, the prankster, the one in the funny outfit going one way, the twisted human monster going the other, both ending up in travelling circuses — one on display in cages and onstage, the other free to roam where it wanted.
The first modern clown — that is, the first of the clowns as we’ve come to accept them, was Joseph Gramaldi, a hugely popular British entertainer in the late Eighteenth century.
Anyway, that’s all fine and good. I was still scared to death of clowns. Not the clowns who tried to be scary — not the movie clowns with axes and knives and chainsaws — they were just stupid. What frightened me were the happy clowns — the “normal” clowns. There was something very insidious about them. You never knew what was going on behind the greasepaint and those hidden eyes, those mouths carved into artificial smiles. They sounded happy and they acted happy, but it was a happiness which danced on the edge of hysteria, a manic joy which threatened, in a second, to slip over into murderous rage or cold hatred without missing a heartbeat.
So I set out, taking my cue from G. Gordon Liddy, to confront my fear headlong — to either defeat and dispel it, or prove to myself that I’d been right all along, probably finding myself trapped in one of those little clown cars, held down by twenty of the sonsabitches, one of them bonking me over the head with a big hammer, all of them cackling gleefully as they drove me off into clown hell.
An article in the Green Bay Press-Gazette entitled “Clown Final Exam No Laughing Matter” reported the following: “After completing their coursework at the Ringling Bros. Clown College in Baraboo, WI — classes which include acrobatics, face painting, mime and slapstick — the would-be clowns must pass what’s known as ‘The Giggle Test.’ Before an audience which includes Kenneth Field (current president and director of Ringling Bros.), each clown presents a skit. If Field laughs, you’re in. Field’s reaction alone determines whether a clown will be stuck in the birthday party circuit or will get the chance to travel with The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Now, the implication here is that circus clowns are, in some way, superior to party clowns. And in a way, it’s true. In the clown hierarchy, working for Ringling Bros. is much more prestigious than working two or three local birthday parties every weekend. Pays better, too. But according to the clowns I’ve spoken with, the differences are so great that comparing the two is almost impossible.
“If you’re a circus clown,” says Albert Eldridge, who performs as Bo Bo the Clown, “you’re trained to be nothing but a circus clown. Circus clowns just come out and do these twenty or thirty second skits, but performing clowns have to put on hour-long shows.”
If there is any resentment towards circus clowns, it wasn’t evident at ClownFest. Of course, it was a convention exclusively aimed at party clowns. Hundreds of them, from Australia, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Texas and Wisconsin — though mostly from the East Coast — gather every year in Jersey to attend seminars on different aspects of clowning, buy supplies and trade clowning secrets with each other.
Derek and I drove down to Seaside Heights on a cold, rainy Saturday morning to try and pry a few of these secrets out of them, as well as try to figure out what clowns were really like, beneath the happy masks, when they weren’t performing.
After wandering up and down the boardwalk trying to find the Aztec hotel, which was functioning as the convention headquarters, we finally saw a clown in full garb carrying a parasol, dancing around the edge of a swimming pool.
“Well, this must be the place.”
Inside, NCAC trustees Fred Collins, Vince Pagliano and O.J. Meyer gave us schedules, press releases and a copy of the “Clown Commandments.” Then we set out to find a bathroom. In the middle of one of the Aztec’s narrow, dark hallways, a thin man with a long grey beard and a polo shirt stopped us.
“I like your hairstyle,” he said to Derek.”
Thanks. We’re looking for a bathroom.”
“You won’t find one. Press, huh? Where from?”
“Philadelphia. A weekly paper.”
“What sorts of things do you cover?”
“Opinion, mostly,” I told him. “We’re an opinion paper. I’m here to work on a story about contemporary clown culture.”
“You need a haircut.”
“You need a haircut.”
“Well, you said you wanted opinions.”
“So what do you do?” He didn’t really look like much of a clown. He wasn’t in any sort of costume, and looked too mystic to be a clown.
“I make magic.”
“C’mere, I’ll show you.”
I knew we would never come back. But we followed him anyway, back into a hotel suite set up as a dealer’s booth. Derek popped into the bathroom, and I looked around at all the dolls, makeup kits, puppets and toys displayed on the desks, chairs and bed while this guy set things up on a card table.
