Clowning Around

Posted March 28th, 2011 at 8:34 am (UTC-4)
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In the unlikely event that you heard, five years ago, that there was a fascinating clown museum — that’s right, a museum and hall of fame about clowns — in the Midwest city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I certainly hope you didn’t rush there to see it.

The only thing missing from its logo is the museum dimension.  (International Clown Hall of Fame, hereafter referred to in caption credits by its acronym: ICHOF)

The only thing missing from its logo is the museum dimension. (International Clown Hall of Fame, hereafter referred to in caption credits by its acronym: ICHOF)

That’s because it existed only in packing boxes in a public storage facility.

The International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center, a shrine to the oldest known performing art form, had been booted from its home in the basement of a building at the Wisconsin State Fair Park.  Not because the rent was in arrears, but because Wisconsin was one of several states that agreed to house refugees from devastating Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, far below Wisconsin at the southern end of the Mississippi River.

 

In came the refugees, and into boxes went the museum’s clown paintings and photographs, clown costumes, books on clowning, and videos of famous clowns.  And there they stayed until last year.

 

Then the board of directors prevailed upon one of its members — Greg DeSanto, a 25-year veteran professional circus clown who lived with his wife, Karen, also a circus clown — in Baraboo, a little Wisconsin town 188 kilometers (117 miles) to the northwest.

 

When the circus comes to town, you may have seen clowns riding on circus wagons like this one at Circus World.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

When the circus comes to town, you may have seen clowns riding on circus wagons like this one at Circus World. (Carol M. Highsmith)

But not any little town.  Baraboo is the place where five Ringling Brothers founded their world-famous circus, where one of them built a movie palace downtown, and where the circus’s former attorney founded a spectacular circus museum called Circus World, notable for its brighty-painted rolling tableaus known as circus wagons.  The DeSantos had worked there as clowns as well as traveling with the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.

 

DeSanto found a sweet deal on a storefront site for the International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center, and over two long trips in the dead of Wisconsin’s brutal winter, volunteers trucked its treasures from Milwaukee to Baraboo in time to open for this new year.

 

Here are the DeSantos -- Karen and Greg -- in costume in front of the hall of fame.  (ICHOF)

Here are the DeSantos -- Karen and Greg -- in costume in front of the hall of fame. (ICHOF)

Even though it now resides in an obscure town of just 11-thousand people, the clown hall of fame is a museum of international scope.  Its exhibits make it clear that in most of the world, clowning involves much more than a silly, greasepainted face, manic gestures, magic tricks, and balloons twisted to look like wiener dogs.

 

One learns there, for instance, that Chinese clowns spend years training as acrobats, learning graceful moves, and perfecting the subtle delights of clowns’ makeup.  And that clowns are so revered in parts of Europe that they receive top billing in the circus and enjoy the same prestige as a concert pianist or a ballerina.

 

In America, they’re part of the backdrop in spectacles in which wild animals and visual illusions are the main attractions.  We mention clowning when drunks act up at parties or politicians do something untoward.  They are called “clowns.”

 

Here's Grock in a relatively mild moment.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Here's Grock in a relatively mild moment. (Wikipedia Commons)

The International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center maintains an honor roll of more than 50 distinguished clowns, such as the Swiss clown Grock, real name Adrien Wattach.  Considered history’s greatest clown, he spoke nine languages and played 27 instruments in performances during the first half of the 20th century.

 

Grock was an “auguste” (pron: OW-goost), which, along with the whiteface clown and the hobo, is one of the three basic kinds of clowns.  The auguste, whose largely unpainted face is wildly accented with exaggerated lips and big eyes, is a troublemaker, often teamed with a prim and proper white-face clown.

 

Many American clowns, including Lou Jacobs, the famous Ringling Brothers Circus clown who romped in a midget car — and the museum’s own are a hybrid — are white-faced but silly.

 

Someone once asked Jacobs, “What’s it like to work for a circus for 60 years?”  He replied, “It’s hell, honey.” But the broad smile on his face belied that answer.  He enjoyed every minute of his life as a clown.

 

Bozo became so famous that we call those who act in a ditzy fashion "bozos.  (Wikipedia Commons)"

Another famous American clown was Bozo, a red-nosed character with flaming hair and floppy blue shoes.  He entertained two generations of Chicago television audiences and was copied in almost 200 other cities.  Ronald McDonald, the symbol of the McDonald’s hamburger chain, looks a lot like Bozo.

 

Greg DeSanto says there’s a big difference between an amateur clown who dresses up and performs magic tricks at a birthday party, and a pro like hobo clown legend Emmett Kelly.

 

The amateurs are, almost by definition, part-timers, slapping on makeup and squirting seltzer at audiences for the fun of it and for a little extra spending money.  They spend a lot of money on a single costume, and they go to the magic shop and buy a set of magic tricks. They make themselves up, sometimes expertly, but often haphazardly, and wade into an audience of children.

 

This exhibit at the museum shows some of a pro clown's gear.  (ICHOF)

This exhibit at the museum shows some of a pro clown's gear. (ICHOF)

And much of the time the children are not impressed.  They can spot a clown who’s just going through the motions, doing sthtick.  Clowning has to come from the heart, DeSanto insists.  “I believe that clowns are born funny,” he says.

 

Being a pro clown — in the circus, at ice shows and Cirque du Solei entertainment spectacles, even as rodeo clowns protecting fallen riders from enraged bulls — is hard, full-time work.  Just imagine being one of 18 clowns crammed like contortionists inside a single “clown car.”  “Ah, that’s the beauty of the seniority system,” DeSanto reports with a laugh.  “The ones with the most seniority get to go in last!”

