It’s a bad time to be a clown

And they just want you to love them again


This has been a ter­ri­bly sad time for clowns, those pur­vey­ors of hap­pi­ness whose recorded his­tory dates back to an­cient Greece. Last year was pos­si­bly the pits. Clowns wit­nessed the shut­ter­ing of ven­er­a­ble Rin­gling Bros., the largest and lat­est of cir­cuses to close. The lay­offs of re­gional Ron­ald McDon­alds. The movie — don’t get them started — “It.”

It has been one packed clown car of woe.

And it comes on top of decades of por­tray­als of de­pressed, malev­o­lent and down­right crazed clowns in movies and on TV, not to men­tion in real life: Krusty on “The Simp­sons,’” Zach Gal­i­fi­anakis on “Bas­kets,” Twisty on “Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story,” the Great Clown Scare of 2016, In­sane Clown Posse, Heath Ledger’s Joker, Jack Ni­chol­son’s Joker, John Wayne Gacy.

Re­cently, 240 en­ter­tain­ers as­sem­bled for the World Clown As­so­ci­a­tion con­ven­tion in Min­ne­sota. In March.

Which prompts the ques­tion: Haven’t clowns suf­fered enough?

Ah, but you can’t keep a good clown down. The craft re­quires putting on a good face, af­ter all, and clowns re­main a ge­nial, out­go­ing, col­or­ful lot, ready to laugh off their cares.

“There’s no secret that clown­ing is tak­ing a hit. It’s not some­thing new,” for­mer Rin­gling clown and In­ter­na­tional Clown Hall of Fame founder Greg DeSanto of­fered in his key­note ad­dress to the 36th an­nual con­ven­tion, a trib­ute to Rin­gling Bros. “The kitsch thing to say is ‘I’m afraid of clowns.’ What do you think I’m go­ing to do? Make you laugh?”

Clowns from across the United States and nearly a dozen coun­tries gath­ered to con­sider tiny trikes, colos­sal footwear and the fu­ture of their craft. The con­ven­tion boasted as many women as men, mostly of a cer­tain age, though there were seven ju­nior “joeys,” in­dus­try nomen­cla­ture af­ter cel­e­brated Re­gency-era per­former Joseph Grimaldi, who pro­moted the har­lequin clown and white­face im­age still fa­mil­iar to this day.

There were car­ing clowns who visit hos­pi­tals, min­istry clowns who com­bine faith and silli­ness, birth­day clowns and parad­ing clowns. There were clowns who work so fre­quently that they claim “en­ter­tainer” on their tax re­turns, and those who, af­ter re­tir­ing from fool­ish of­fice jobs, per­form on hol­i­days and sum­mer week­ends, peak time for clown­ing.

A clown's ed­u­ca­tion never ends, even if the ex­tremely se­lec­tive Rin­gling Bros. Clown Col­lege did in 1997. There were work­shops on jug­gling, pup­petry, mime, magic and “per­fect­ing per­fect pies.” (Pssst, clown secret: not whipped cream but shav­ing soap and wa­ter, mixed in a bucket with a paint mixer at­tached to a power drill.)

Ex­hibit booths fea­tured the lat­est in rub­ber chick­ens, over­sized pants, magic tricks and la­tex noses. Com­pe­ti­tions in­cluded ap­pear­ance, orig­i­nal­ity and parad­abil­ity — that is, the abil­ity to walk and jest si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

And yet be­hind ev­ery­thing loomed the shadow of the re­cent trou­bles.

When it came time for the top 20 parad­abil­ity com­peti­tors to jour­ney from the con­ven­tion ho­tel to the nearby Mall of Amer­ica, their fel­low clowns were stren­u­ously ad­vised to aban­don all white­face and cos­tumes in pub­lic. Stephen King, au­thor of “It” and the mur­der­ous, sewer-dwelling Pen­ny­wise, was scorned re­peat­edly.