He did a few sleight of hand tricks, explaining that he had designed and built all of these things himself and was selling them, mostly for sixty bucks a pop. His name, as it turned out, was Zanadu, and he had a nasty habit of speaking the first half of a sentence, then pointing at someone in his audience to finish it for him. “In Xanadu did . . .”
Derek and I split before he could wave his wand around and leave us both six inches tall. Besides, we weren’t there for dealers in magician toys. We hopped over to a local church meeting hall to catch the end of the first seminar. Along the way, we passed the Fire Hall, where a number of other seminars would be taking place. On the front door of the church hall was a hand-printed sign: “All Clowns must use rear entrance.”
“Gacy certainly thought so,” I suggested.
The first seminar was on “The Caring Clown,” and was being conducted by Richard Snowberg. This Snowberg fellow was up onstage in big shoes, a blue fright wig, white face, and red-and-white polka dot outfit, in front of some 200 people, some in clown garb, some not.
As it turns out, a “caring clown” is not a generic term for weepy, softhearted clowns, but rather a very specific technical term, referring to those clowns who work in hospitals. Despite his silly get-up, Snowberg spoke seriously and bluntly about how to amuse the sick, without once tooting a bicycle horn or making a balloon animal.
“Make eye contact from the furthest possible distance away, so you don’t startle them,” he told the audience. “Begin by talking about things in the room — cards, flowers, pictures, the view — just to begin on some neutral ground.”
A woman in a wig of blue yarn, a red bulbous nose, big shoes and bells wandered in and sat down next to us.
The Mayo clinic has never allowed clowns to work there. A hospital in Iowa has twenty-five clowns working for them. The Big Apple Circus in New York has a Caring Clown division. Most clown camps (and there are more of them than you might care to imagine) teach caring clown courses.
He offered some tips on how to work your way into a hospital gig—find out their particular rules regarding clowns, maybe even show up, with a list of your own rules. Maybe they won’t let you use balloons. Maybe they won’t let you touch the patient’s food. Some hospitals will. Take the time to learn your way around the hospital, so if someone asks you for help, you might be able to offer it.
Of course, there is a downside to this, too, which never came up during the seminar. Imagine finding yourself at a hospital in Iowa, trying to find out about a sick mother or father, wandering up and down the halls, only finding clowns around every corner. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of. My friend Kathy tells the story of a friend of hers who was diagnosed HIV-positive a few years back. He had to go to the hospital for weekly treatments. While he was sitting in the waiting room with a number of other HIV-positive patients, someone on the hospital staff got the bright idea to send a clown in to cheer them up. It didn’t work.
A big pink Bo-Peep wandered by Derek and me. A chubby, grubby looking man without any makeup on yawned and said, “That’s what I should call myself, ‘Sleepy the Clown.’ Then I wouldn’t have to worry about anything.”
After Snowberg left the stage, Vince Pagliano (a Colonel Tom Parker type in a big cowboy hat — well, not a real big cowboy hat, but a ten-gallon one at least) stood up and made a few announcements about schedule changes and keeping the place clean. He also got the audience to chant “No fire, no water” with him, in a joke everyone got but us. Then it was time for the next seminar. This time it was a “live” birthday party, starring Cheri Venturi, aka Cheerios the Clown, who was the woman in the blue yarn wig and bells who sat next to us earlier. She’s apparently considered one of the best birthday clowns in the business.
A group of four six-year-olds was brought up onstage and, to the tune of “The Peppermint Twist,” Cheerios danced onstage and started squeaking at the kids, who stared dumbly up at her.
“If you took all the condescension in the world,” Derek whispered to me, “and boiled it down to a stock, you’d end up with this.”
Cheerios treated the six year olds as if they were two, playing ridiculous identification games, singing annoying songs, playing stupid, while the audience of fellow clowns smiled warmly at the goings-on. I was trying my damnedest to be objective about all this. After all, I was seeing this world from the inside for the first time. Some things, indeed, were beginning to click. Yet others were beginning to shudder, groan and grind.
“If my parents had inflicted this on me when I turned six,” I told Derek, “I . . . I would’ve killed the clown . . . and then killed them.”
Some horrible retching noises started coming out of the room behind us. This was no common flu — these were the sounds of a man who had just swallowed a bunch of Drano. Still, the party went on. The party always goes on.
