I Love You, Clown

by Melvin Leavitt

Associate Editor

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    When it comes to service, these young men aren’t just clowning around.

    It’s a giggle, a chortle, a wonderment of clowns. The large classroom in the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children is warm with children and bright with laughter. Clowns blossom here and there in their rainbow wigs and giant smiles. Reflected double in the large eyes of each child, they glow with an unearthly light.

    The children have already laughed and shouted through exploding balloons and pin the tail on the clown (with the biggest, sharpest pin in the world). Now it’s time for clown bowling. The clowns form themselves into a wedge. A nurse is called on to bowl. She takes a large ball from among the hospital toys and sends it flying at them. It looks like a sure strike. But clowns jump and lean as the ball whistles harmlessly through them. Now a little girl has the ball. Sitting in her wheelchair, she pushes it at them as hard as she can, but it dribbles weakly off her lap and barely reaches the clown pins. The little bowler sighs, underestimating clown magic. As the ball gently nudges the foremost clown he flies backwards as if struck by a locomotive, knocking down a second clown who ricochets into a third. The whole clown wedge explodes like a grenade. Strike! The children cheer. The nurse hints at a fix but is shouted down. When clowns are present, children always win.

    With this wild bunch of clowns, it’s one crazy thing after another. The children shriek and giggle and clap their hands at each new outbreak of silliness. Even the teenage patients who are trying hard not to be sucked in cannot help smiling. For a few moments at least, no one is thinking about operations or needles or pain.

    When the official performance ends, the clowns come down and move among the patients, making balloon animals and objects—dogs, cats, swords, giraffes, airplanes. They’ll try anything the kids request, and even the failures are good fun. They also draw clown stars on the children’s faces. Before each star is drawn, the child must raise his hand and make a solemn vow that he will not wash it off until forced to do so by a nurse.

    All too soon the good times must end. The fun-loving nurses who have laughed and cheered right along with their patients begin taking them away for medical treatment. The children invent delaying tactics, stretching out the moment as long as they can. One little girl hugs a clown tight for a moment, then looks into his eyes. “I love you, clown,” she says.

    The clowns are as high as kites. They keep their costumes and their faces on as they leave the hospital. It’s 14 degrees below zero here in Spokane, Washington, but to them it feels like spring.

    Passersby stare at them in wonder. Clowns!

    The clowns pile into two cars and drive off to a well-earned hamburger. Motorists along the way, especially little ones, gape in wonder as they see the two carfuls of smiling and waving clowns. At several stoplights clowns spill out onto the snowy road and race around in a Chinese fire drill.

    At the hamburger joint, children at other tables (including 40- and 50-year-old children) giggle and goggle as real clowns eat mortal food.

    The hamburger munchers react to the unexpected clowns much as they might respond to a stray unicorn. There’s a double take, then a prodding of nearby ribs, a subtle jabbing of thumbs. “Look, a clown!” “Don’t stare!”

    As the clowns eat they share experiences from their hospital performance. They have made many such visits. Hospitals and clowns seem to go together. After all, if laughter is the best medicine, these guys are physicians. They can cure sadness with smiles, tears with giggles. If you’re suffering a mirth defect, they’re the specialists to visit. They’re crazy. They’re magic. They’re clowns.

    They’re the young men of Explorer Post 207 of the Riverside Ward, Colville Washington Stake.

    Clown Post 207 was born when the ward youth planned a visit to the Shriners Hospital. The explorers decided to present a clown skit as their part on the program. Their adviser, Ron Buchanan, enlisted the help of his neighbor Howard Pressy, who just happened to be a well-known professional clown. With Howard’s help the post prepared an act and presented it at the hospital. Brother Buchanan (alias Classy Clown) recalls, “It gave us all a new perspective. Those young patients weren’t worried about the dance next Saturday. They were worried about whether they were ever going to be able to walk! You can’t be the same after that experience. You come out of there changed.

    “We talked afterward about the words of King Benjamin, ‘when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God’ (Mosiah 2:17). We decided to keep right on clowning. We would serve through laughter.”

    They worked hard to learn their art. They spent hours perfecting their faces and costumes. They practiced skits and learned to make balloon animals. Then they went out and used their talents to bless the lives of children in hospitals, orphanages, parades, and through worthwhile causes such as Special Olympics, Toys for Tots, and the Ronald McDonald House. Each of the young men developed some special talent. Painter (Donald Anderson) could fall and catch himself only inches from the ground. Jasper (Karl Watts) became spokesman for the group. Giggles (Aaron Griffith) developed a great Charlie Chaplin walk.

