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The Sunday Profile : Clowning Glory : For Andy Beyer of Santa Ana, being Bumbo is more than a job. It's a magic carousel ride.

February 04, 1996|BARBIE LUDOVISE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The question is put to Andy Beyer the moment he comes home from work.

"Andy, dear," his wife, Margaret, says. "Are you planning to take your face off?"

Margaret Beyer doesn't mean to pry, but when you're married to a man who wears an orange wig and greasepaint for a living, you can't help but wonder:

Will he take off his makeup before dinner?

Or dine as Bumbo the Clown?

Beyer, of Santa Ana, has been Bumbo for nearly half a century. At 77, he is Orange County's oldest professional clown. He has performed for three generations of Orange Countians--at birthday parties, picnics, baby showers, even his own dinner table.

He shows little sign of slowing down.

OK, so he walks with the help of artificial knees. So rival clowns call his act outdated. Phooey, Beyer says. He'll be clowning around until he's at least 100.

"I have to," Beyer quips. "The mortgage on our house won't be paid off till then."

Beyer smiles. It's obvious his motivation runs deeper than dollars and cents. You can see it in his eyes, hear it in his owl-hoot laugh. This silver-haired granddad loves to make others happy. The cynic in you doesn't stand a chance.

Beyer drives a polka-dotted truck, a '68 Chevy fitted with a small, old-fashioned merry-go-round. The carousel, powered by the truck's engine, features a dozen miniature wooden horses. Beyer brings the carousel to all his performances. He refers to each horse by name.

On weekends, Beyer (a.k.a. "Bumbo the Clown and His 12-Horse Merry-Go-Round") performs a couple of parties a day, at $80 to $90 a pop. On weekdays, his mission is entirely different.

Beyer leaves his house around 3 p.m. He drives the polka-dotted truck into low-income neighborhoods, offering carousel rides for a quarter. The quarters don't add up to much, but that's OK, Beyer says.

He gave up the dream of owning a Lincoln Continental a long time ago.

*

The suit-and-tie world beckoned when Beyer left the Marine Corps in 1946. He and Margaret were two years married, with a baby on the way. Beyer got a job in Philadelphia selling Hoover vacuum cleaners and was offered a similar position in Santa Barbara. They couldn't wait to be Californians.

Then Beyer spotted the ad in Variety magazine: a portable merry-go-round for sale in Boston for $1,200. It was an enormous sum, but the Beyers were intrigued.

Margaret had fond memories of riding a horse-drawn carousel as a child for a penny a ride. Her uncle Arthur insisted it would be a moneymaker out West.

"After oranges," he predicted, "the next great crop in California will be children."

Beyer cashed in his life insurance policy and headed to Boston. The merry-go-round was theirs. He drove it across the country, stopping along the way to offer rides for 10 cents. He made so much money--enough to pay for all that 15-cents-a-gallon gasoline, anyhow--that he decided the heck with vacuum cleaners. He'd sell carousel rides instead.

He and Margaret settled in Orange County, living in a Quonset hut on the Marine Corps base in Tustin. Everywhere they looked, they saw orange groves. Beyer needed customers. He started making forays across the county line, into a new patch of suburbia called Lakewood. His merry-go-round business thrived.

One Long Beach man admired Beyer's carousel so much that he built one of his own. The man's wife encouraged him to dress up in makeup and costume. Chucko the Clown was born.

Chucko later gave up the merry-go-round and landed his own TV show.

Beyer became Bumbo, performing at kids' parties for five bucks an hour.

*

Bumbo doesn't wear big shoes. He prefers ordinary white loafers. Big, floppy shoes are for circus clowns, he says. Not for clowns who drive a truck.

Bumbo wears a baggy jumpsuit sewn from a pair of Disney bedsheets. His hat is made from an umbrella, or bumbershoot, inspiring his name. He no longer wears a red rubber clown nose (it scared children). His wig is goldfish orange.

Growing up as sons of Bumbo meant knowing these details all too well. It meant waking up each weekend to a familiar smell: pancakes, sausage and hot, bubbling greasepaint. Beyer would warm the paint on the kitchen stove, making it easier to apply.

For Richard, George, Tom and Dave Beyer, now in their 30s and 40s, that smell was their wake-up call. It meant time to get up and wash the truck, stored in a chicken coop at night.

Being a clown's son had its perks. You could ride the merry-go-round for free and master a few magic tricks. But it also meant having to hose off the carousel when some poor kid got sick.

It meant you and your date getting picked up in the polka-dotted truck whenever the family car broke down.

It meant listening to your father lecture you about the importance of a solid career, when inside you were screaming, "But Dad, you're a clown!"

For the record, Beyer's sons turned out fine. Richard is a psychologist, George a music professor. Tom is a district manager for a furniture company. And Dave is drummer for rocker Melissa Etheridge.

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