After the party was over and the kids were sent away, Cheerios (who, as it turns out, was from Indianapolis) took center stage and explained, in a voice that was only slightly less squeaky, “You have to remember that this is this child’s only sixth birthday. No matter what happened to you that morning, no matter what happened on the way there, no matter what’s waiting for you when you get home, you have to remember that.”
I looked around more closely at the crowd. There were an awful lot of fat clowns. Some pretty goddamn grim looking clowns, too. What surprised me most, however, was the number of clowns who looked almost exactly alike. I’m sure there were a myriad of subtle, meaningful differences that I simply wasn’t catching, but still — most were white-face clowns. For all the talk of a clown’s makeup marking his individuality, being his trademark, they pretty much look the same. There were very few tramps, very few Auguste clowns. (In the party clown hierarchy, Auguste clowns are very low on the totem pole upon which white-face clowns reign supreme. Auguste clowns wear wilder makeup, wilder outfits which are rarely color-coordinated, and are cast as the true fools of clowndom.) Most of the clowns there were happy clowns (you can tell that by the makeup, too). And most were wearing outfits which seemed to be interchangeable — big shoes, big ties, big suspenders, big hats . . . all the same. The crowd was pretty evenly split between male and female, and was probably 98% white.
I went over and asked Vince what the “No water, no fire” mantra meant.
“Well, normally, clowns are allowed to spray each other with fire and water,” he told me, “but for insurance reasons, we aren’t allowed to do that here, either inside or out on the boardwalk.” I thanked him and walked away, trying to think of a time I had ever seen a clown with a flamethrower.
Out on the Boardwalk, things were coming alive. It had a real State Fair feel about it. There were lots of concession stands and unwinnable games. The biggest surprise was a concession where you could play a game for cigarettes. I asked the guy running it, “There doesn’t happen to be any place where you can play games for bourbon around here, is there? “ He looked horrified. “No, no there isn’t.”
Back by the hotel, a few clowns had spilled out onto the Boardwalk, hugging and mugging with passers-by, talking to kids, having pictures taken, trying out their routines. That’s where we first saw Nazi the Clown. Lots of the children were obviously terrified, yet their parents still shoved them towards the clowns to catch that picture that would last a lifetime.
Two grunge kids walk by, and one just said “yeecch.”
Buffalo BoBo, the Long Tall Texan showed up in a huge cowboy hat, enormous boots over eight-foot stilts and a horrible Western accent. He really pissed off Nazi, who, up until that time, was the tallest clown there. “Well, I guess my job’s done here,” he spat bitterly as he stomped back into the hotel.
Just in passing, Derek and I had heard about a “Substance Abuse” seminar, which wasn’t listed anyplace on our schedule of events, and decided that that was the place to be, instead of the wig care, slapstick, face painting or clown band seminars. We expected to find ourselves in a room full of junkie clowns and alcoholics, but when we got there, it looked to be more like the Valium and Demerol set—middle-aged women, mostly, some in costume, some not. The seminar was being run by a fellow named Ed Schmidt, who looked a bit like Norman Mailer wearing a flowery hat and dirty coveralls. Schmidt’s clown name was Nomo — as in “Nomo drugs, nomo alcohol.” The seminar, as it turns out, was for clowns who do anti-drug programs.
Ed went around the room, asking people to introduce themselves, give their clown names, and explain why they were there. I hate things like that. A lot of people talked about Norman Cousins and Leo Buscaglia. I hate things like that, too. Despite it all, Ed seemed alright.
In the middle of the introductions, we met Denise. Denise was the middle-aged, probably divorced mother of Nadine, for whom the staged birthday party was held. Denise performed as Happy Heart, along with Nadine, who was Little Heart. Denise had that true believer smell about her, and probably would’ve latched onto the SLA had they hit her at the right time. Now she worships Ed.
“A little boy came up to me after I first started putting Ed’s teachings into practice,” she said, trying to choke back the tears, “and said ‘I’m okay, I don’t do drugs’.” The tears flowed freely then. The woman sitting next to me pulled out her tissues and daubed the tears away from her own eyes.