“I've been told that ‘You can't come to the hos­pi­tal. You'll scare peo­ple.' That was re­ally heart­break­ing,” says veteran Tricia “Pri­cilla Moose­burger” Manuel, 56, of Maple Lake, Min­ne­sota. “It's di­min­ished my in­come. The dam­age is done in so many re­spects. There's a whole gen­er­a­tion that, when they think of a clown, they think of some­thing scary.”

Though, Manuel adds, “peo­ple still love us in nurs­ing homes.”

Lose the grease­paint

“Clowns are a relic of Amer­ica's mid­cen­tury in­dus­trial era,” says Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia pro­fes­sor An­drew Mc­Connell Stott, an au­thor­ity on coul­ro­pho­bia (fear of clowns), au­thor of the es­say “Clowns on the Verge of a Ner­vous Break­down” (spoiler alert: the verge dates back to Charles Dick­ens), and a man un­likely to be in­vited to a clown con­ven­tion any­time soon. “The root of a lot of sus­pi­cion is the mask. Why do you need to dis­guise your­self? It's stranger dan­ger.”

The so­lu­tion, clowns say, is star­ing them in the face: Lose the grease­paint.

“When I talk to my clients, I don't want to give them an ex­cuse not to hire me. Makeup might scare peo­ple,” says Lee “Lew-e” An­drews of Forsyth, Ge­or­gia, who hap­pens to be sit­ting be­hind a ven­dor ta­ble stacked with clown makeup and set­ting pow­der.

“Most of the time I per­form with no makeup,” says Jeff “JB Mil­li­gan” McMullen, of Ap­ple­ton, Wis­con­sin, a for­mer Rin­gling clown and re­gional Ron­ald McDon­ald, who av­er­ages 225 an­nual per­for­mances, in­clud­ing over­seas.

“Mar­kets are chang­ing,” McMullen says. “Un­der­stand­ing a child's world to­day is es­sen­tial. It's our obli­ga­tion to work in their world.”

And they've been warned. A re­cent ap­pear­ance at a li­brary — mod­ern li­braries be­ing nois­ier places and havens for clown gigs — promised, “Jeff does NOT wear tra­di­tional clown face paint!”

Yet the mask re­mains a lib­er­at­ing tool for some clowns.

“When you put on the makeup, you feel free. You can be silly and joy­ful,” says Manuel, who runs the Pri­cilla Moose­burger Orig­i­nals cos­tume shop and has op­er­ated a clown camp for adults for 23 years. “You get rid of all your in­hi­bi­tions. It's li­cense to play. You have this great free­dom to be your true self. You get to be a rock star.”

‘Young peo­ple have not been ex­cited by clowns’

Af­ter al­most a cen­tury and a half in oper­a­tion, Rin­gling Bros. closed in part be­cause of an­i­mal rights ad­vo­cacy. But au­di­ences were al­ready on the wane. Clowns be­came col­lat­eral dam­age.

Then McDon­ald's ter­mi­nated its re­gional Ron­ald McDon­ald pro­gram at the end of last year, though it's vague about the rea­sons for the move. “Ron­ald re­mains an im­por­tant part of our brand and he will con­tinue to ap­pear at lo­cal events,” said a McDon­ald's spokes­woman. “We are just mov­ing to a cen­tral­ized pro­gram.”

Re­cent Ron­alds say they are barred from dis­cussing the pro­gram and the de­ci­sion, but the con­ven­tion was rife with the­o­ries even as at­ten­dees mourned the loss of steady em­ploy­ment.

One for­mer Ron­ald, who be­lieves their num­ber was as high as 300 na­tion­ally, said he earned $64,000 in 2016, plus a $2,000 ex­pense ac­count, a car, and health and den­tal in­sur­ance, a for­tune in clown­ing.

Now, that sort of in­come and se­cu­rity may be dis­ap­pear­ing.

“Young peo­ple have not been ex­cited by clowns,” says Richard “Ju­nior” Snow­berg, a World Clown As­so­ci­a­tion founder and a re­tired pro­fes­sor. “They're more ex­cited by en­ter­tain­ment on screens.”

