These clowns have a lot to juggle
Running late and mumbling words in Spanish not fit for children, he hurriedly plops on his cherry-red nose. Then he trades smiles with his red-and-white reflection in the mirror and paints on lashes that spread like curly blue spider legs.
Between his two other jobs, Oscar Corona’s weekdays are exhausting. The weekends, though, are his joy.
He hops on one foot to slide into his red pants and finishes dressing. On this Saturday, lunch is a cup of milk and shredded coconut; it will have to do, because he won’t get another chance to eat until 10 p.m.
Yes, Corona says, even if he were old and his joints creaked like worn stairs from a lifetime of hard work, he would be a clown.
“If I could do a party with a walker,” says the 41-year-old, who speaks only Spanish, “then I would.”
He is among 16 payasos, or clowns, whose weekends find them running and dancing through comedy skits at birthdays, baptisms, any kind of parties. All in Spanish.
They work for Club de Payasos in Boyle Heights. Corona and his partner for the day, Mayra Ortiz — who perform as Oskarin and Zafiro — stash their cases of face paint and balloons in the car and head to South Gate for their first event.
Ortiz, one of the few in the club who speaks English, works the pedals with the tip of her right shoe, big enough to hold a cantaloupe.
Owner Carlos Clemente, a former clown from Mexico, founded the L.A. club in 1985 so that he could network with other clowns here. Today, the clowns are not limited to L.A.'s borders.
“The farthest is Tijuana,” Ortiz jokes of their willingness to travel, “if they pay for the coyote.”
Most of the payasos are from Latin American countries and came across the club through Spanish-language classifieds; Clemente’s ad advised that if you are happy, sociable and good with children, call for a job.
The price is $80 to $110 an hour for shows, depending on the distance and the number of clowns. Female clowns, to avoid being harassed at an event, never travel alone. But even the male clowns say they have to put up with drunks who pull their noses and step on their shoes.
During the week, they work in warehouses and at printing shops. They make furniture and move furniture. It is rough, menial work for the most part, so being a clown provides a respite, even if it’s still work.
The prospect of extra money on weekends was attractive too.
“But we stay with it because it becomes a part of our heart,” says Miguel Garcia, who juggles fire as the green-haired Blim Blim. “It de-stresses us from the week. I don’t worry about anything after the weekend.”
Corona works part time at a furniture store from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., then full time as a security guard at a grocery store from 4:30 to 10:30 at night. He wears a blue uniform, and a badge that looks so real that people often mistake him for a police officer — which he relates with an air of pride.
“People think that being a security guard is just standing and looking at women,” he says with a laugh. “But no, it’s not.”
Most of his family lives in Mexico City, and he says he regularly sends them money. He admits that even with working two jobs during the week and as a clown on the weekend, he has no savings, nothing to show for the hours.
His dreams are simple. One day he would like to run the clown shop for Clemente, and even then he seems to only half-believe the words as they leave his mouth.
The party in South Gate is for Miguelito Escanilla, whose family had ordered a catered taco party, a bouncy castle and two clowns that, when they approached the backyard, put a child in tears — whether from fear or excitement wasn’t clear.
Miguelito is turning 1. Wide smiles wrap the painted faces of the children. This is the third time clowns from the club have been hired by the birthday boy’s father, Miguel Escanilla, 30.
“They can use some words, in Spanish, that have double meanings,” he says.
Ortiz plays the patino, the serious clown who leads the show. Corona plays the bobo, or imbecile. Usually Corona is the lead, but in one skit planned for this party, the patino has to beat the bobo with a paddle, and it’s funnier, he says, if the woman beats the man.
At one point Ortiz, as Zafiro, asks Oskarin to name as many words as he can that end in “ollo.” (To understand this joke, you need to know that “hoyo” means “hole” and is pronounced the same as “ollo”: OY-yo.)
Corona’s Oskarin, whose ring of fake red hair juts upward like an electrocuted monk’s, is ready to begin.
“Bimbollo,” he says, which means “bun.”
“Repollo,” he says, which means “cabbage.”
“Espalda,” he says, which means “back.”
” 'Espalda’ doesn’t end with ‘ollo,’” Zafiro says in Spanish.
With both hands, Oskarin traces the form of a body, narrowing at the waist and widening below the waist. “Look for it at the end of the back — you’re going to find it,” he replies.
The children laugh. The parents laugh. The clowns are a hit.
Without the neon-blue ringlets sprouting from her head — “I love the color blue,” she says — Ortiz is a short woman.
Originally from Guatemala, the single mother of two searches her busy schedule for gaps when she can curl up and rest because, like Corona, she works two weekday jobs. Twice a month, she cleans each of the 14 homes on her list. She also works the night shift three days a week as a caregiver, from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. After that’s done, Ortiz drives her two sons to school and then prepares to clean another home.
Sitting in her small apartment with the fans humming, the windows open, the heat clinging, she considers her week.
“Here, everyone is so quick,” she says of L.A. “I close my eyes and it’s Saturday.”
But weekends mean more work: starting at 3 p.m. with nearly an hour of makeup at the club, then performing at three or four parties each Saturday plus two more every other Sunday.
The clown money fills her car with gas, buys clothes for her kids and helps pay for her oldest son’s tae kwon do classes. She bought season passes to Knott’s Berry Farm but never finds the time to take her kids. On top of that, she still sends money to her family in Guatemala.
“Over there, they think you have a lot of money,” she says.
Sometimes she tells herself she’ll go out. She thinks tonight she will have fun.
“I just keep planning I will do it,” she said. “But never.”
Still, the mere thought of personal time sustains her, a dream she constantly tucks under her pillow.
Corona and Ortiz drive to two more shows that night. They work Sunday too. Then Monday bleeds into Tuesday. The weekdays run together until Saturday, when Corona and Ortiz can change into their wigs and oversized shoes. Neither imagines life without this.
“The clown, I am connected to,” Corona says. “I can’t quit being a clown. It makes me happy.”
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