A number of catch phrases were bandied about, together with a few examples of how to use shtick to teach kids about the dangers of drug abuse. That was all fine, nothing out of the ordinary (except, of course, the fact that many of the participants were dressed in flamboyant pajamas and had bright red noses). But then some woman — I forget her clown name — Farty, maybe — told us about the time her son came home and reported that the neighbor boy tried to get him to smoke something.
“Well, obviously it was marijuana,” she whispered with cold horror, “So we called the police and turned the parents in.” Nobody batted an eye.
Ed reported a similar situation, when he found out that one of his staff members was a user. Shrill voices from the audience demanded to know if he was fired and jailed. Ed, to his credit, seemed honestly disturbed by all this.
These clowns, these entertainers, these bringers of joy to the children of the world, were, as it turns out, very naive, very well-meaning fascists, more than willing to turn their neighbors over to the cops on hearsay.
Derek and I slipped out before we were discovered and lynched, and headed back over to the church meeting hall, where one of the weekend’s big events—the skit competition—was about to begin.
The skit competition was split into two categories — individual and group, with everyone allowed five minutes to his, her or their bit. We made it through perhaps two-thirds of the competition before we simply couldn’t take it anymore. It was like the worst of amateur nights, except with a twist of the surreal tossed in for some kind of measure. Nazi’s bit was good — he did a mime routine in which he tried to control a little sign with an arrow painted on it. The sign attempted to fly away from him in whichever direction the arrow happened to be pointing (it eventually flew up his ass). When he was finished, he stood against a wall near us, twitching violently and muttering to himself in a very disturbing way. I was convinced he was going to start taking hostages before the weekend was over.
Most all the rest of the acts were mime routines as well, but mime routines which left me and Derek lost, trying desperately to guess what it was they were acting out (“I think they’re trying to cover up a midget with a confederate flag, then dip him in bacon fat.” “You think so? I thought they were trying to fill out their income tax returns by rubbing a dog — or some sort of small mammal — on the forms . . . ”).
Nobody in the audience seemed to be finding these skits any funnier than we did. After a bit, clowns started talking amongst themselves, wandering around and taking pictures, ignoring, as best they could, the skits on the stage.
The breaking point finally came when two clowns came onstage, and to the strains of some song called “I Want to be Like You,” pulled a variety of hats out of a box and tried them on, until, finally, one clown pulled out a crown of thorns, and the other pulled out a cross.
“What the hell does that mean? They wanna be crucified?”
“I think we accidently came to the ‘International Convention of Loser Clowns.’“
There was a strange strain of Clown Christianity running through the convention, which culminated, I suppose, in the “Clown Code of Ethics” — more generally known as the “Seven Clown Commandments”:
1. I will keep my acts, performance and behavior in good taste while in costume. I have been accepted by the clown club to provide others, principally children, with clean clown comedy. I will remember that a good clown entertains others by making fun of himself, and not at the expense or embarrassment of others.
2. I will learn to apply my makeup in a professional manner. I will provide my own costume. I will carry out my assignments for the entertainment of others and not for personal gain. I will always try to remain anonymous while in costume, though there may be times when it is not possible to do so.
3. I will not drink any alcohol prior to any clown appearances or while in costume. I will conduct myself as a gentleman/lady, neither molesting nor interfering with other acts or individuals.
4. I will remove my makeup as soon as possible following my appearance, so that I cannot be associated with any incident which may be detrimental to the good name of clowning.
5. I will abide by all performance rules without public complaint.
6. I will do my best to maintain the best clown standards of make-up, costuming, props and comedy.
7. I will appear in as many clown shows as I possibly can.
Some clowns follow the rules. Some don’t. The clowns I talked to back in Philly fell into both camps.
Philly is awash with clowns. A quick flip through the yellow pages or a South Philly paper will reveal dozens of ads for individual clowns, clown agencies and party companies which offer clowns as part of their repertoire.
Albert Eldridge, as mentioned before, performs as Bo Bo. Albert’s case is an interesting one, because, although he’s approaching seventy, he’s only been clowning for eight years.
“My aunt was a clown, and my father was a musician — he played with the Big Bands — so I decided very early that I never wanted to go into show business. He was away all the time.”
Eldridge was raised in Philly and spent twelve years at Penn’s night school, where he eventually got his degree. “I may be the only person to graduate from Penn without ever getting a high school diploma. I was surrounded by all of these brilliant people, and I’ve always been a little slow, so I always felt a little out of place.”
