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Its worst time in history to be clown

Issued: 2018-03-30

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Stephen King, author of 'It' and the murderous, sewer-dwelling Pennywise, was scorned repeatedly at a recent clown convention.

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – 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.

Julia Bothun, a former Ringling Bros. clown, applies the final touches to her makeup. Washington Post/Michael S. Williamson

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.”

Former Ringling Bros. clown Tricia “Pricilla Mooseburger” Manuel gets ready to don her wig before her World Clown Convention performance. Washington Post/Michael S. Williamson

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

“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.”

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.

Robin “Pinkie Bee'” Bryan of Jacksonville, Fla., left, and Kristine “Lilleigh” Dietrich of Menomonee Falls, Wis., wait in the hotel hallway for the paradability contest. Top contenders later entertained at the nearby Mall of America. Washington Post/Michael S. Williamson

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.

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