In Spite of Pennywise, Performers Keep the Art of Friendly Clowning Alive

Clowns from around the globe gathered in Bloomington, Minnesota, last month for the annual convention of the World Clown Association This wasn’t your garden-variety clown gathering—it was the whipped cream of the crop, professional clowns young and old, new, improved, and veteran, coming together to learn from one another and embrace their passion of clowning.

Over the years, the profession of clowning has dwindled somewhat as the world has moved towards superhero birthday parties and clowns have been repeatedly portrayed as maniacal, dastardly, and evil. There is a perception that clowns are creepy and scary, and that those who dress as clowns are somewhat deviant. However, setting aside the example of John Wayne Gacy (the infamous Pogo the Clown), for the people who devote themselves to the profession of clowning, this couldn’t be further from the truth. They do it for joy, laughter, charity, and the fun of being a clown.

Greg Parks dressed as a clown with white background

Minnesota clown Gregory Parks, in a photo taken as part of a magazine spread for the US Marine Corps on-base magazine for a run in Naha, Okinawa, Japan. Marine Corps Community Services (US Military Base, Okinawa)

From the Top

There is a lot that goes into becoming a clown. For some it is a time-honored tradition through the Freemasons to become a Shriner; for others it is an organic experience they started for their kid’s birthdays and fell in love with; for still others it’s a family tradition; and some just follow their bliss. Regardless of how they came to their decisions, there are a variety of options available to aspiring clowns on how best to refine their art form. There are conventions, schools, seminars, and plenty of Internet materials that teach the fine art of clowning. Make no mistake: this is more than just donning floppy shoes and a red nose. There are numerous comedy arts involved, such as improv, slapstick, and commedia dell’arte, as well as tumbling, acrobatics, juggling, and sleight of hand. Not all clowns use all of these techniques, but many professionals have at least rudimentary knowledge in most of them and specialize in a few.

Clown colleges have existed throughout the world since 1929 in Russia and continue today; the French created a school in 1985 to allow rigorous training in the circus arts. The United States got its first true “clown college” in 1968, when one was created as an offshoot of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Venice, Florida. However, several universities have had circuses associated with them—Illinois State University created the Gamma Phi Circus in 1929 with a circus program, Florida State University has had the Flying High Circus since 1947, and the University of Virginia at Charlottesville offers the only college-accredited course on circus history. The Ringling clown college was the most prominent of the offerings and gave accepted applicants the best possible chance at landing a job with “the Greatest Show on Earth.” It closed in 1997, but during its tenure it gave rise to such showmen as Penn Jillette, Boswick the Clown, and even Steve-O of Jackass fame, who graduated in the school’s final year. A little-known side fact of interest to Minnesotans: Penn and Teller started their career together as a three-person act with Weir Chrisemer called the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival directly after Penn graduated from the Ringling college in 1974.

Those who could not gain admittance to Ringling’s prestigious program would seek out those offered through the other colleges, seminars, or intensive workshops, or just learn on their own. The Shriners, who total almost 350,000 members and are a subsect of the Freemasons, are required to go to a mandatory three-day program at the Northeast Clown Institute in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to learn how to clown. Not every sect of Shriners offers a circus, but those that do apply themselves to more training than just the three-day workshop. For the majority of Shriner clowns, the workshop gives them enough basics on clowning, etiquette, and how to extract themselves from a bad situation while staying in character to set them loose in hospitals, charity events, and parades to raise money and make the days of sick kids go a little better.

The Show Must Go On

For many people growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, clowns were an integral part of pop culture. Ronald McDonald, Bozo, and the characters of The Big Comfy Couch were all positive depictions of clowns, while prominent negative examples came in the form of Stephen King’s It, the lasting influence of John Wayne Gacy, and Batman’s nemesis the Joker (the last of which was portrayed more comically bad in the more kid-friendly animated series than the creepy evil of the modern movies). Circuses were a hot family outing, as they were generally affordable and fun, from professional traveling circuses to local Shriner shows. It was almost a rite of passage to go see the clowns and eat cotton candy and walk away with big smiles and balloon animals. Kids across the country wanted to be on Bozo’s show, they wanted to sit on the Big Comfy Couch, and they wanted to hang out with Ronald McDonald and his pals. There have always been those with either fear or distrust of clowns (known as coulrophobia), and there are a variety of very legitimate reasons for those fears, such as a fearful past experience. However, the more time goes by, the more examples there are of scary clowns in media, and fear of clowns has had a detrimental effect on the people who make clowning a part of their life—these depictions in pop culture make it harder to just clown around.

In August 2016, an epidemic of creepy clown sightings began in South Carolina. Residents spotted a clown, or clowns, in face paint attempting to lure children into the woods with money and candy, pounding on doors, flashing green lights, shaking chains, or in one case just standing by a dumpster staring and waving at those passing by. That was just the beginning; the reports continued throughout the area for weeks, and then the Internet found out. Those who use the anonymity of the Internet to troll other users began to see a new opportunity, and across the country creepy clowns began popping up and scaring the polka-dotted pants off people everywhere and managing to leave no trace that they were ever there. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, however. In 1981, there were similar incidents in and around Boston, which then spread to other cities across the country, all without the helping hand of the Internet to make it happen.