After getting his degree, he worked for a large shoe company, then began opening his own Buster Brown franchises. And it was at Buster Brown that he first worked with clowns.
“I had a store in Frankford which was doing poorly,” he says in a soft voice with a heavy Philly accent, “so I put clowns outside, handing out flyers for free balloons, and it worked beautifully. I decided that I wanted to try it myself. At first I only did commercial work, working in shopping centers and the like. But now we do . . . gosh, over 250 shows a year. ‘We’ — I talk about us as a team, me and Bo Bo.”
I asked him what he thought the secret to being a successful clown was.
“Well, the character has to convince the audience that he’s stupid, and once he’s done that, the laughter comes naturally. And you have to make them laugh immediately. That’s the secret. Most importantly, you just have to convince them that you’re really really dumb. I guess I have a gift for doing that. To be a successful clown, you don’t have to like kids, but you must have a sensitivity to their needs.”
“In your, or his, press photo, Bo Bo looks sad.”
“Most people want happy clowns. But the most effective clowns are sad. Emmett Kelly was always a sad clown. There’s an element of sadness in everybody. But people don’t feel bad for clowns. You can laugh when he does something stupid. Kelly’s clowns simply couldn’t handle situations in life — it’s all too much for him.”
“So where did the character, ‘Bo Bo,’ come from?”
“At first I was just a generic clown, but to build publicity, I realized that I needed a character. In the inner city, the name for cheap sneakers was ‘Bo Bos.’ They were the shoes you bought at the five and dime. These weren’t Nikes or Reeboks. In the press photo, you’ll see that I’m wearing size 26 shoes. Now, those are hardly cheap, but that’s where the name came from. It’s not related to Bozo or anything like that.”
“What sort of shows does Bo Bo do, primarily?”
“I work a lot of schools and day care centers, and I’ll tell you — children are the most brutal, most vicious audiences there are. They won’t offer polite applause or handshakes. They’ll boo and hiss if you don’t entertain them. I’ve seen clowns reduced to tears by a group of children. Its easier to work shopping centers when there are adults around. I won’t do shows for children over twelve. No shows for groups between twelve and twenty. Because they can’t handle characters. They don’t treat them like human beings. They haven’t yet reached the point where they realize that there’s a real person behind the character. They think its like the Three Stooges — you can poke them in the eye, and nobody will get hurt.” Then he added, “Being a clown is a lot more fun than selling Buster Brown shoes. Had I known that, I would’ve gotten into it much sooner . . . Selling shoes is boring.”
Rather than dropping his life for the clown’s life, Tom Lambert-Ryan — aka Sparkle the Clown — found a way to combine his job with the funny clothes. He had been teaching preschool, using music and storytelling as basic tools in his classroom. Somebody called the school one day, looking for a clown. Although he had never done it before, he decided to give it a shot. Afterwards, Lambert-Ryan remembered seeing a story in the Inquirer about a professor who used clowning to teach special ed, and tracked him down. Over the next few months, he learned juggling, puppetry, mime and make-up. He’s been clowning for fifteen years now.
“I saw first of all that it was a very strong medium — kids remembered the smallest details, and knowing that helped me focus on what I put out. One time, for instance, I filled my pockets with sunflower seeds, and handed them out as I was leaving a birthday party. The kids asked if they could eat them and I said yes, but if you planted it, you’d end up with a flower that was taller than I was.”
Sparkle works mainly birthdays, schools, libraries, museums, and hospice fundraisers, and does a show at the stadium every year.
“Clowns cut across racial and class lines. I’ve done a couple of birthday parties in projects. I saw drug deals go down while I was walking from my car to the party, but was never bothered,” mainly, he figures, because he was in full clown garb. “Nobody stops a clown. Clowns cut through the red tape.”
“I use music a lot — it helps me adapt to different situations, and age diversity. Nine-year-olds are different from three-year-olds.”
As I asked Bo Bo, I asked Sparkle what the secret to good clowning was. He called it “heart-opening.”