 

What about the Pagliacci theory about clowns, inspired by the tragic Italian opera about a sad clown and reinforced by Emmett Kelly’s forlorn face and single teardrop?  Greg DeSanto says every professional clown he’s known has been anything but laughing on the outside and crying on the inside.

Emmett Kelly looks sad, all right.  (Library of Congress)

Emmett Kelly looks sad, all right. (Library of Congress)

“We’re human,” he says.  “But most pro clowns I’ve known are warm and happy people.  We have bad days and setbacks in our lives.  But for the moments that we’re entertaining people, making them smile, our problems are relieved.”

 

Not everyone loves clowns, however.  Their bizarre make-up and costumes, and hyperactive movements can scare children, just as tykes sometimes cower when the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Barney the Dinosaur, and other larger-than-life characters loom over them up in person.

 

Greg DeSanto, out of costume but ever the cut-up, delivers a face-pie at the grand re-opening of the clown museum.  (ICHOF)

Greg DeSanto, out of costume but ever the cut-up, delivers a face-pie at the grand re-opening of the clown museum. (ICHOF)

“We usually meet clowns first on TV or in a movie, when they appear to be no more than a foot tall.  Then, suddenly, they’re in front of you or [in the case of poorly trained clowns] rushing toward you.  Of course that would scares anyone.  It scares ME!”

 

It doesn’t help that clowns are often sinister, sadistic, or perverted psychos, masquerading as bubbly entertainers, in some horror movies.  They can make even adults wonder, “Who IS that person who’s hitting my child over the head with a foam-rubber frying pan?”

 

But many more people love clowns, and some want to learn clowning.  The hall of fame’s most popular program, called “clown encounters,” teaches aspiring clowns everything from make-up skills to how to twist a long balloon into a squeaky dog.  Getting a laugh is easy, it turns out.  Touching the heart is the hard part.  As Greg DeSanto puts it, “You can’t learn funny.”

 

The clown hall of fame gives back to the Baraboo community.  It teaches clowning to a diverse mixture of young people — straight-A students, former “at risk” troublemakers, and “special needs” youngsters with learning disabilities — who, together, perform at community functions.

 

The real Hunter "Patch" Adams.  (Wikipedia Commons)

It’s an extension of the belief that “Laughter is the Best Medicine,” espoused in the U.S. magazine Readers Digest and echoed in Robin Williams’s hit movie “Patch Adams,” about a clowning medical student who comforts young cancer patients.

 

When I visited the clown hall of fame and museum at its Milwaukee location, I met Tunkle —  54-year-old Korey Thompson  — a “therapeutic clown” who some days brought mirth into the world of desperately ill children at Milwaukee’s Children’s Hospital, and others spread joy to disoriented dementia patients at nursing homes.

 

She told me, “You can be in one room where someone’s just gotten wonderful news.  The tumors have abated, and people are dancing around.  You go to the next room, and they’ve just found three more tumors. You have to be able to take a deep breath between those two rooms. You don’t walk into a room where a difficult diagnosis has just been announced and tell a joke.”

 

In the antiseptic world of white lab coats, stern faces, suffering and sadness, Tunkle was a rare delight.  She was dressed in baggy blue pants, flaming red socks, a loose white shirt, gaudy red scarf.  Shocks of blue hair protruded from a bowler hat into which a garish yellow flower has been stuck.  Exaggerated red lips and a big red dot on her cheek radiated from her painted white face.

 

Tunkle, whose work was funded by the clown museum, approached elderly patients gently, pretending to be as shy as they are, then invited them to hug, to play, to make exercise fun for a change.  Pretty soon the whole room was laughing, and patients who may have spent all day, every day, staring vacantly were giggling, peeking from behind their purses, reaching to touch Tunkle’s hand.

 

As Korey Thompson’s visits to the institutions demonstrated, the very young and the very old are more alike than different, though the young live in the moment and dementia patients in a world of their own.

 

The laughs aren't COMING back.  They're there in that little town not far from the state's most famous recreation area, Wisconsin Dells.  (ICHOF)

The laughs aren't COMING back. They're there in that little town not far from the state's most famous recreation area, Wisconsin Dells. (ICHOF)

I also met another amateur clown with a big heart.  Bert Berger is a Milwaukee clinical psychologist who works with troubled patients at a medical center for military veterans.  Twenty-five years ago, he learned to juggle, took up clowning, and volunteered at the International Clown Hall of Fame.

 

And he performed before a tough audience.  In addition to his professional practice and jobs as a juggling clown, he worked with teenage thugs who had been thrown out of school — and often into jail — for violent behavior.  Listening to them strut and curse, they appeared to be beyond society’s reach.  But in what he calls the “SELF” program — the letters standing for “self-enhancement through laughter and fun” — Bert Berger met them head-on.

 

“I talk about grief. I talk about anger management,” he told me.  I’ll talk about violence prevention and dealing with bullies and things like that. And each one of those sessions will have a component of maybe a magic trick that I’m teaching that session, too.  As I teach something about dealing with everyday life and problems with everyday life, I’m teaching them something fun along the way.”

 

So, as you see, there’s more to clowning than clowning around.

Greg and more colorful clowns goof off during the ribbon-cutting.  (ICHOF)

Greg and more colorful clowns goof off during the ribbon-cutting. (ICHOF)

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Arrears. Behind in making payments. The word is usually coupled with “in,” as when the rent is “in arrears.”

Belie. To misrepresent or give a false impression. Sometimes saying something that belies what’s really going on is unintentional.

Forlorn. Pitiful and sad, miserable — or appearing to be such.

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Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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