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United States

After ‘It’, the Joker and ‘American Horror Story’, US clowns are finding it hard to laugh

It’s one of the worst times in history to be a clown – they just want you to love them again

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 4:57am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 6:00am

This has been a terribly sad time for clowns, those purveyors of happiness whose recorded history dates back to ancient Greece. Last year was possibly the pits.

Clowns witnessed the shuttering of venerable Ringling Bros, the largest and latest of circuses to close. The lay-offs of regional Ronald McDonalds. The film – don’t get them started – It.

It has been one packed clown car of woe.

And it comes on top of decades of portrayals of depressed, malevolent or downright crazed clowns in films and on TV, not to mention in real life: Krusty on The Simpsons, Zach Galifianakis on Baskets, Twisty on American Horror Story, the Great Clown Scare of 2016, Insane Clown Posse, Heath Ledger’s Joker, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, John Wayne Gacy.

Recently, 240 entertainers assembled for the World Clown Association convention in Minnesota. In March. Which prompts the question: Haven’t clowns suffered enough?

“There’s no secret that clowning is taking a hit. It’s not something new,” former Ringling clown and International Clown Hall of Fame founder Greg DeSanto offered in his keynote address to the 36th annual convention, a tribute to Ringling Bros. 

“The kitsch thing to say is ‘I’m afraid of clowns.’ What do you think I’m going to do? Make you laugh?”

Clowns from across the United States and nearly a dozen countries gathered to consider tiny trikes, colossal footwear and the future of their craft. 

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The convention boasted as many women as men, mostly of a certain age, though there were seven junior “joeys,” industry nomenclature after celebrated Regency-era performer Joseph Grimaldi, who promoted the harlequin clown and whiteface image still familiar to this day. 

There were caring clowns who visit hospitals, ministry clowns who combine faith and silliness, birthday clowns and parading clowns. 

There were clowns who work so frequently that they claim “entertainer” on their tax returns, and those who, after retiring from foolish office jobs, perform on holidays and summer weekends, peak time for clowning.

A clown’s education never ends, even if the extremely selective Ringling Bros Clown College did in 1997. There were workshops on juggling, puppetry, mime, magic and “perfecting perfect pies.” 

Exhibit booths featured the latest in rubber chickens, oversized pants, magic tricks and latex noses. 

And yet behind everything loomed the shadow of the recent troubles. 

When it came time for the top 20 paradability competitors to journey from the convention hotel to the nearby Mall of America, their fellow clowns were strenuously advised to abandon all whiteface and costumes in public. 

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Stephen King, author of It and the murderous, sewer-dwelling Pennywise, was scorned repeatedly. 

“I’ve been told that ‘You can’t come to the hospital; you’ll scare people.’ That was really heartbreaking,” says veteran Tricia “Pricilla Mooseburger” Manuel, 56, of Maple Lake, Minnesota. 

“It’s diminished my income. The damage is done in so many respects. There’s a whole generation that, when they think of a clown, they think of something scary.” 

Though, Manuel adds, “people still love us in nursing homes.”

“Clowns are a relic of America’s midcentury industrial era,” says University of Southern California professor Andrew McConnell Stott, an authority on coulrophobia (fear of clowns), author of the essay “Clowns on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”.

The solution, clowns say, is staring them in the face: Lose the greasepaint.

“When I talk to my clients, I don’t want to give them an excuse not to hire me. Make-up might scare people,” says Lee “Lew-e” Andrews of Forsyth, Georgia, who happens to be sitting behind a vendor table stacked with clown make-up and setting powder.

“Most of the time I perform with no make-up,” says Jeff “JB Milligan” McMullen, of Appleton, Wisconsin, a former Ringling clown and regional Ronald McDonald, who averages 225 annual performances, including overseas. 

“Markets are changing,” McMullen says. “Understanding a child’s world today is essential. It’s our obligation to work in their world.”

After almost a century and a half in operation, Ringling Bros closed in part because of animal rights advocacy. But audiences were already on the wane. Clowns became collateral damage. 

Then McDonald’s terminated its regional Ronald McDonald programme at the end of last year, though it’s vague about the reasons for the move. 

“Ronald remains an important part of our brand and he will continue to appear at local events,” said a McDonald’s spokeswoman. “We are just moving to a centralised programme.” 

One former Ronald, who believes their number was as high as 300 nationally, said he earned US$64,000 in 2016, plus a US$2,000 expense account, a car, and health and dental insurance, a fortune in clowning. Now, that sort of income and security may be disappearing.

The World Clown Association has 2,400 members, about half its peak membership in the 1990s. Clowns of America International – yes, there is another association – represents an equal number, though many performers belong to both. 

“Clowning will never be what it was, but I know it will continue to go on and on,” Manuel says. “We’ll survive the closing of the circus. We’ll survive scary films. 

“There’s something in the human spirit that wants to make people laugh and be happy. Once you do it, you have to do it – even though it might not be the popular thing.”