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Clowns Without Pity

Or: Everything you think you know about them is wrong

June 05, 2005|Diana Wagman | Diana Wagman is a Los Angeles writer whose most recent novel is "Bump."

When I was in college, I answered an ad for a birthday party clown. I needed money and it was a last resort. I had no skills. I didn't type. I was a lousy waitress. The man who interviewed me was Jewish, an anomaly in Salt Lake City, as was I. We hit it off and he hired me. I went to one party in the dime-store outfit he supplied: rainbow wig, striped jumpsuit, foam nose. I spent two desperate hours playing Simon Says and Follow the Leader, the only games I knew, with a group of bored 6-year-olds. Then I quit.

Twenty years later, stuck in how to begin my fourth novel and thinking I should get a real job, I perused Craigslist. There I saw practically the same ad: birthday party clown, weekends, good money. Unfortunately, I was practically the same person. Now I have an MFA, but I still have no skills. I can't type for anyone else, I take dyslexic phone messages, and waitressing is too much like home. I wrote down the "clown wanted" number, but I never called.

Still, the ad got me thinking. Cynicism runs deep in our culture. My kids and their friends think altruism is just a good thing for their college applications. So what kind of person would become a clown? My first thought was pedophile. My second was loser, someone--like me--who couldn't do anything else. I figured Los Angeles had a plethora of clowns who are frustrated, hungry actors. They didn't get the role on "The OC," but at least they're putting on a costume once a week.

What inspiration this was for my new book. I found a voice: an unhappy divorced mom, failed actress, desperate for a weekend job that paid well. A typical clown, I thought. I came up with a young guy hired to murder her who keeps killing the wrong clowns because to him they all look alike. I made the whole business of clowning as painful as I assumed it must be. John Wayne Gacy. "Capturing the Friedmans." "Shakes the Clown." I learned about coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. I found clown fetish websites, dominatrixes in white face, balloon animal sex toys and, where you can hit the return button and whack a clown on the head.

Browsing the World Clown Assn. magazine, Clowning Around, I saw an ad for the Mooseburger clown convention, the Great Clown Adventure. It was in Las Vegas at Circus Circus--where else? I had to go. But driving across the desert, I was nervous. I worried that after four days with those pathetic clowns, I'd come home really depressed.

The first attendees I met were two tall, blond, stunning women from Texas. They introduced themselves as "First of Mays," a circus term that meant they'd been clowning less than a year. They were so excited to be at the convention and so happy to be clowns. Not pathetic in the least. Then I met two ex-Ringling Bros. clowns who work full time at Circus Circus, and a woman from Cirque du Soleil. All married, friendly, talkative and normal. I figured they were the exceptions.

I tried to visit every class and workshop. Beginning Balloons. Clown Hat Moves. Juggle Jam. I was not the youngest person there, but close. Most of the participants were retirees. They were women and men in their 60s and beyond who'd had careers as lawyers, nurses, psychologists, and who were now giving back. That was the phrase I kept hearing: I'm giving back. My kids are grown. I've had my career. They were not thinking about themselves anymore, but about making others happy.

There are many types of clowns. Circus clowns, like those in Ringling Bros., are actually a very small percentage. The future of clowning is in "hometown clowns," who do birthday parties, corporate events and so on, and "caring clowns," who work in hospitals and nursing homes. These are people who love being clowns. You'd have to love it, Ruby Jewel, a.k.a. Rita Holcomb from Leisure World in Laguna Woods, told me, because it's so much work. Most of them were never actors. As a clown named Waldo said, "Actors impersonate their characters. We are our clowns."

The longer I was there, the happier I became. I met Dustin Portillo, an 18-year-old from New Jersey who has wanted to be a clown since he was 4. He had just been accepted by Ringling Bros. after studying and practicing for 12 years. And Denise Glass, who has Lou Gehrig's disease and decided clowning was one of the things she wanted to do in the time she has left. I'd never met less cynical people in my life.

They told me everything they knew about clowning. I learned the lingo: A "leak" is someone doing something foolish, because their brains have leaked out of their ears; "a lot o' spaghetti" means too much fussiness in a skit; and "clown alley," which once described the space between circus tents, now means an organization of clowns from a particular area. They shared some trade secrets guaranteed to make kids laugh, like dropping your wild clown pants to reveal even wilder boxers underneath.

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