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Clowns who have big shoes to fill

The art of clowning has evolved since the floppy-footwear-and-red-nose days. Just ask the generation who's handling your kid's party.

March 22, 2009|Jenn Garbee

According to the Eight Clown Commandments, a clowning code of ethics endorsed by the industry organization Clowns of America International, there is more to being a good clown than wearing a red nose.

Abiding clowns should "conduct [themselves] as a gentleman/lady" at all times. Absolutely no haphazardly applied make-up is permitted while on duty. And all clowns should change into street clothes as soon as possible after a performance to avoid being "associated with any incident that may be detrimental to the good name of clowning."

But not every contemporary clown is diligent about following the old rules. "Seeing the looks on faces at the stoplight when I'm driving to a show in my purple wig and red nose is one of the best parts of the job," says Monique Hitzman, a real estate agent who volunteers as a hospital clown in Santa Monica.

Young renegade clowns throughout the Los Angeles area are ditching unspoken industry guidelines and creating rules. They're showing up at children's parties with bubbling caldrons of green slime instead of magic tricks, trading the circus music for rap tunes and creating mad-scientist clown characters that Ronald McDonald would hardly recognize. It's a brave new world of clowning.

"The regular birthday party clown has given the art of clowning a bad rap," says Galit Levi, 29, a stand-up comedian and clown in West L.A. who performs as Galoony (named by a friend who dubbed her loony). She compares her performance style to a modern Marcel Marceau. "There's so much more involved than just putting on a crazy outfit, making balloon animals and painting faces."

Los Angeles has a long history of 83-AAA shoes. When Larry Harmon purchased the licensing rights to Bozo the Clown in 1956, jumpsuits and bright orange wigs became industry standard for birthday clowns. While Hobo Kelly, played by Sally Baker, peered into Southern California living rooms through her magic glasses during the 1960s, the more elusive Chuckles the Clown soon captured "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" until his untimely encounter with a peanut-crazed rogue elephant.

That classic model, known as a white-face clown, has fallen out of favor in recent years among younger clowns.

"When Bozo died last summer, I got a call from KTLA saying they wanted to know how his death impacted my work," recalls 35-year-old Pasadena clown Leslie Hellman, a.k.a. Ladybug the Clown. "But my influences were completely on the other end of the spectrum . . . more 'The Muppet Show,' if anything."

Like many contemporary clowns who have carved out full-time careers in the business, Hellman relies on unique characters to give her an edge in the competitive birthday party circuit. In addition to Ladybug, she portrays Capt. Leslie, a science-crazed clown who totes bubbling caldrons of dry ice and stirs up homemade slime for eager baby Einsteins.

Full-service children's party companies such as Create a Kid's Party and Party Animals typically offer dozens of storybook and clown characters. "It's more of a show-up-and-be-whatever-the-client-wants, a cookie-cutter sort of thing -- bouncy houses, balloon-twisting clowns, magicians," says Hellman, who worked for a large party planning company before embarking on her own.

For Guilford Adams, 34, owner and self-described chief executive clown of Los Angeles Clown, creating unique personas is more than good business sense. His characters include the Black Polka Dots, a guitar-playing, folksy duo inspired by the band the White Stripes (Adams' original songs include "Cheese and Crackers" and "Gonna Ride My Big Wheel"). "If I'm not clever enough to get the parents' attention, they'll spend the whole party talking," says Adams, a film and commercial actor by trade.

Adams is developing a "cabaret-variety type show" with colleagues, thanks to what he calls a "revival in clown culture." "It's easier in Los Angeles because it's so character-actor friendly if you don't do the rainbow wig thing."

Adams appeared in the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah in January for "Punching the Clown," a film about a stand-up comic. "There is this old idea that you have to be everything . . . the modern contemporary clown girl would be called upon to be a lot of things that aren't a clown, a princess, a fairy," Hellman says. "But now people come to me for what I have to offer -- that's the key to success for a modern day clown."

One of the most successful modern character clowns in Los Angeles is Thomas Johnson, 35, known on the street as Tommy the Clown.

Sporting a giant rainbow wig and army fatigues, Johnson utilizes his clown shows to encourage teenagers to avoid gang violence. Since 1992, the former drug dealer from South L.A. has been performing his signature free-form, unscripted hip-hop dance style called krumping, documented in David LaChapelle's 2005 film "Rize." "Krump is just the energy behind dancing freestyle . . . you can always come up and be creative . . . stay out of trouble."

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