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Caring Clowns : Visiting hospital patients is a serious and scholarship-worthy business, even if you're wearing a painted smile and giant shoes.

March 05, 1993|EMILY VIGLIELMO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Emily Viglielmo is a Canoga Park freelance writer.

Clowning is serious work to Martha Robinson.

The Cal State Northridge librarian's assist ant, a clown called Molly in the volunteer group Carrousel of Clowns, wrote her master's thesis on the effects of clowns on children in hospitals.

People of all ages and backgrounds are part of the troupe, which travels to hospitals, senior citizen centers and convalescent homes in Los Angeles County and surrounding areas.

In 1978, after Robinson's husband was transferred to the San Fernando Valley for a job as a purchasing manager in the aerospace industry, she began taking a puppetry class at Valley College.

The troupe, founded in 1980, evolved from that class, she said. Besides acting as a clown, she still takes various puppets on her hospital visits.

Robinson's husband, Gerry, whose clown name is Luther, had been clowning since 1968.

Robinson, who received a bachelor's degree in leisure studies from Cal State Northridge, chose clowns and their effect on hospitalized children as the topic for her master's thesis.

"I thought it was fascinating," said leisure studies Prof. Isabelle Walker, who was on Robinson's thesis committee.

As a returning student, Walker said, Robinson "showed determination to follow through on this with a full-time job."

Jan Tolen, Cal State Northridge assistant professor of leisure studies, said, "I was extremely excited about her interest in that particular subject."

Originally, Robinson thought that white-face clowns, such as Ronald McDonald, would not frighten children as much as clowns who wear less makeup, since they are familiar figures in a child's world.

In her thesis, however, supported by videotapes of clowns with children at two recreation centers, she concluded that the clowns' style of presentation affected the children more than their makeup or costumes.

Robinson found that the children reacted much more positively to the clowns' puppet shows than to their magic shows, for example. She defined positive behavior exhibited by the children as moving toward and clapping with the clowns.

Negative reactions from the kids included pulling away from the clowns, crying and shutting their eyes.

Robinson said, "There was almost no difference" in the children's reactions to the white-face clowns as opposed to any other clowns.

One of Robinson's most memorable moments was at the Veterans Hospital in Long Beach several years ago.

"There was a Vietnam veteran who hadn't spoken in several months," she recalled. "I was doing a skit on 'Old MacDonald,' and he came up and was really a main part of it," singing along with the rest. The nurses were astounded, she said.

Gerry Robinson told a story of one visit in 1984 to the Cerebral Palsy Center in Los Angeles when a girl sat mesmerized throughout the clowns' performance.

"They told us she had never sat still for any performance for longer than five minutes," he said.

Not all the visits are so dramatic. But the children's parents are quick to voice their appreciation.

Kathy Bland of Glendora, whose 18-month-old son Jonathan was being treated for a high fever at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena during a recent visit of the Carrousel of Clowns, said, "It brightened him up. This is the first day he's been up and about."

On this visit, the clowns included a nun, a teacher and a nursing student.

Sister Donna King, whose clown name is Butterfingers, works at the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes and has been clowning for about 12 years.

The nun herself is on chemotherapy for primary liver cancer. King said her experience makes her even more sensitive to the patients. "I certainly appreciate the poking and prodding that goes on when you're in a hospital."

After the Robinsons visited 4-month-old Julia Vessels, her mother, Alicia Vessels of Pomona, was amazed by her daughter's reaction to Robinson's clown puppet. "She got all bummed out when you had to take it away," Vessels told Robinson.

At the same time, Gerry Robinson was passing out balloons to Julia's cousins, Nicole Munoz, 10, and Nicole's sisters Jackie, 8, and Claudia, 4. "This is great," Vessels said. "It helps the kids and the parents."

Although the troupe has performed at birthday parties and other functions for pay, charity work is its primary purpose. "We had a fund-raiser once," Robinson said. "It was a disaster. It's just not the same feeling."

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