Clowns are people, too
Why do the funny folks often get torn down when all they want to do is lift you up?
Clowns are getting a bad rap, with people claiming suspicious sightings since August in states including South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland. Most claims have been proven a hoax, but that didn’t stop some members of a Cumberland clowning group from feeling too uncomfortable to participate in a Hagerstown parade later this month.
So, I thought it might be a good idea to demystify the clown world, especially before Halloween.
I’ve been a clown for almost 50 years — not a creepy one, not even a circus one, nor a guy standing on the corner inviting customers to enter a store. I perform at children’s parties, school shows, library programs, corporate events, festivals and fairs. As far as I know, the only person who thinks I’m creepy is my brother-in-law (he owes me money).
As a small boy, I was taken to the circus each year and got to watch Emmett Kelly, one of the world’s great clowns. Not only wasn’t he frightening. He wasn’t even funny. He was sad, forlorn, and though ultimately amusing, mostly he touched heartstrings.
There are people who don clown costumes and suddenly go power mad. The outfit seems to give them license to cut loose. Most of these folks are amateurs who believe their exaggerated behavior is hysterically funny. They should be arrested for attempted impersonation of a clown.
It isn’t really necessary to wear floppy shoes, colorful make-up and a rainbow wig to be a clown. Mr. Chaplin posed as a little tramp. Red Skelton simply put his hat on upside-down. As my stage show begins, I’m disguised as a relatively ordinary man. Except for the bright red pants.
About halfway through the program, I try to turn myself into a clown. Everything seems to go wrong. As I’m powdering my face, the puff ends up on top of my head where I can’t find it. Of course, the kids see it and began shouting their observation, trying to be helpful. I’m tangled in the suspenders and find myself wearing the jacket as if it was a dress. This may not sound particularly amusing, but it’s been making kids laugh for five decades.
I developed the become-a-clown routine because I noticed that a few children were uncomfortable when I walked into the party in the complete outfit. It made sense to me. Imagine a small child being confronted, possibly overwhelmed, by a tall person with strange hair, size 97 ½ shoes, wearing an outrageous outfit, and displaying a face that may look silly on television, but can be a little terrifying from two feet away in someone’s living room.
I’m assuming that grown-ups who are fearful of clowns developed their coulrophobia (yes, there is a scientific name for it) when scared by one as a child. The fear can be pretty pronounced. You would not believe the amount of hate mail my website (charlestheclown.com) attracts. According to the authors of some of these love letters, I’m in cahoots with the devil. Many years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District refused to use clowns for their after-school programs. There is a stigma. When I make the rounds at the children’s hospital, teenagers won’t have anything to do with me.
Yet clowns make kids giggle. They visit senior centers where elderly gentlemen stand on long lines waiting for entertainers like me to twist balloon animals they can take back to lady friends seated at tables.
Not all clowns have the skills of Emmett Kelly. Or the sensibilities of Marcel Marceau. But, as far as I’m concerned, most are well meaning and fun to watch. One or two may be creepy. But, then again, there are creeps of all kinds roving the world. Some are dressed in business suits, some in uniform, or in the traditional polka-dots and silly hair. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of silly hair on television.
American Clown Academy attendees clown around last month in Newark, Ohio. The academy offers a week-long learning session to advance and preserve the art of clowning, with about 60 students from all over the USA, China, Canada, India and Mexico.