    Meanwhile, Howard (also known as Bungles) helped them understand what it meant to be a clown. He emphasized right from the start that being a clown is very serious business.

    “Anybody can paint his face and put on a silly looking costume, but that does not make you a clown. When a real clown puts on his makeup and his costume, he also assumes certain character traits which he has a moral obligation to uphold. A good clown doesn’t smoke, drink, or use profanity at all in costume. It just isn’t done. He doesn’t pay any attention to whether a child is black, green, yellow, or purple. He treats them all the same.

    “He doesn’t blow the image, no matter what happens. If a child walks up and kicks you, you still love that kid—because you’re a clown.”

    As the fame of the clowns spread, the younger boys in the ward began looking forward to their 16th birthdays. For their part, the priests had their eyes on the upcoming crop of clowns. By the time Tony Romish and Bryan McGinty came of age, they had names waiting for them. Tony became Digger, and Bryan was Dr. Funnybones. They practiced hard and soon were full-fledged clowns.

    Not content with merely being very good, the post gets together every Wednesday to practice their routines and become even better.

    In the ward cultural hall balloons squeak as several clowns practice making balloon animals under Howard’s guidance. Others work on a skit. Brother Buchanan’s voice is heard. “Remember to work the crowd. Don’t just stand around. Work the crowd. Get them involved!”

    Howard is demonstrating an airplane. Dr. Funnybones, experimenting, suddenly discovers that he has created a monkey hanging from a branch. Several other clowns stop to look. “How did you do that?”

    Dr. Funnybones looks at his creation in awe. “I have absolutely no idea.” There is a camaraderie here, a palpable warmth and love, but there is also a serious sense of taking care of business. The Explorers have often prayed that they can make a difference in the lives of those they clown for. Now they are working hard to become part of the answer to their own prayers.

    Howard and Ron have always emphasized to the members of the post that when they put on their clown outfits and makeup, they are themselves no longer. They can no longer allow their own personal fears and inhibitions to keep them from doing their duty as clowns. “When you’re in costume you have no identity of your own. You’re not yourself; you’re a clown. And you owe it to the people to make them happy.”

    The Explorers soon realized that they could do things as clowns, good things, that it was hard to do as themselves.

    “When I get up there on stage,” Don says, “I’m no longer Donald Anderson. I’m Painter. I love being Painter because he’s a nicer person than Donald. Painter loves kids. Donald doesn’t. Painter can accomplish things that Donald can’t. But the wonderful thing is that much of Painter is leaking over to Donald. Donald is becoming more like Painter every day.

    “I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I like people more because of Painter’s influence. I’m definitely going on a mission. I used to wonder about that, but I see that Painter helps people a lot, and I want to be able to do that as Donald Anderson too.”

    All of Painter’s wonderful qualities are, of course, really Don’s own. They have merely been waiting for a good excuse to come out and shine.

    In addition to personal growth, the clowns have been rewarded for their hard work with a treasure house of wonderful memories. “The first time we went into Shriners, we were all scared to death. We weren’t sure how we were going to handle working with crippled children. But they really responded, and it was a choice experience. When we finished we asked the nurse if there were any children who hadn’t been able to come.

    “She took us to the room of a boy who had literally had his face ripped off in a car wreck. It looked like his face had been run through a hamburger grinder. He was so self-conscious that he wouldn’t come out of his room.

    “So we took it very carefully. We walked in and said ‘Hi, we missed you. We wanted to give you a special balloon.’ At first he was really timid. But then he just started opening up. And I was so proud of the clowns. They really came on strong. They didn’t look away from him. They looked right at him and let him know that they cared about him.

    “By the time they were finished, that boy was talking. He knew that he was somebody, and that there were four clowns in that room who cared about him. He told us about his upcoming surgery, and we all wished him the best. It was one of the most giving experiences of our lives.”

    Once at a Special Olympics baseball game, they adopted a team that was losing by an impossible margin. The team members had given up—until they found themselves with a real clown cheer-leading squad. “We’d find out the name of the guy up to bat and then we’d start yelling, ‘Come on, Charlie, you can do it. Come on, Fred!’ In that one inning they more than doubled their score. They still lost, because it was the last inning, but when they left there they were so excited that they were just in heaven.”

