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Al Martinez

There Ought to Be Clowns

February 27, 1986|Al Martinez

I was talking with Jan Natarno one day and he was saying that the era of the clown, the real clown, is past in America.

"Being a clown used to be special," he said, looking at a photograph of himself in full makeup, "but now . . . "

He ended the sentence with a shrug and stared for awhile at the picture of the guy with the happy mouth and the tear-lined eyes and the fake diamond at the end of his nose.

Then he said, "The circus has gotten too big and a clown is just a fill-in act, something to eat up time while the props are being changed.

"Maybe," he said, "just maybe everything has gotten too big."

We were standing in a hallway of his Hollywood apartment where he now edits video tape for actors to send in to casting directors.

Natarno is an amiable, rubber-faced man of 56 with hair that is thinning in front and long in back. Barely five-feet two-inches tall with granny glasses hanging around his neck on a silver chain, he looks a little like one of the Seven Dwarfs.

The corridor wall was lined with photographs that showed him in three different clown modes: as Catalina Cappy, as the first Ronald McDonald and as Goo-Goo on stage at Hollywood's old Moulin Rouge.

There were also pictures of him with people like Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California, and Joe DiMaggio and Jack Benny.

I mentioned to Natarno that he looked as though he had really enjoyed being a clown and he said he had loved it, and then began talking about how the art of being a clown belonged to a past era of circus tents, before the corporations took over.

"I'll never be a clown again," he said. "The thrill is gone, and once the thrill is gone, the clown is gone."

Giving it all up after 30 years was not an easy decision for him. He was a third-generation clown, following in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather in their native Poland.

"They were the best," Natarno said. "That diamond I glued at the end of my nose is to show we played for royalty once. Kids used to ask how I made it stick and I'd say I had a hole drilled in the end of my nose and the diamond just screwed in."

I asked him if the rest of the clown makeup had any special meaning.

"Well," he said, "the three-leaf clover on my face represents one leaf for each generation of the family to perform as a clown."

"How about the rest of it?"

I wasn't really prying, I just wondered if the combination of a mouth painted into a perpetual smile and eyes with tear lines through them represented the proximity of laughter and tears.

"I suppose they do generally," Natarno said. "The mouth means happiness all right, but the tear lines are personal. They're for the family I lost at Auschwitz."

I hadn't expected that.

The little clown with the painted smile had lost his mother, father and two younger brothers to the Nazi gas chambers and had himself survived only because he had slipped away from a holding camp and had escaped through neutral countries.

The greasepaint masked a sorrow greater than anyone could imagine.

"God," I said, "I don't know how anyone could even start being a clown after living through something like that."

"You do it," he said, "because you have to. Being a clown helps."

Concentrating on making someone else laugh lessened the impact of his own sorrow. The crying stopped when Cappy began cartwheeling across the stage.

For more than three decades after the war, Natarno played fairs and schools and nightclubs and even ships, sometimes working in four or five shows a day.

"You were really something when you were a clown then," he said, "but it's a different feeling today, at least in this country. Clowns are still popular in Europe, but not America. We're outmoded, gone, done with."

I have a special feeling for clowns. My mother, who hated sadness, felt that laughter was the only adequate response to childhood disaster.

I remember falling out of a tree when I was about seven. I gashed my head and knocked the wind out of myself. I was bleeding and breathless at the same time.

Mom rushed up and said, "Quick, think of something funny!"

Given short notice, I had no time to recall the humorous moments from a Laurel and Hardy movie or a Krazy Kat cartoon. The best I could come up with was a clown I had seen about a year before, so I concentrated on him.

Sure enough, my breath returned and the bleeding stopped. It was a miracle. Even today I associate the imagery of a clown with the resumption of life.

I never saw Jan Natarno perform, and I'm still sorry he gave up being a clown. Having known pain, he was probably better able to lessen it in others. The best funnymen are the saddest.

A friend of mine, in observing the non-changing nature of human conduct, used to say, "Same old circus, different clowns," but that isn't true.

The very elements that drove Natarno from the center ring make this an especially scary age. Life is becoming too complex, the circus too big. It's time to think of something funny again.

Bring back the clowns.

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