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Clowns Love to Play the Fool--and Why? For the Smile of a Child

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

By day, he is Leo Gentleman, a 35-year-old, mild-mannered material-management clerk, family man, solid citizen, dedicated cog in the great machine of the U.S. Postal Service.

But by night (and on weekends), he transforms himself into the amazing Captain Leo, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men--hyperkinetic, indefatigable, utterly shameless, thoroughly crazed--the perfect idiot.

No gag is too cornball, no comedy too low, no pratfall too silly, no outfit too tasteless, no sense of dignity so hidebound that the dauntless Captain Leo--who can change the course of mighty tantrums and bend balloons in his bare hands--won’t ignore all propriety and break most laws of rational behavior in an effort to get you to split a gut.

Now, try this: Imagine an entire roomful of characters like Captain Leo.

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If that idea makes you want to dive under the sink or lock yourself in the broom closet, you are probably not a clown. But for the dozens of otherwise nominally normal residents of Orange County and surrounding areas who are, such a thought is actually comforting, even gleeful. To them, group mayhem is a way of life.

The county’s clown population, which by several accounts numbers around 300, is composed mostly of people who live double lives. A small number are full-time professionals whose income depends on their making fools of themselves. But most of the county’s clowning falls into the broad spectrum between avid amateurism and semi-professionalism.

This generally means that clowns hold down jobs in the less-oddball world during the week and are paid to be zany on weekends. Also, many belong to clubs devoted to advancing their art, performing for charity and providing job referrals.

Regardless of their status, however, they share a kind of separate, loopy reality that serves as a tonic for them as well as for their audiences.

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“I guess we’re all schizophrenic,” said Jerry Coleman, a former Air Force aircraft mechanic and now a financial analyst for a computer company. “My wife says she doesn’t recognize me when I put my makeup on. My whole personality changes.”

Coleman, 39, who lives in Los Alamitos, becomes Y-Not the clown on weekends, complete with full whiteface makeup, huge shoes, honking horns, noisemakers, baggy pants and a diamond-shaped, yellow traffic sign attached to his back that reads, “Caution, Y-Not the Clown on Board.” He got his start, he said, 3 years ago when a friend convinced him to come to an office Halloween party as a clown.

“I took my little girl to the park, and I was still in my clown suit,” Coleman said. “The first person who came up to me was a little girl in a fairy princess suit. And she just reached up and put both arms around my neck and said, ‘I love you, Mr. Clown.’ Well, that did it.”

Completely taken, Coleman began to offer his services for free to the city of Cypress at local park functions. He also began to improve his costume and makeup, which he said were “awful” at first. Today, besides his paid weekend jobs, he clowns for charity with the Shriners and belongs to Funny Business Clowns, a club with about 20 members. And it now takes him about 90 minutes to apply his makeup and put on his costume.

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Coleman’s metamorphosis is typical of many part-time clowns who, after a single exposure to the greasepaint, find themselves drawn inexorably into the madcap world of baggy pants and manic behavior. But while most of them say their ability to be funny is inborn, skills involving makeup, magic, juggling, costuming, child psychology, and the organization and pacing of an act are learned. Many local clowns say they got their start through one-time classes offered by local parks and recreation departments or schools. For some, the next step was enrollment in classes offered at a Placentia clowning-supply store called Under the Big Top.

Dena Piraino, 33, who is part-owner of the store, said she has been clowning for 7 years and has been a full-time professional for the last 3. She and her family opened Under the Big Top 3 years ago to provide clowns of all stripes with magic, makeup, costumes, wigs, props, balloons and other paraphernalia of the dedicated jester. She said she tries to hold clowning classes at least twice a year.

Professionalism in clowning, Piraino said, “has nothing to do with whether you make money at it or not. It’s your attitude. It isn’t necessarily how funny you are or how many balls you can juggle or how you can do a magic trick. It’s what you have in your heart. Steve Smith, the director of the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey clown college, said that you have to have a heart the size of Texas.”

Few people believed that she was a natural clown, Piraino said.