    Sometimes it can take so little to make a difference, but to a clown that little is not optional—it is a duty. For example, at one hospital there were two Spanish-speaking boys in the audience. They were feeling a little left out of all the English jokes. The clowns pooled their meager knowledge of Spanish and started some bilingual clowning. The result? “Those boys just came alive.”

    There are funny moments too. Jasper tells of the time a little boy beckoned for him to lean over and then pulled off his big red clown nose.

    Working with those less fortunate than themselves has given the clowns a sensitivity and love for all of God’s children. Tony Romish reports, “As a clown, you want to help other people who are different from you. We all seem to divide ourselves into different groups—the able-bodied and the handicapped, black and white, young and old, rich and poor. As clowns we feel close to everybody. We feel less separate. At school people often tease those who are mentally or physically handicapped. Before, I’d just walk on past, but now I can’t. I have to stop and defend whoever is being hurt.”

    One of the secrets of the clowns’ success is Brother Buchanan. He loves these young men with all his heart. He sacrifices many Saturdays and week nights for them, and considers it no sacrifice. “They’re very very special to me,” he says. “They’re just great kids. They give of themselves continually. They’re my second family.”

    For their part, the priests love him right back. “Ron always seems to have time for us no matter what,” Aaron says. “We know that he loves us. He doesn’t seem like it’s just his duty. If we have a problem, we can go to him. He really cares.”

    All of the clowns have a deep admiration for Howard also. He is not a member of the Church, but he is a fine Christian gentleman, and a top-rate clown. You can’t say anything nicer about somebody than that.

    Although the clown post is officially an Explorer activity, the young men also regard their clowning as a form of priesthood service. The lessons learned in clowning often come up in quorum discussions. “Hardly a Sunday goes by that we don’t talk about the similarities between clowning and the responsibilities the priesthood gives us toward others—working with people, helping people, blessing people.”

    Another point often made is that neither virtue nor clowning can be achieved through cosmetics. A painted face doesn’t make a clown any more than a white shirt and tie make a Latter-day Saint. It is the performance that matters.

    Clowning is a uniquely selfless form of entertainment. The clown receives applause, but the people applauding him don’t know who he is. They know his clown name, but they will never know his real name. There is no personal fame—only the wonderful feeling of making people happy.

    But the love these clowns feel for the children they serve is far sweeter than any fame. Several of them have left their sickbeds to perform rather than miss that sweetness.

    And clowning when you’re sick is no joke, because it’s darn hard work. On the other hand, it may be the funnest kind of service ever invented. “We were traveling to the Special Olympics,” Ron remembers, “and I mentioned to one of the boys that it was fun doing service projects. He got a funny look on his face and said, ‘This is service, isn’t it? I’m having so much fun that I never stop to think about it.’”

    Fun and service. Service and fun. And brotherhood and love and the sweet, healing joy of pure laughter. Post 207 specializes in lifting hearts, and you can’t lift hearts without lifting yourself. What can you say about young men like this? They’re kind, giving, loving, hard-working, honest, dedicated, and successful. In short, they’re a bunch of real clowns.

    Organizing a Clown Post

    1. Ask a local clown or your local Clowns of America group for help.

    2. Before performing in public, develop your faces, costumes, and skits to the point where you feel confident. You will be able to find books with clown skits in a local library or bookstore.

    3. Learn how to “work” the crowd so they become involved.

    4. Be sure that all your skits are safe and not frightening for small children.

    5. Develop one-on-one tricks for working with people when not on stage. Your repertoire as a clown can include such skills as magic, ventriloquism, and juggling.

    6. Develop an effective post committee to help with the organization. When the word gets out about your clown post, you’ll have more performances than you can handle.

    7. To build the confidence of your post, perform mainly for children at first. Teenagers are a tough audience.

    Photography by Laird Roberts

    Face and costumes are a clown’s signature and must be chosen carefully to match facial structure and to express personality. Most clowns keep changing both their outfit and their makeup for several years until they feel totally comfortable. The Explorers don’t have to purchase expensive costumes. They are creative enough to pull things together from their own wardrobes. Add some carefully applied grease paint, and it’s on with the show.