This is part of a series of articles to combat coulrophobia (the fear of clowns), educate the uninformed public about the consequences of masquerading as “scary clowns”, and defend #REALCLOWN. CLICK HERE to read the other articles to help combat the “creepy clown” stereotype.
Exploring the Sub-Culture of Clowns
I had a unique opportunity last year. I got to see my world through the eyes of a non-clown. I have been immersed in clowning since I was 18. Now I am 51 and it is hard to remember what it was like to think in a non-clown way. My daughter Julia was in a creative writing class and given an unusual subject for a term paper. She needed to find a subculture she had no connection to and write a term paper after observing this sub-culture. She picked people learning English as a second language. However she had a classmate who was struggling to find a topic and was afraid of clowns. Would I let her use clowns as her topic for her ethnography? You bet!
Below you will find a high school girl’s impression of clowns. I think it is fascinating to know what the other side thinks of us! I am also very proud of our “sub-culture”. Keep in mind, I did not get this paper professionally proof-read for content. There are a couple of misrepresentations of information on clowning. Just keep in mind this is a high school paper, not a college thesis! I think she did a great job! Thank you, Maggie!
CIS Writing Block 2
21 March, 2013
Ethnography of the clown sub-culture
Center stage presents a fair amount of discomfort for me. Behind the curtains, clad in black as a technician provides much more satisfaction for me. One of the actresses I work with gained most of her experience from clowning. The first show we worked together on during our sophomore year was Godspell. She was in her natural costume and makeup; a clown. I use to watch Julia put on her make-up, but would always leave. Uncomfortable, I would unnecessarily go check all the props once more. I always had a hard time understanding why she loved clowning and putting on her make-up so much.
Most of my views come from what the media portrays. These views come from movies like It, and the idea that every clown is going to squirt people in the face with water. I’m one of those people who understand when their views on something are stereotypical and wrong, yet can’t help thinking them anyways; I know I have many false views. I don’t enjoy being wrong about things, so I want to learn more about clowns. I’m taking this opportunity to learn more about them, grow as a person, and to get over the stereotypes of clowns. Also, one morning at five to seven, I decided I wanted to run away and join the circus sometime as a Circus Tech. From what I hear, there are a fair amount clowns on a circus, so I feel that it is important to understand the clown subculture before I join the circus.
At the mention of clowns, pure, white faces with bloody, enlarged, red lips like Ronald McDonald comes to mind. I think of clown makeup as a mask: plastering an emotion to conceal what they’re feeling. I don’t like that I can’t see their real face. Factoring in the unusual taste in fashion, clowns are always dressed in ruffles and polka dots. I picture them all to have fake red noses and hot colored wigs. For the longest time, I thought they didn’t practice. I also never thought much of the cost of classes, costumes, or make-up.
My clown-friend, and broker, Julia, comes from a clowning family. Her mom clowned for many years, and on Tuesday nights she teaches an introduction to clown class out of her costume shop. I know clowning can be a career or a hobby, so I am expecting middle aged adults, older generation, and a smattering of children.
Clowns are ageless. They have been around since the fifth dynasty in Egypt, and they’re not going away anytime soon. However, it takes time and dedication to become a clown. Most clowns attend a clown camp, just like a solider would attend boot camp before heading overseas, to prepare them for what they will experience. This summer in Minnesota there is a major clown camp set up to help clowns. One of them is in my old neighborhood in Buffalo, Minnesota; Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp. This camp was started, and is still run, by my broker’s mom.
Other than clown camps, a clown can attend conventions, festivals, lectures, and classes given by more experienced clowns—experience is everything in this line of work. In Maple Lake, there is a clown class that is taught for six weeks by my broker’s mom. This isn’t nearly as intense as Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp, but it’s still a place to learn and grow. Along with this introduction course, she gives classes on costumes for clowns. It is one of her ways of giving back, along with it being her specialty.
Intro to Clowning Class
19 February 2013 6:25p.m.-8:30p.m.
When I entered the Maple Lake Costume Shop, I was reminded of a creaky old antique shop. It wasn’t at all a major, modern store with florescent, bright lights and huge displays—similar to the ones I was used to at Walgreens where I work. Filling the room were round racks bulging with costumes for St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, and every other occasion. This showed me the diversity of a clowning career. Most clowns do clown as a hobby and, in addition, have a successful career where they actually make their living. In the back of the store, past the four dressing rooms and cash register, are two ladies chatting; one old enough to be my mom, the other old enough to be my grandma. Later, after everyone arrived, there were three or four generations represented—ages ranging from nine to sixty-four. With this evidence, it became clea r clowning was for every age.
One spotted me. I introduced myself and the mother one introduced herself as Tricia and the older one as Ilean. Tricia is a very experienced, successful clown.She was accepted into Ringling Brothers and Company Clowning School and stayed with them on the circus for three seasons (three years, one and a half shows). Tricia Manuel then left them to work at Disney’s Circus Fantasy where she dubbed herself Priscilla Mooseburger. Leaving Disney, she designed a course at the University of Wisconsin for Women in Clowning. Later, she started her own clown school and costume company. They are both the longest running in their respective category. After 33 years of clowning, she can wholeheartedly say; “The best thing is the unconditional love. It’s the unconditional love from the audience, the acceptance from the other clowns. If you’re hurting, you will rec eive e-mails, phone calls, and now with Facebook, comfort from all over the world. If one is hurting, we all step up. We’re a family.” After knowing her extensive work in the clowning community, and with what all the other clowns have said in later interviews, I know it’s true. Any clown would agree.