Not get­ting ‘It’

The World Clown As­so­ci­a­tion has 2,400 mem­bers, about half its peak mem­ber­ship in the 1990s. Clowns of Amer­ica In­ter­na­tional — yes, there is an­other as­so­ci­a­tion — rep­re­sents an equal num­ber, though many per­form­ers be­long to both. (There is yet a third group, the In­ter­na­tional Shrine Clown As­so­ci­a­tion.)

“Clown­ing will never be what it was, but I know it will con­tinue to go on and on,” Manuel says. “We'll sur­vive the clos­ing of the cir­cus. We'll sur­vive scary movies. There's some­thing in the hu­man spirit that wants to make peo­ple laugh and be happy. Once you do it, you have to do it — even though it might not be the pop­u­lar thing.”

Tay­lor Moss, of Le­banon, In­di­ana, of­fers hope for the fu­ture. The 14-year-old is an ac­tress, an aeri­al­ist, a dancer and a model with a sub­limely pho­to­genic face. But what Tay­lor re­ally wants to do is to clown.

“Yes, there are peo­ple way out there try­ing to scare you, but ev­ery­body should give clown­ing a chance,” says Tay­lor, who per­forms as Hoops (her act in­volves gy­rat­ing 30 hula hoops at once). “You get to do things that peo­ple don't get to do in their ev­ery­day life.”

Still, even this novice clown has had her mo­ment on the clowns-are-ter­ri­fy­ing band­wagon. A cou­ple of years ago, she landed a Los An­ge­les agent and scored an au­di­tion, go­ing up against hun­dreds of other kids, for a movie that went on to gross $700 mil­lion.

Brandy, though not a clown her­self, was aghast at her clown-ador­ing daugh­ter's de­sire to try out for this par­tic­u­lar film. “You can­not do this part,” she ad­mon­ished her.

For­tu­nately for her clown­ing ca­reer, Tay­lor did not get the role — in “It.”

— 9 p.m., Fox­woods’ Shrine; $15; 1-800-200-2882.

— 8 p.m., Katharine Hep­burn Cul­tural Arts Cen­ter, 300 Main St., Old Say­brook; with Duane Betts; $45-$48; 1-877-5031286.

— 7 p.m., East Lyme High School, 30 Ch­ester­field Road; per­for­mance by alumni of the 1956-1978 jazz orches­tra; $35 adults, $25 se­niors and stu­dents;­s­jazz.

— 6-8 p.m., Water­ford Pub­lic Li­brary, 49 Rope Ferry Road; free; (860) 444-5805.

— 7 p.m., Gro­ton Pub­lic Li­brary, 52 Newtown Road; pre­sen­ta­tion by Kath­leen Can­non of the Can­non Clinic; free; (860) 441-6750.

— 7:30 p.m., Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut at Avery Point, 1084 Shen­necos­sett Road, Gro­ton; pre­sen­ta­tion by Michelle Zacks on the his­tory of south­west Florida’s fish­eries; free; (860) 4059025.

— 9:30 and 10:30 a.m., Water­ford Pub­lic Li­brary, 49 Rope Ferry Road; for in­fants through age 3; free; (860) 444-5805.

— 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Mys­tic Sea­port, 75 Green­manville Ave., Mys­tic; an­nual pi­rate-themed event with chil­dren’s ac­tiv­i­ties; also Wed.; free for mem­bers, $5 plus mu­seum ad­mis­sion for non­mem­bers; (860) 572-0711.

— 10:30 a.m., Cra­gin Memo­rial Li­brary, 8 Lin­wood Ave., Colch­ester; screen­ing of “Wonder” for all ages with an adult; free; (860) 537-5752.

— 12:30 p.m., Pub­lic Li­brary of New Lon­don, 63 Hunt­ing­ton St.; seed plant­ing ac­tiv­ity for all ages; free; (860) 447-1411.


World Clown Con­ven­tion at­ten­dees wave to fel­low clowns at the an­nual gath­er­ing in Bloomington, Minn.


For­mer Rin­gling Bros. clown Tricia “Pri­cilla Moose­burger” Manuel gets ready to don her wig be­fore her World Clown Con­ven­tion per­for­mance.

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