Even as the somber-hued Tramp, clowns are not neutral, as a subject. Adults, and children alike, rejoice or recoil from clowning, as their personalities and experience dictate. Even on the rare occasion a non-clown can remain impassive in the face of a clown, the impartial reaction is highly suspect. Happy or sad, clowns are painted in broad strokes that provoke like-sized emotions, and everyone has an opinion.
"Clowns are wonderful," coos Mira James, a 23-year-old horticulturist whose Saturday night duds are a cross-pollination of latex, stripes, and floral prints that tread a provocative line between clown and har-lot. "All that color, the pockets, the balloons, the smell of greasepaint. Of course rodeo clowns hold a special place in my heart -- I'm from Texas -- but any ol' clown will do."
Just four barstools down, it's a decidedly different story.
"I fucking hate clowns," says 29-year-old Jocelyn Mateo. "The smell of that makeup makes me break out in hives -- well, not really, but I really, really do not like clowns." Mateo's three male companions agree wholeheartedly.
"Clowns are creepy, man," says Ed Ghaney. "You ever read It [by Stephen King]? Or see Poltergeist? Shit, I was about 7, had to throw out all my wind-up [clown] toys after that flick. What about John Wayne Gacy, huh? There's a clown for you."
"I don't remember how old I was," recalls Mateo, "maybe 2 or 3. We were down at some tourist spot like Fisherman's Wharf, and my mother shoved me in the hands of this guy with a white face and bloodshot eyes and a big smeared smile and one of those ruffly collars that kept sticking me in the neck. I was freaked out, but kind of frozen, and my mother was just taking pictures. It sucked."
Coulrophobia is the psychological term applied to a fear of clowns. There are a few Web sites and a couple of chat rooms where folks commiserate about their clown phobias. Most postings are tongue-and-cheek diatribes about teeny-tiny umbrellas and giant bow ties, but some are, like Mateo's, genuine recollections of agonizing childhood birthday parties, overstimulating circus experiences, and overanxious parents whose desire for a Kodak moment left more than pictures behind; mostly, the posts relate a vague but potent unease caused by the permanent face-paint smile.
"You just don't really know what they're thinking under all that stuff, do you?" asks Ghaney, suddenly becoming very thoughtful. "I mean, even as a kid, you can tell they're not really smiling. It's that fucked-up duality that freaks you out."
Duality is certainly part of clown lore. According to clown historian Bruce "Charlie" Johnson, in early Chinese, British, and Aztec courts it was the duty of jesters to humor and satirize royalty; they could and would say things normally punishable by death. In many North American Indian tribes, the clown character was said to be able to cure certain diseases, even while acting the buffoon. The Auguste Clown, a style which uses very little face makeup, evolved out of the early Shakespeare Clown, which was considered indispensable to high theater during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. During the Civil War, popular Character Clowns like Dan Rice commented humorously on current events, and politicians found it to their advantage to be seen riding in circus parades. The original Tramp character emerged after the Civil War to convey the plight of homeless African-Americans, and Tramp clown Bert Williams was among the first to break down the barriers of segregation in vaudeville shows. In the early 1800s, a deaf-mute sailor was said to be cured while watching Joseph Grimaldi perform; Grimaldi is considered the "Father of Modern Clowning" for elevating the Whiteface Clown to a starring role, where it replaced the pinched-lipped Harlequin.
Clowning, like most good comedy, is funny because it makes us laugh at the uncomfortable things within the human experience -- the awkward, graceless, sometimes gross aspects of our nature -- and, in the most sublime clowns, an acute sensitivity to the discomforting aspect of the genre seems to play just beneath the surface of the face paint.
"The thing that most distinguishes clowns is our heart," says Mary Nagler, the sixth female clown to be accepted in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and a Santa Rosa resident who has been clowning for 29 years. "Sometimes the easiest way to cheer yourself up is to make someone else laugh."
Nagler stands in an upper balcony of the Clarion Hotel, where 350 clowns have gathered for the Clowns of America International convention; she is dressed as the sunny-eyed Hoopla, wearing a 4-H costume that appears to ride a very large, highly animate, prize-winning chicken. The "walk-around" costume, with its huge expressive eyes, moving head, and flapping wings, took Nagler three months to assemble for this year's Paradeability competition. Other clowns from Nagler's group pass by on equally intricate fowl: a pelican, a parrot, a dodo bird, a duck, a hummingbird, a hornbill, and a stork. They mingle under a Golden Gate Bridge constructed of balloons, bumping tail feathers, as a throng of Tramp, Whiteface, Auguste, and Character clowns in a kaleidoscopic array of sizes, shapes, designs, and colors greets them. Barrel laughs and cartoon voices bounce through the halls; unicycles lean in corners of the foyer; crepe-paper flowers and confetti flutter to the floor; there are balloon animals galore. It's not even 9 a.m. Clowns not competing today sit in the banquet hall, wearing everyday clothes. There are clown "alleys" from all over the world represented. (Alleys are regional clubs named for the unenclosed area, left between rows of dressing rooms, where clowns are expected to change in most circuses.) Voices fade in and out of character and accent, discussing the week.
