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Clowns Love to Play the Fool--and Why? For the Smile of a Child

December 22, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

By day, he is Leo Gentleman, a 35-year-old, mild-mannered material-management clerk, family man, solid citizen, dedicated cog in the great machine of the U.S. Postal Service.

But by night (and on weekends), he transforms himself into the amazing Captain Leo, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men--hyperkinetic, indefatigable, utterly shameless, thoroughly crazed--the perfect idiot.

No gag is too cornball, no comedy too low, no pratfall too silly, no outfit too tasteless, no sense of dignity so hidebound that the dauntless Captain Leo--who can change the course of mighty tantrums and bend balloons in his bare hands--won't ignore all propriety and break most laws of rational behavior in an effort to get you to split a gut.

Now, try this: Imagine an entire roomful of characters like Captain Leo.

If that idea makes you want to dive under the sink or lock yourself in the broom closet, you are probably not a clown. But for the dozens of otherwise nominally normal residents of Orange County and surrounding areas who are, such a thought is actually comforting, even gleeful. To them, group mayhem is a way of life.

The county's clown population, which by several accounts numbers around 300, is composed mostly of people who live double lives. A small number are full-time professionals whose income depends on their making fools of themselves. But most of the county's clowning falls into the broad spectrum between avid amateurism and semi-professionalism.

This generally means that clowns hold down jobs in the less-oddball world during the week and are paid to be zany on weekends. Also, many belong to clubs devoted to advancing their art, performing for charity and providing job referrals.

Regardless of their status, however, they share a kind of separate, loopy reality that serves as a tonic for them as well as for their audiences.

"I guess we're all schizophrenic," said Jerry Coleman, a former Air Force aircraft mechanic and now a financial analyst for a computer company. "My wife says she doesn't recognize me when I put my makeup on. My whole personality changes."

Coleman, 39, who lives in Los Alamitos, becomes Y-Not the clown on weekends, complete with full whiteface makeup, huge shoes, honking horns, noisemakers, baggy pants and a diamond-shaped, yellow traffic sign attached to his back that reads, "Caution, Y-Not the Clown on Board." He got his start, he said, 3 years ago when a friend convinced him to come to an office Halloween party as a clown.

"I took my little girl to the park, and I was still in my clown suit," Coleman said. "The first person who came up to me was a little girl in a fairy princess suit. And she just reached up and put both arms around my neck and said, 'I love you, Mr. Clown.' Well, that did it."

Completely taken, Coleman began to offer his services for free to the city of Cypress at local park functions. He also began to improve his costume and makeup, which he said were "awful" at first. Today, besides his paid weekend jobs, he clowns for charity with the Shriners and belongs to Funny Business Clowns, a club with about 20 members. And it now takes him about 90 minutes to apply his makeup and put on his costume.

Coleman's metamorphosis is typical of many part-time clowns who, after a single exposure to the greasepaint, find themselves drawn inexorably into the madcap world of baggy pants and manic behavior. But while most of them say their ability to be funny is inborn, skills involving makeup, magic, juggling, costuming, child psychology, and the organization and pacing of an act are learned. Many local clowns say they got their start through one-time classes offered by local parks and recreation departments or schools. For some, the next step was enrollment in classes offered at a Placentia clowning-supply store called Under the Big Top.

Dena Piraino, 33, who is part-owner of the store, said she has been clowning for 7 years and has been a full-time professional for the last 3. She and her family opened Under the Big Top 3 years ago to provide clowns of all stripes with magic, makeup, costumes, wigs, props, balloons and other paraphernalia of the dedicated jester. She said she tries to hold clowning classes at least twice a year.

Professionalism in clowning, Piraino said, "has nothing to do with whether you make money at it or not. It's your attitude. It isn't necessarily how funny you are or how many balls you can juggle or how you can do a magic trick. It's what you have in your heart. Steve Smith, the director of the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey clown college, said that you have to have a heart the size of Texas."

Few people believed that she was a natural clown, Piraino said.

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