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A Place to Be a Clown, Be a Clown, Be a Clown

January 07, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

There's a patch of elderly San Diego that seems to be waiting for 1943 to arrive.

Kettner at Fir. It's downtown and east of the railroad tracks, a cluster of California deco warehouses with enamel bowl lights over their signs. Also a street of venerable clapboard, gingerbread two-story homes wearing widow's walks because sea captains built them.

Then there's the little house that contains a culture.

Clowns live there, real clowns, full-time jesters, a tiny family of journeyman jugglers, magicians, tumblers, mimics and mimers. Flutterby, Jingles and Polka Dottie. Tinkerbell the cocker spaniel. Two rabbits and a white dove. There's room for anyone with wet feet.

Haven for Sadness

And so goes and grows Flutterby's Funhouse, a place of love and a haven from sadness because these clowns share the first and finest tradition of their medieval craft--a perfect devotion to the dreams and laughter of children.

"Sometimes I'll lick the tear right off a child's face and tell them it tastes like peppermint. Or get down with them and be sad with them and be funny about it and let them know that even in sadness you can find fun. 'Hey there, this isn't a broken balloon. Look, pull it out and it's a worm. . . .' "

That's Flutterby. She's Pamela Whilner, 25, and she's from Toledo, Ohio. Pamela clowns, in part, because she has known hurt and loneliness as an unsettled child who ran away to live at the YWCA at the age of 15. If clowning were everywhere, she says, no other child would ever feel such emptiness.

"As soon as I got here it was different than anything before. I don't really know how to describe it. Try? It's like trying to describe a warm bath. . . ."

That's Jingles. He's Don Shoults, 37, of Rochester, N.Y., and he's been a sailor, softball umpire, nuclear power inspector, bus driver, quality assurance supervisor and cop. He clowns as an antidote. It allows him the freedom and spontaneity, he believes, that he once sacrificed to an adult life of suburban regimen and social conformity.

"What I like best about clowning is that I make new friends who don't really get into it with big clowns but come into a corner with me. Of course, when I'm in the corner with them I'm still the clown and they're still the kids. . . ."

That's Polka Dottie. She's Leslie Shoults, 9, who has been on a cross-country Paper Moon odyssey with Dad since her parents' marriage broke up three years ago. Worries? Not when there's Tinkerbell to hug and Pam to teach you all about clown makeup and a dad who makes 12-foot teddy bears and can find quarters in your nose.

For Don Shoults and his daughter, becoming clowns was simply an opportunity realized. Shoults was in San Diego working for a ship repair company, a bachelor father restless for some new permanence. Along came a friend's party and a meeting with Pam and a joining of lives that will be confirmed by marriage this year.

For Flutterby's Funhouse at 1907 Kettner, a $700-a-month rental, all blue and yellow, sprouting balloons and with a monster teddy bear on the veranda, the new occupancy represents a definite upgrading of status. Built in 1912 as home for a tuna boat skipper, this house was once the dispatch office for an outcall modeling agency.

For Whilner, well . . . she regards this fun for hire, her calls to children's hospitals, the telethons and the parties she plays, as a calling that likely has been her shadow since childhood. Flutterby from Whilner, she says, certainly was cast by very serious studies in child development and psychology combined with her major as an actress, singer, musician and dancer. Then there were her fantasies, bubbling imagination, natural sense of improvisation . . . and the single quality that drove Emmett Kelly, Otto Griebling, Popoff and Lou Jacobs to circus greatness--the talent to remain a child in the mind so as to always reach a child.

"In Toledo, when I was about 7, we used to sing for our supper," Whilner said. "Literally." The interview is in the front office of Flutterby's Funhouse that used to be a fisherman's front parlor. Shoults is climbing into black rubber boots for an afternoon appearance. Leslie is in the backyard struggling to build a ribbon of balloons against their natural predators, wind and rain. "While supper was getting ready, all us kids would put on a play, little skits, everything from 'Snow White' to 'My Fair Lady.'

"We built a backyard theater as a day-care center that at one time had 50 kids at 10 cents a day. We'd do 'Bambi,' create circuses and zoos and midways and teach 'em how to grease the plates so that the pennies would slide off. . . ."

One grandmother in Toledo was an actress in amateur theatricals. Mother was a church singer. Even Granddad was a musician. He played the four-stringed pitchfork. "From this family background, I learned a lot about controlling my emotions and feelings; that in turn allowed me to adopt the feelings of others.

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