“From ages five or six to age sixty-five, two plus two equals four. But before and after that, two and two does not equal four. I like this story as an example: A father brings his four year old son Billy to the Thanksgiving Day parade. The father is carrying a big tube under his arm. They watch the parade and have a good time. At the end, when Santa comes by, the father pulls a poster out of the tube, unrolls it, and holds it over his son’s head. The poster reads ‘Hi, Billy!’ When Santa comes by, he looks over, leans down, and says, ‘Hi, Billy!’ The father rolls the poster back up, puts it back in the tube and they go home. But for the rest of his life, Billy will remember that Santa knew who he was. That’s the clown’s job — to put some of the magic back into life.”
Sparkle’s a happy clown, whose central attribute is his forgetfulness. At parties, he’ll try to show the kids what a great tennis player he is, but he’ll forget to throw the tennis ball, and end up hitting himself on the hand. He’ll forget that he’s supposed to be the clown at this particular party, and make a big deal about waiting for the clown to show up.
“You take your own character flaws and put them out there — you’re telling the kids “here’s something to deal with.” It gives the kids the opportunity to feel okay about their own flaws. It teaches them to laugh at themselves.”
Joe St. Marie had the name “Sweet Pea” hung on him when he was in the service during World War II. He’s not sure why, but the name stuck. After the war, he went to work as a machine designer at the Western Electric Research Center. They had what they called a “Pioneers Program” for older workers, who went out and did charity work. Someone asked him to come along one day.
“I said fine, I’d carry things. But this guy said ‘Well, you have to wear a costume.’” He’s been clowning for twelve and a half years now. In that time, he’s come to be known as one of the premiere balloon sculptors in the country. He can make flowers, poodles kissing in a rocking chair, motorcycles, men with fishing poles, teddy bears in big hearts, anything.
“There’s nothing you can’t make out of balloons if you just sit down and think about it. I’ll make anything anybody asks me to.”
Unfortunately, being one of the best in the country has a downside.
“They’ve become a curse. Now promoters will only call me if they need somebody to do balloons. I was once paid an outrageous amount of money to work a party at this estate. They had a Frisbee golf course set up, and it was my job to stand at the entrance to the course, making balloon hats for everyone who went through. It was my job to make sure that no one got on that course without a balloon hat.
Sweet Pea the Clown, in his big shoes, big hat, big pants, big suspenders and big buttons, is only one of St. Marie’s characters. In fact, he prefers to be called an “entertainer,” rather than just a plain old “clown.” He can put a cowboy hat, star-spangled vest and holster on Sweet Pea, and become “Six-Gun Sweet Pea.” He can do Uncle Sam. He can be a carnival barker. During the holidays, he’ll be Santa. He can be an elegant Hobo.
“Most people, when they do hobos, just try to copy Emmett Kelly — but mine is very well dressed, very elegant.”
And then he can put most of these characters on stilts, if need be.
“I don’t like birthday parties that much,” he admits. “I work a lot of trade shows. Tomorrow I’m going down to the convention center as Uncle Sam. I’ll do one, maybe two birthdays a weekend . . . Kids are tough — Adults are easy. If kids don’t like you, they’ll let you know. When you’re doing close-up magic, adults will always look where you want them to look. Kids always follow the hand you don’t want them to follow.“
I told him that I’d talked to a lot of clowns who wouldn’t work for kids between the ages of twelve and twenty.
“I’ll work anytime, anywhere, but not always in clown make-up. There are things you just can’t say or do in make-up. I was working down at Penn’s Landing one summer with two of my sons, doing balloons, when this guy came up and threatened to knock my cart over. Well, there was a baby in the stroller behind the cart. What was I supposed to do? So I caught him under the chin, picked him up on his toes, and walked him over to a policeman.”
One thing I found with Sweet Pea that I found with few other clowns was a real sensitivity — and sometimes a bitterness — towards clown politics. There are dozens of clown organizations around the country, each with different goals and focuses. I asked him about the NCAC.
“I don’t go to that convention anymore. The guys who organize it have turned it into just a New Jersey thing. And the hotel they hold it in is a dungeon. At conventions, all the best people hide away and share the secrets they’ve learned over the past year with each other. They aren’t there to buy things.”
Most of the other clowns I dealt with simply didn’t care much about organizations. Sparkle told me he just joined one club so he could get their magazine and that’s all. “Between teaching, clowning and raising a family, I just don’t have time for politics.”