Incidents like this haunt not just their victims but also the clowning community. Clowns have always had to contend with distaste or outright coulrophobia from people they are trying to entertain, but epidemics of creepy clowns scaring innocent bystanders across the country and more and more horror movies using the evil clown trope have decimated their fan base. There are still clown enthusiasts who enjoy going to the circus, love clowns, and want one at their kid’s next party, but the negative publicity is affecting the bottom line of professional clowns. American circuses are going out of business due to a number of factors, most recently Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey in 2017, and the Shriners are having a harder time affording to have local circuses because of low turnout. Kids aren’t exposed to positive images of clowns as often anymore, and as a result the birthday-party game is dwindling. But the clowns aren’t deterred—they are finding new ways to reinvent the unicycle wheel and make clowning more approachable, less scary, and more fun.

Three Cheers for Greg

One professional clown working hard to evolve clowning and make it more accessible is 45-year-old Minnesotan Gregory Parks, who goes by his real name instead of a moniker when performing. Parks has done shows around the globe, performs locally, and both teaches classes and takes them himself to stay fresh. His dream of becoming a clown was born at the age of nine while reading the cover article in the September 1982 National Geographic World (now National Geographic Kids) devoted to the art of clowning.

Photo of Greg Parks

Gregory Parks. Photo by Kelly Gritzmacher

“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, the most amazing thing that it existed, and decided then to go to clown college and become a professional clown,” said Parks when we chatted at Spyhouse Coffee in Northeast Minneapolis. He auditioned for Ringling’s clown college three times while it was still open but never succeeded in being granted admission; instead he attended one- to two-week intensive workshops and trained in sketch comedy, improv, pantomime, and juggling. He certainly juggles his days as well: in addition to clowning, he also acts with various groups, works for the Children’s Theatre Company and the Science Museum of Minnesota, and does work with kids with special needs using various forms of art (including dance, drawing, and improv) to help them communicate and improve their self-confidence.

Most “hometown” clowns, as opposed to large-scale professional or circus clowns, rely primarily on word of mouth to build their reputations. While a well-known professional or circus clown may be automatically recognizable from advertisement or billing in a show, according to Parks, “hometown clowns get their reputation by having someone say, ‘Oh man, that guy was great at the company party or that friend’s kid’s birthday party. I should hire him for this thing I’m doing.’” A large majority of a clown’s work is derived that way instead of by instantaneous name recognition. They build their brand based on it and are not shy about asking people to recommend them—the age-old joke of a performer stating they also do weddings and bar mitzvas is not too far off the mark. While the US may be fading away from clowns, Parks notes that Latin America is more culturally open about clowning (the New York Times noted similar trends elsewhere around the world), and it can be lucrative. He does say the US is slowly opening the door to show a more diverse clowning community; there are not that many clowns who are persons of color in the US, but there are clowns in almost every country, so it stands to reason that US clowns may eventually have a broader racial demographic.

Parks, who himself is African American, is proud of who he is as a person of color and as a clown. As mentioned, he uses his real name while clowning; he also rarely uses greasepaint, and when he does he goes for a color close to his skin tone rather than white. He feels that the use of greasepaint and pancake makeup is not as necessary as it once was; it was designed for low-light stages, tents, and black-and-white television, and most of these are no longer factors. Clowning is more than the makeup and clothes, he says: it “allows for a fun representation of true self and self-expression,” and the evolution of clowning is reflecting that even though there are still those who are traditionalists. Parks recalled one of the few hometown jobs he did last fall, when he was invited to a local YWCA daycare to entertain the kids. Many of them had never in their lives seen a real clown, some hadn’t even seen one on television, and most had never even considered an African American clown. He brought a light where there wasn’t one and showed the kids an art form that has been neglected in a new and accessible way.

When I asked him about the reactions he gets as a clown of color, he said, “If you are in the public eye you can’t help being a role model, and I do what I can to show that you can be whatever you want to be.” With regards to being a role model for African American kids wanting to be clowns, he thoughtfully added, “If a man teaches and even mentors a young woman in a particular career path and says emphatically she can be whatever she wants, it isn’t going to have the same impact as another woman saying it and mentoring her. It is one thing to be told you can achieve anything, but if someone who is like you says it and shows you it’s possible, the impact is a thousand times greater.” He gets a lot of positive feedback from both other people of color and white people, other clowns and the public, and wants to see more and encourage a more diverse clowning community. Representation is an important step in that journey. As for the rise of fear and scary clowns, Parks is serious about “more information and education about clowning because it is essential to reducing fear. Clowning is about brightening someone’s day but also respecting the phobias and sensitivities others have about clowns.”

That’s Our Show, Folks

There is a rich and storied history in clowning, and that history is evolving. From the Moscow Circus to the local Shriners, there are clowns almost everywhere, and they love what they do. There is a strong balance of showing one’s true self and an exaggerated self-expression at work that is amazing. With each clown, there is an individuality that bridges across all races, religions, genders, and sexualities. This art is about sharing the love and joy and laughter with the world and, for some, the scares.

But the creepy evil clowns are a subset of a subset within the clowning community, more akin to cosplay than to actual true clowning. Where clowns take their love of performing and bringing joy to others, even Puddles of Puddles Pity Party manages to bring joy as a sad clown—the “creepy clowns” are often doing it for self-gratification or to represent their favorite scary clown, and that is an entirely different can of spring snakes. With circuses closing down and few positive representations of clowns in media, one might worry it is only a matter of time before true clowning dies as an art form. But for those of you who aren’t afraid of clowns, hire a local clown for your next event, or check out the Osman Shrine Circus April 5 through April 8, 2018, at the Minnesota State Fair Coliseum.

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