There have been at least 10 competitions (skits, balloons, and makeup), a number of magic and comedy shows, numerous club meetings, and 25 workshops -- everything from clown history taught by Bruce Johnson to comedy movement taught by Leon McBryde, the Clown Hall of Fame's 1990 inductee Buttons. I sit in on a class where 13-year-old Kyle "Me-2 the Clown" Fryman, son of Vacaville's Kelly and Zacko, takes instruction from Mexico City's master balloon artist, Oscar "Jimmy Bond" Flores, on how to create a mouse eating its way out of a balloon cheese-wheel. I learn how to paint tiger faces on children in less than 40 seconds from the no-nonsense Marcela "Mama Clown" Murad ("Make sure your paints are FDA approved; otherwise the parents will sue and you don't have a leg to stand on"); how to make flowers out of tissue paper and pipe cleaners from Yvonne "Yummy" Brogden ("Make them remember you"); and, from the unbearably funny Don "Homer" Burda, that a firm handshake can go a long way when an unruly youngster is determined to ruin your show.
The singles Paradeability competition allows 60 seconds for one gag performed two times during a walk the length of the banquet hall: a fly-fisherman clown catching overlarge "flies" that taste like chicken; a Tramp offering morning newspapers in the form of toilet rolls; a mommy clown pushing a stroller with balloons escaping from under her skirt; an orange juice vendor spilling confetti on our shirts; a country and western "lion" dancer; a "rodeo clown" riding a "horse" and twirling a lasso; a big-game hunter with a Candy Land board; and many more. The group Paradeability contest allows the same time for a gaggle of clowns: Jimmy Bond and his compatriots, for example, arrive with horns and tiny violins, while a master "artist" paints a seductive grin on a Mona Lisa painting worn by a bucktoothed Auguste.
But it is while waiting for the Paradeability competition to get under way that I laugh the hardest. Richard Smith, Massachusetts' Design-O, who earlier won the contest for Whiteface makeup, isn't doing anything much, just sitting in the audience, dressed as a fanciful technicolor little-boy clown with an exaggerated baseball cap, talking with a Lollibells, chortling. But it's the chortle, this irrepressible, utterly contagious chortle. There is no way to fight it. And every time he laughs, three or four people nearby have to laugh, too. He's oblivious to the fact, or acts oblivious, and it is a perfect skit, all of us laughing, looking around, wondering why we're laughing, until Design-O's eye makeup begins to stream and he has to clam up.
"You can never cry in makeup," says Lollibells later. "You can leave a scar on a child forever if you cry in clown makeup." Of course, small, stylistic tears are often incorporated into the design of the face, as with Hoopla, but not with Lollibells, even though she's earned them. Jackie "Lollibells" Garner is one of 10 Clowns of America International artists in residence; she's also a modest hometown clown who lives in North Carolina. She came to clowning after nearly going blind and facing the possibility of never seeing her children again. For 15 years afterward, she worked in Texas as a hospital clown, where she held no less than 14 children as they took their last breaths.
"The first time," says Lollibells with tears in her eyes, "the mother in me wanted to cry, but there were other children watching me through the glass. I had to stay Lolli for them."
Lolli is not the last of the day to get misty recalling moments with children, elderly people, cats, dogs, whatever.
Buttons -- a towering, distinguished gentleman out of costume, who sells ProKnows makeup and clown noses to every major circus in the world -- tears up recalling moments with children and elderly women, but he won't share the tales. "They're personal, private moments between one person and a clown." He will say, however, that clowns tend to be highly sensitive people. "As a child I couldn't even watch Lassie."
And what about the fear of clowns?
Buttons chalks it up to bad mall Santas.
Design-O thinks it's the unnerving line between illusion and reality.
Hoopla blames the media.
And Lolli just throws herself to the ground.
Still, there's that duality with which to contend. Even with that sweet, encouraging voice, curly yellow hair, and doll-like face, there's just too much going on behind those eyes. It might not be frightening, but it is certainly evocative. And, to some people, that can amount to the same thing.
Send comments, quips, and tips to email@example.com.