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“When I was growing up, I didn’t consider myself funny at all,” she said. “I was a shy, introverted child. But I (performed) drama in high school and majored in drama in college, and after that when I found out about clowning and told my family that I wanted to make it my profession, they said no way. They said I was too quiet, too shy.”

But, Piraino said, she found that her clown character of Dee Nee let her play the fool with impunity. And, she added, “I feel I’m a very good clown” now.

A handful of clubs in Orange County cater to those who become truly passionate zanies. Funny Business Clowns, the newest, is for the most part made up of clowns, generally in their 20s and 30s, who hold down day jobs in other professions and emerge in their clown personas on weekends. Besides gathering once a month at Childrens Hospital of Orange County to entertain the young patients at no charge, the members meet every 4 weeks to exchange information on such specialized subjects as juggling technique, inexpensive magic tricks and where to find the best gigantic checkered shoes.

At a recent meeting, when the subject was balloon animals, the living room of Valerie Vegh’s Garden Grove home was filled with the relentless squeaking of inflated, colored rubber being twisted into dogs, anteaters, reindeer, swans and, for the beginners, snakes. And although nearly everyone was in mufti, most of the members were introduced not as mere humans, but as Ho Ho and Barnaby and Pickles and Sparkle and Giggles.

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Vegh is Giggles. One of 10 children, she and three of her sisters are clowns. Vegh, 45, blazed the trail about 14 months ago when she was advised by the talent agent for which she was working--she specialized in caricature drawing at the time--that she could get more work if she expanded her repertoire to include clowning.

“I love it,” she said, “because I can work on the weekends doing the same thing I do around the house all the time: I can run around and act like a fool. It’s a riot .”

Vegh was so taken with her first experiences in clowning that she attended a clown school for 8 days in June at the University of Wisconsin. “It was the most fun I’ve had in my life,” she said. “We played so hard.”

Vicki Murrell--Tickles to her audiences--began clowning 14 months ago after being encouraged by Vegh, her sister. Murrell, 37, a resident of Westminster, has scoliosis and said she found it difficult to sit for long periods when she used to work as a secretary.

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“With clowning, though, I can move and stretch,” she said. “I can clown through my disabilities.”

Murrell attended an 8-week clown school at Under the Big Top and adopted a character who she said appeals greatly to children.

“I think God gave me a gift,” she said, “and that’s that kids love me. Even when I’m out of makeup, they really seem to like me. Not everybody can be a clown, though. It takes patience because you have kids stomping you and running around you. It takes something from the inner soul. You have to enjoy kids. But I love it. It’s my calling.”

More women are succeeding at clowning, Murrell said, “possibly for maternal reasons. You’re a kind of mother figure and lots of kids take to women clowns. Most of the women aren’t as loud as the men. Sometimes when you’re loud, you can scare the kids.”

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What does Murrell do with a frightened child?

“I pretend I’m scared of them,” she said.

Age is no barrier to effective clowning, either, said Don DeWitt, 56, chairman of the Garden Grove-based clown club, Orange Kounty Klowns. He said that about half of the club’s 30 members are retirees, including himself, a retired Marine avionics technician.

“We cover the whole spectrum,” DeWitt said. “We have four or five professional clowns, and we have a few fairly new ones with maybe a year or two of experience. And we have the old-timers who do it just out of enjoyment.”

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DeWitt said he began clowning with the Garden Grove Elks Club clown group before forming Orange Kounty Clowns.

“I’d always enjoyed being around kids,” said DeWitt, whose clown identity is JoJo. “I guess I like it because I was an orphan. When I was a kid and in an orphan’s home and there were parties, no one came to see me. But now, when I go to schools for handicapped kids, you can look in the kids’ eyes and they light up and it’s so rewarding. They’ll see me and yell ‘JoJo! JoJo!’ And it’s been a year since they last saw me.”

Children, say the clowns, are their natural allies, their very reason for performing.