But the politics of clowning goes much deeper than simply what organization you belong to. “Bozo’s the worst job in clowning,” Sweet Pea told me. “Everything’s scripted for you. And some clowns refuse to work with other clowns. Ronald McDonald isn’t allowed to appear with other clowns. If you’re working an event and the Phillie Phanatic shows up, you just learn to go away and let him do his thing.”
Donna Boyle, who performs as Pinky, had been a belly dancer until she started Party Pros, a Philadelphia-based entertainment company that provides games, decorations, and costumed characters for local parties and events. At the beginning, she said, she performed all the characters, from Mickey and Minnie Mouse to Barney to one of the Ninja Turtles, but Preferred Pinky. “The clown was always my favorite,” she says, “because with the clown, I could see what I was doing. I wasn’t wearing a big mask over my head. With Barney, you usually need to have a helper come with you, just to make sure you don’t step on someone.”
Around Philly, Pinky became well-known as the clown who changed the format and rewrote the rules of party clowning. Instead of focusing exclusively on the kids, she began getting the adults involved with the act, making them dance around in funny wigs. It not only took the pressure off her to be funny for an hour, it also took the pressure off those kids in the audience who didn’t much feel like participating themselves.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to the terror factor. Even if they aren’t scared to death of them, I’ve never known anyone, anywhere, who even likes clowns. This came as a complete shock to most of the clowns I spoke with, though after some nudging they admitted they could understand the fear, though in very limited terms and with explanations.
“Between eighteen months and three years,” Sparkle says, “children have an apprehension of larger than life characters. I let children set their own parameters. If they don’t want to approach, I won’t approach them.” He adds that tangible things, like balloon animals and puppets, are often less threatening than dealing with a real man in face paint. After fifteen years in the business, he says he encountered only one instance in which the birthday boy in question screamed when he walked in. The kid ran to the kitchen and hid there for the rest of the party. Apart from that, he insists he’s never encountered any kind of animosity from anyone. “Clowns open people up,” he says. “People will do things with a clown they would never do with normals.”
“Up to the age of three, children can be terrified,” Bo Bo said. “And they’re terrified because—this is the father’s fault—if the child is in control, he can move towards the clown or away from the clown as he wants. But you get a father in there, taking control, picking up the child and saying ‘C’mere, you see? Santa Claus isn’t so bad.’ The child has lost control and is forced to move forward. That’s why, when I do a child care center, I have them put the older children up front and the younger children in the back. That way, if the younger kids want to move up closer, they can, but they aren’t forced to. Most children are attracted to clowns.”
Like Bo Bo, Sweet Pea places the blame for any lingering clownphobia squarely on the parents for the most part.
“Kids seem to go through a stage when clowns frighten them.” It was a problem he even ran into with his own kids. “They’re thinking, ‘I know the voice, but I don’t recognize the body.’ Parents can be the worst people in the world. Some kids will take to you and some won’t. I was doing balloons at Penn’s Landing, and there was this father in line, telling his son, ‘You better be good, or the clown’s gonna get you.’”
He also points a finger at the nation’s myriad clown colleges, which poot out what he calls Weekend Warriors or Lipstick Clowns.
“You go to these classes for three or four hours a night for five nights. They tell you how to put on makeup, they show you how to make a few balloons, and that’s it. They don’t teach you how to work with kids. So you end up with these clowns who just run around, making all this noise and commotion, because they don’t know how to do anything else. They look like hell and they don’t care. But if you’re three years old and this guy walks in looking like that, of course the kids are going to be scared.”
In a way, clowns are like the Masons. They have their own rituals and their own meetings and their own secret ways of knowing each other. In the end, though, I have to admit they aren’t evil. Not all of them at least. I tried to dig under the makeup to find the evil. I looked hard for the evil, but found nothing. They just live in their own little world, is all. In that way, they’re no different from the rest of us. Most of us dress up in funny suits every day, too — but since there are so many more of us, we don’t notice as much. There’s no denying that the clown world is different from our own. It’s a lot simpler. It’s a world full of goodness, or at least potential goodness. A world in which every child, no matter how dire his circumstances, has a laugh hidden in him somewhere — a laugh which, the clowns believe, only they can release. And if they can’t, well, there’s always the knife.
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