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On the Ground: Even Nevada’s Clown Motel is creeped out by scary clown craze

The Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nev., is owned by Bob Perchetti, who is not happy about the Great American Clown Scare of 2016.
(David Montero / Los Angeles Times)

Another dusk had arrived amid the Great American Clown Scare of 2016 and Bob Perchetti was none too pleased.

“We don’t need this … ,” he said. “We just don’t need it.”

Perchetti is the owner of the Clown Motel in Tonopah, a tiny desert town plopped somewhere between Las Vegas, Reno and a “Twilight Zone” episode. It’s been a motel of some note — and notoriety — in recent years, where guests check in at the main office under the watchful eyes of small clowns sitting on shelves, big clowns slouched in chairs and one wild-eyed clown in a cage resting above the cash register.

The clowns don’t move — allegedly. And not all of them reach the levels of Stephen King’s Pennywise in creep factor. Still, TV’s “Ghost Adventures” thought the place surreal enough to film an episode here. It made its way into the “Call of Duty” video game as a part of an apocalyptic landscape. And a man recently set up a Kickstarter campaign to spend 30 days in the motel despite his affliction with coulrophobia — the fear of clowns.

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Perchetti is good with all this; fans of creepy clowns pay the bills just the same as those who like happy ones. He’s owned the motel for more than two decades, and it draws all kinds of visitors from all over the world.

What he and his staff are not good with is the recent spate of clown scares that has put the nation on edge.

There was the Bay Area woman who claimed a clown tried to take her infant and she had to fight him off. Two clowns held a man at gunpoint in Texas and, also in the Lone Star State, teens were arrested for dressing as clowns and chasing people with sticks. Wisconsin had a man in a clown mask arrested after he ran around and was discovered to be carrying a concealed weapon. And a small town in Mississippi has banned residents from dressing as clowns until after Halloween.

And on it goes.

It’s gotten so bad that McDonald’s announced recently it would lower the profile of Ronald McDonald and retailer Target took the step of removing Halloween clown costumes from its shelves. Parents have posted on social media bemoaning how their kids are terrified as clown talk has swept across playgrounds and into their nightmares.

Marie Bruhn, who works the front desk, shook her head.

“Dear Lord,” she sighed. “As if we don’t have enough going on in this country.”

The Clown Motel hasn’t been touched by the scare, but guests are hyper-aware of it.

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Dan Carlin, 37, works out in the mountains doing mining survey jobs and spent a few nights at the motel.

Carlin wasn’t worried about checking in (“I had a buddy who graduated from clown college”), but said when his parents wanted to come out from the San Francisco Bay Area and visit, they were adamant about not staying in a motel with clown pictures hanging on the walls in each room. As if the clowns in the framed pictures would suddenly move or something.

“I put them up at the Mizpah,” Carlin said, referring to the Mizpah Hotel a few minutes south on Highway 95. It’s 109 years old and boasts of being one of Nevada’s first luxury hotels — though it didn’t add gambling to the mix until the 1940s.

He laughed. “Though they say that is haunted too.”

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Bruhn said it’s unclear whether the Clown Motel is actually harboring spiritual guests. Troubling to some, however, is the neighboring graveyard that some guests can see from their rooms, which run about $50 a night. She said it’s not uncommon for some brave souls to walk out their rooms, across the parking lot and wander the cemetery.

But she said there aren’t clowns buried there. It’s mostly miners and their families, many who settled Tonopah. A few guests have told stories of ghostly clowns showing up, but the descriptions are vague. Was it wearing large shoes? A wide tie? Squirting flower?

Ghosts, she said, are one thing.

She closed the door on a vacant room and watched the last glow of orange fade into the desert night and a few headlights cruised past the large, grinning clown sign next to the roadside. On this night, about a third of the 32 rooms were filled.

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She walked to the main office, it’s “Open” sign glowing red in the window.

Bruhn was exasperated. People dressed as clowns terrifying people was no good. Bad for business, bad for people and really bad for clowns.

“Knuckleheads,” she said.

david.montero@latimes.com

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Twitter: @davemontero

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