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A License to Wiggle, Skip, Kiss in Public

TIMES STAFF WRITER

We kissed crying babies and hugged bashful grandmothers. We struck poses with children, some of whom poked at our bellies, threw up on our shoulders and tugged at our clothes. And more than once, we were slimed with Silly String--gummy, clingy, icky spaghetti stuff sprayed from a can.

No, it wasn’t a political rally.

It was the Hollywood Christmas Parade, and we were the 22 clowns deployed along the 3 1/2-mile route to cajole the crowd and fill in the gap between the Frederick’s of Hollywood float and the Hollywood High School Marching Band.

You know: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down my pants.”

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When it was all over, almost two hours and two pounds lighter, a sort of jet lag set in. Every funny bone in every clown body ached. More severe casualties included a twisted ankle, a thrown back, several skinned knees and chapped lips. (We kissed a lot of babies.)

Being a clown is no laughing matter. After all, clowns are the glue that holds an event like this parade together. We were human cannonballs somersaulting, skipping and shimmying down the street, trying to avoid the evidence of marching horses and elephants--unlike the stars who sit atop convertibles waving to standing ovations from adoring fans. And it was sometimes hard to remember who we really were, under all the greasepaint, outrageous wigs and neck-to-ankle ruffles.

Actually, that’s the way clowns like it. The anonymity--down to clown names like Jo Jo, Ho Ho, Curley, Rocky and Mustard--meant a certain freedom of movement few of us would have the nerve to duplicate in civilian garb.

The other clowns, members of the Garden Grove Elks Lodge Clown Brigade, decided my name would be Scoop.

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“It’s quite becoming for a professional like yourself,” said Rainbow while batting her fly-swatter-size eyelashes at me. In real life, Rainbow is a grandmother named Joyce Raming. While standing on a bridge over the Hollywood Freeway, she painted on my clown face in colors that matched my floppy hat: bright blue, yellow and red.

“Bright is always right,” she explained, adding that I had no problem in the bright clothing department. “Where did you ever find all this stuff?” she asked, pointing to my polka-dotted suspenders and vest, tie-dyed baggy pants, ruffled Romeo shirt and multicolored shoes.

“It came from my closet,” I said.

Well, said Rainbow, there’s a clown hiding in everyone.

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Next came a few clown rules, imparted from Ho Ho and Jo Jo.

Rule No. 1: “Never hold a crying baby.”

Rule No. 2: “We repeat. Never hold a crying baby.”

Then a crash course on sheer buffoonery.

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“Our mission,” explained Nelson Burke, a.k.a. Rocky, clown chairman, “is to dance, squat, tumble. Jump, wave and flirt. Scrunch your mouth, contort your body and wiggle your fanny. The kids love it.”

We also peddled a 12-inch-high bicycle, joked with cops, shook hands and slapped high fives, low fives, pinky fives. Rocky’s pals Dennis (Curley) Osborne and Dennis (Skippy) Starks showed me how to do fake-out shakes--that’s when you pretend to make a beeline to shake someone’s hand and then shake the hand of his or her neighbor. My favorite was the old hand-under-your-leg shake that tangles you up with the shakee. Dads hate it. Kids love it.

And so did I.

For the most part.

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(The next day, when a colleague asked me: “What is the most important thing you learned about being a clown?” I looked over my shoulder to ensure there were no parents around and replied: “Kids are mean.” And, after another furtive glance around my office, I added: “And some mommies think they’re the Terminator.”)

Some kids at the parade tried to make off with my white clown gloves as I shook hands or tried to steal the huge glittered butterfly attached to my suspenders; others squeezed my nose to make sure it was phony.

It wasn’t.

One mom--somewhere in the vicinity of Size 20--nearly yanked my arm out of its socket as I headed toward a crowd in a cartwheel that landed me flat on my fanny. In one hefty swoop, she lifted me off my feet and pulled me over two rows of kids--all for a photograph for which I happily posed. I value my life.

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One child--too young to know that clowns are supposed to be as cuddly and harmless as puppies--was pushed into my arms for a quick photo. She was not pleased.

“Hi, baby,” I said in a Mickey Mouse falsetto. She screamed and pulled away from me. She kicked me in the armpit. “Don’t cry, honey,” I added, which made her more upset, which made her upchuck on my shoulder, which made everyone laugh and applaud even louder.

I should have followed Clown Rule No. 3: See rules No. 1 and 2.

Nonetheless, laughter fueled our feet and those two magical words, “Hey, Clown!” propelled our spirits even when malcontents tricked and tripped us.

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Skippy would stop attractive women and then sweep their heads, shoulders and feet with a hot-pink duster. George Kemmler, a.k.a. Buddy, a tubby-sized clown decked out in a peppermint-striped jacket and fuzzy Big Bird yellow hair, wore a sign over his chest proclaiming: “C & R Contest Winner.”

“We’re just everyday people making a living,” said Rainbow. “But out here we can be something. A lot of people don’t understand it because they think we should be out bowling instead. But out here we’re like kids again.”

We do it for the children, said another clown. You get a natural high from it, a colleague added.

And for a few hours last Sunday--along Sunset, Highland and Hollywood--we made thousands of children and adults forget about their problems. They got the spirit and left the Hollywood Christmas Parade smiling.

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And so did I.

In fact, I still am.


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