Arnie Roberts recalls watching in amazement as his father began to apply the makeup: the dabs of colors around the eyes, then the mouth; the slow and subtle changes that turned a father into a clown.
It was 1943, and his father was preparing to march through the streets of Benton Harbor, Mich., in a city-sponsored parade to cheer up a war-weary town. Most of the people lining the streets never knew that the clown prancing up and down the avenue was one of their neighbors. The greasepaint and makeup ensured a certain anonymity.
It is an image that has stuck with Roberts, and today--at age 58--he too, stands before a mirror. Contorting, powdering, and painting a bright-red smiling mouth with huge buck teeth, the tall, lanky, gray-haired grandfather from Anaheim slowly becomes Rufus the Clown.
The transformation takes about an hour. But it is a metamorphosis that has been perfected over a decade of classes and clubs, charity events, parties and more than a year as a traveling clown for Circus Vargas. These days, Rufus is at home in Anaheim entertaining at private parties and schools.
“The mere fact of the entertaining part of (clowning) keeps you young,” Roberts said.
For years, clowning was little more than a memory of his father as Roberts grew up and worked his way through a variety of careers. After a four-year hitch in the Navy, Arnie married, and he and his wife Pauline moved to Southern California. He got a job at Western Electric, took classes in law enforcement and then went into police work, including six years at the Anaheim Police Department.
It was not until 1981, when he was well into a 20-year stint as a production control specialist with Hughes Aircraft in Fullerton, that Roberts rediscovered his love of clowning. It was something that was in his blood, and buried in the distant memories of his father.
Arnie and Pauline had gone to a Halloween costume party that year, and he dressed as a clown. He enjoyed the anonymity of the white face, the silliness of the colorful makeup. He enjoyed making people laugh. Suddenly the memories of playing with his father’s costumes and floppy shoes came flooding back.
A short time later, Roberts enrolled in a class for clowns at a local community college--more out of curiosity than anything else. He learned all the basic makeup, the costuming, puppeteering and basic magic. He was told that the class would teach him everything he needed to know about putting on a child’s birthday party.
Parties led to community performances at charity events and club functions. He joined a club for clowns called the California Clowns, based in Westminster, and joined other members touring local hospitals. Through the club, Arnie became a member of the World Clown Assn. At some of its conventions, Roberts noted, he won awards for his makeup techniques and learned new skills. At one convention, he learned to sketch a cartoon character that Arnie uses in his act today.
In 1988, at age 55, and after 20 years of employment at Hughes Aircraft, Roberts qualified for and received early retirement. Then Roberts bought a motor home, and Arnie and Pauline decided to travel.
“If we could come up with a job where we could travel and get paid for it at the same time, it would be ideal,” Roberts said. “So I started coming up with the idea of being a rodeo clown. I tried to contact rodeo promoters, tried for over a year, but couldn’t get the promoters to talk. The promoters claimed I didn’t have enough livestock experience.”
So Arnie started thinking about the circus.
He quickly ruled out Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus because of its requirement that all its clowns go to a clown college in Sarasota, Fla. And just going to the clown college there didn’t guarantee a job.
The next best bet was to set his sights on either Circus Vargas or one of the other traveling tent shows. A brief interview, without an audition with the owner of Circus Vargas, brought a swift job offer as an advance clown. And that meant a new career for the newly retired man.
Soon, Pauline and Arnie set out in their motor home. They rented their Anaheim home to two of their six children, and ran away to join the circus.
Arnie’s job was to travel ahead and drum up enthusiasm for the circus before it got to town. Pauline would cook the meals, fix Arnie’s clown suits and offer advice for the act. Arnie would visit grade schools and shopping centers, promoting the circus by performing magic, juggling and sight gags. He made Rufus into a stumbling, loud character, with shocks of bright yellow hair billowing from under a tiny red hat. There were few hints that somewhere underneath was a kindly, tall grandfather of 14.
The routine was pretty much the same all over the country. After the juggling act, which usually involved three shiny hatchets, he would draw pictures for the children--character sketches of a clown--and hand them out with an anti-drug message saying, “Rufus always says no to drugs.” At the end of every show he would hand out discount tickets and tell them to let the people at the circus know that Rufus sent them.
It was also a grind: two to three appearances a day, five to seven days a week. As the circus was coming to town, he and Pauline were disconnecting the motor home from its latest mooring, driving to the next location and starting the whole thing over again.
Late last summer, the circus decided that it wanted a bilingual advance clown. The Robertses were notified while touring in the Chicago area and severed their ties with Circus Vargas. But there was no severing their ties to Rufus.
Today, Arnie performs for his grandchildren, entertains at children’s birthday parties for $100 a show, and recently appeared at a local school on Halloween.
And, just like his father, Roberts likes to provides cheer for some of his neighbors. Sitting at the table in his motor home, he carefully applies a new round of makeup. With every dab of color and application of glitter, Arnie becomes Rufus, until finally the transformation is complete. Outside the motor home, a group of neighborhood children are gathered on his lawn, waiting for you-know-who.
Arnie and Pauline are unsure just where their retirement motor home may take them next. But one thing is certain. Arnie will always be a clown--no one can take that away.