“With kids, clowns are magic,” said Ryan Cody, also known as Ryan the Clown, a 41-year-old former bartender from Santa Ana. “It’s hard to describe. I started out with juggling as a hobby 7 years ago. But when I changed from just juggling over to the full clown thing about 5 years ago, I was just amazed at the reactions I’d get from kids.

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“When I was just juggling, without clown makeup, some kids, especially abused kids, would be standoffish. But with the clown stuff, all the barriers break down. As clowns, we’re on the same level as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.”

Leo (Captain Leo) Gentleman says he is proudest of his work with handicapped and terminally ill children but added that he first began cutting up in front of adults as an occasional hired croupier at various “Las Vegas Night” functions in Orange County. He used hats and props to entice players to shoot dice at his crap table.

The players’ laughter, he said, became intoxicating. Then, when his apartment complex presented a haunted house for Halloween 2 years ago, he paid a visit to Under the Big Top, assembled a Halloween clown costume and signed up for clowning classes at the store.

“I never considered doing it professionally at first,” Gentleman said. “At first I just said to myself, ‘Well, now I’ll get to find out what clowning is like.’ But once people find out you’re a clown, they find you and ask you to do parties for them.”

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Which, most clowns say, is their most common natural pattern of evolution. There are a few pure amateurs, they say--many from fraternal organizations such as the Elks Club and the Shriners--who do their clowning strictly at charity presentations, hospitals and other unpaid events. But most active clowns, they say, perform at a variety of functions, both private and charitable, and welcome the opportunity to make extra money on the weekends doing what they love to do best: playing the fool.

“I don’t think you can say many people are complete amateurs,” Coleman said. “Sooner or later, someone’s going to come up to you and say, ‘Will you do my child’s birthday?’ ”

Still, the clowns say they aren’t in it to get rich.

“We’re all basically in the same category,” Cody said. “Some go out and take advantage of all the work they can, but I don’t think you’ll ever meet a clown who went into this with an idea of making a lot of money. Any way you look at it, it’s something from the heart.”

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To Gentleman, it is a kind of paid hobby.

“With me, it’s playing,” he said. “It’s just so much fun. I do paid jobs, but the money doesn’t matter to me. I’ve given up paid jobs to do volunteer work. If someone offered me $100 to do a private birthday party, and I had a chance to do a Special Olympics instead, I’d do the Special Olympics.”

Actually, he will do almost anything if it will get a laugh. On a recent visit to Cody’s house, along with a few other clowning pals, Captain Leo fought a wild sword (read: balloon) duel with Rick (Pretzel) de Lung for the benefit of Cody’s young children. Later, he seized Cody’s back-yard hammock, hooked his feet into its webbing and exhorted the other clowns to flip him upside down, where he dangled suspended above the flower bed.

“It’s endless what you can do,” he said. “You learn to take anything and turn it into a prop. You just grab it and go for it.”

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Murrell showed off her 3-carrot ring (a ring sprouting three plastic carrots); Cody juggled anything handy; Coleman beeped, honked and buzzed a variety of noisemakers in his huge trouser pockets and Carolyn (Blossom) Deiss, in costume looking much like a Minnie Pearl from Mars, observed, “No one can trash a house like clowns can.”

Lunacy, yes. But to the clowns, it’s a fine madness.

“You have to understand that clowns are not part of reality,” said De Lung, 28, a former high school teacher from Temecula who now clowns full time. “We’re not normal, but we think it’s more fun that way. We’re two people. There’s this little girl who lives in the apartment below me who swears there are two people living in my apartment--Rick and Pretzel.”

Coleman said he found a new friend in Y-Not, his alter ego.

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“I just become a different character,” he said. “Y-Not doesn’t get frustrated with little things, and he has patience that the Jerry Coleman business person doesn’t have. During the day, I’m in a business world, which is a real hectic, non-forgiving environment. But when I put my costume on, I’m a fantasy.

“That’s what a clown is. I’ll stand on the street and wave at people going by and people 60 years old or 20 years old, they’ll honk or stop, just to wave at a clown. People come up and talk to you as a clown when they never would any other way.

“When you’re a clown, you’re anything anyone wants you to be.”


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