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He Isn't Just Clowning, He's Easing Depression

February 12, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Last Spring, Sy Elliott went to a wedding. He didn't go as Mr. Snuff. Not this time.

He didn't need an alter ego to enjoy himself because the bride was Exhibit A in Elliott's campaign to convince the world that there is within each of us a clown clamoring to come out. And releasing that clown makes it possible to sweep away--at least for a short time--the cares and tensions and health problems that plague us daily.

The bride was known in clown lexicon as Kidney Bean. When Elliott met her, she was an attractive 22-year-old dialysis patient who had to be hooked up to the machine three times a week. She was also deeply depressed.

In her search for ways to lift her depression, she noticed an ad for Elliott's "Clown College," then holding forth at the Orange Recreation Center. She looked in on the class and for a whole evening was transported out of her own problems. So she went back and learned and became Kidney Bean, the clown. And she came out of a lifelong shell of shyness so buoyantly that soon after finishing Elliott's class, she met the man who would become her husband.

"Now," Elliott says happily, "when she isn't hooked up, she's entertaining. And she isn't depressed anymore."

If that sounds simplistic, Elliott doesn't care. He believes implicitly in the healing properties of clowns.

"The clown," Elliott says, "is the person within you. You have to find that person, research him. Clowning isn't acting. A good clown has to be a real person or kids, especially, will see right through him. People will accept a clown doing and saying things a normal person can't. If I see someone on the street I admire, I can go up to that person and say, 'You're beautiful.' The clown can give compliments without embarrassment. Clowning can truly become a new language in the art of communicating."

That's a lot easier for Mr. Snuff than it is for Elliott, who may well be the living embodiment of the theme of Pagliacci--the sad and melancholy clown. Elliott's life has been something less than a barrel of laughs. He was born in Brooklyn to parents who split up when he was a small child. His father--whom he knew only fleetingly--was never there for him.

And Elliott had dyslexia at a time when that learning disability was neither known nor understood. Since he was unable to read properly, he was regarded by his mother and a tyrannical grandmother who lived in his household as lazy and indigent. He grew up with that picture of himself.

As soon as he could, he tried to enlist in the Marine Corps but was rejected because he was colorblind. Finally, he was accepted by the Air Force. There, he learned to be an expert photographer. When he got out of the military, he set up his own studio. When that succeeded, he went into various other businesses, "working 22 hours a day" to compensate for all those years of failure. He had returned to photography, working on several network TV shows, "when I burned out and had a breakdown at 32."

He gave his businesses to his employees and traveled through Israel and Europe for several years as a free-lance photographer before settling down in London as the marketing director of a successful ad agency.

A few years later, he met and married an Englishwoman who worked in the agency. According to Elliott, she was having family problems that made her want to leave England, and he finally gave in to the pressure, quit his job and returned to the United States--where things very quickly started to turn sour.

Elliott and his family settled in Orange County, and he found himself working at jobs "for which I was overaged and overqualified." So he did a market study that got him into the fire extinguisher business so successfully that he started a franchise promotion--just as interest rates zoomed. No one would invest, and Elliott was overextended and lost everything.

About the same time his marriage was breaking up. And he had a heart attack.

That's when Elliott met the clowns. Fresh out of the hospital, faced with living alone, he saw the clowns in a shopping center and was entranced, forgetting his own problems for a few moments. When they finished their act, Elliott told them how much they had cheered him, and they invited him to visit their clown club. He did, "and I felt very naked. But I went on to their clown school anyway, mostly because it was something to do. I still felt naked, but people kept telling me I was terrific.

"I didn't think I was, but when I finished the school, I did a lot of research into clowning. What especially fascinated me was discovering that there were no trade secrets written down. Only the basics. So for a long time, I didn't go beyond them. I stuck to what I knew."

That's when he took on the persona of Mr. Snuff, which, Elliott says carefully, means "short and ugly and fat and funny."

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