Looking at her watch, Tricia says “Well, its 6:30 and you know how I am. Why don’t we start?” From that saying and from her e-mail stating: “We put on our makeup at 6:30 sharp,” I found out how punctual Tricia likes to be. Everybody else who showed up late wasn’t scolded or punished, which showed me that they were compassionate and understanding. They were very welcoming and encouraged me to participate and put on makeup. I could feel the unconditional love and acceptance that Tricia was talking about; it was quite an amazing experience.
Tricia explained how clowns always avoid being scary. They don’t use make-up as a mask, but rather a tool to convey emotion over long distances. On the circus, they want people to see the emotion they are expressing, even if they are really far away in the “Nose Bleed Sections”. By making a variety of expressions, they find the natural muscle structure of their face to outline and make their clown face. They kept working with their clown face, and asking each other if it would work to have their eyebrows higher, or if they could get away with eyelashes. Through this hour of make-up, it became clear that they want to perfect their “tools”.
Another tool they worked on was their clown character. This was done by finding their best and worse traits that make up their personality. In essence, a clown character is an amplified version of the clown’s personality. It’s stretched and played with as they discover who they truly are. I found this ironic, as every day we put on make-up or a mask to deny ourselves, yet we don’t see this as scary. Yet, clowns who are truly themselves are seen as scary and intimidating. Due to the media, clowns can even be portrayed as emotionless perverts who are hiding what they don’t feel. Truthfully, they are expressing their emotions in an exaggerated way—quite far from hiding them. Dose this simply mean that as a society, we fear ourselves? And that clowns are truly the brave ones?
While practicing putting on make-up, the seven “First of May’s”—a traditional name for a newbie clown since circus contracts generally start in May—chattered about upcoming clown events, makeup, and offered each other their opinions. They all brought their own make-up, but if someone forgot something, somebody would offer some of theirs. Wipes, clown white make-up, powder socks, and cotton wedges were passed around as needed.
One of their rituals was once they had all their make-up on; they had to “set” it. Their make-up will always be wet until they put baby powder on their face. Using a sock filled with powder, they would “powder” their face by patting their face with the sock. Then, using a soft brush, they would sweep off the extra powder into a large, brown Rubbermaid garbage can. By doing this, the make-up is now “dry”. They could swim in it and it wouldn’t come off. Thankfully though, Johnson and Johnson (a family company) make baby shampoo that works wonders when used to take of clown make-up.
About halfway through putting on make-up, Tricia got a phone call from her son DJ, who is out living his dream on Ringling Brothers and Company Circus. I was surprised that she answered her phone even though the class was currently being self-sustained. Another surprise was all of the clowns were okay with this. Tricia even said, “Oh, I’m teaching a clown class. Why don’t we all say hi?” Everybody in the class said “Hi, DJ!” even though nobody in that class had ever met him. They were all still super excited to say hi to him. This showed me how family-involved the class was. Nobody thought another thing when Julia stopped by to say hey for a second as the class was getting started. Some had even seen one of the last plays she was in and complimented her on her success. Family was family to them, even if they had just met.
After makeup, everybody made a team effort to put the tables and chairs awayto make room for the planned movement lesson. Everybody was very eager to play the warm up games. When Tricia would do something, everybody would copy her. When she said something, everybody listened. There were some younger children, but even they listened. This showed me how everybody held Tricia in high regards.
When Tricia was on the circus, she played in a real clown band. When she was in high school, she was involved in almost every music group, so she took up trumpet in the circus clown band. After she left the circus, she missed having a band to belong to. “One day I thought to myself; ‘Why can’t clowns have their own band?’ And so I came up with the idea of a clown band.” Tricia explained to everyone. While at her camp, every Mooseburger Clown makes their own Kazoo Horn out of a kazoo, funnel, and sometimes even a garden hose as an extension between the two pieces. It became tradition a while ago that at the end of camp all 90 something clowns would play their Kazoo Horn in the Clown Band. All of the First of May’s had heard about this and wanted to be a part of the action. Being a part of the Clown Band seemed to be a really big deal&mdas h;even if everyone got to participate. To me, it seemed to be like getting a part in the upcoming theatre production. It was a really exciting time. With having seen the last clown show being put on by the local clown club over the last weekend, they wanted to make their own Kazoo Horn. So next on the agenda, they made their own Kazoo Horns for the next performance. Taking kazoos and funnels, they taped them together and decorated them with stickers and pipe cleaners.
The Clown Band, being their own subculture, had their own ritual on how they played. Tricia began to explain the basics, “Now, when I put my arms up in the air, that’s your cue to put the Kazoo [Horn] in your mouth. Then I’m going to sing the first three notes and then count to three. This way we all know the tempo and the key is—the ‘key of me’ that is. That’s what I like to say at the least. Then we start to play.” They had a list of songs to choose from including: You Are My Sunshine, I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover, It’s a Small World After All, Bingo, When the Clowns Go Marching In, and Marry Had a Little Lamb.
All of this reminded me of my experiences in a music group. I had never thought that at a clown event I would be making connections back to my orchestra class. There was a lot in common though. When my conductor would put his arms up, everybody would bring their instruments up into playing position. I’ve had conductors count and sing the piece before, but never in that fashion—let alone at a show.
From my first observation, I learned a lot about the basics of clowning. I had a much better understanding of the clowning experience. However, there were only beginner clowns at the class. I wanted to talk to more experienced clowns, so that Saturday I went back and attended Tricia’s costume class.
Second Observation—Costume Class
2nd March 2013 10:45a.m.-12:30p.m.
Upon entering the costume shop during regular hours, I was surprised to see so many people. The last time I was there, I was there after hours. It was a surprise, but I was happy to see that the store had business. There wasn’t a flock of 50 scavenging the racks for the perfect costume, but there was a costume-shop boy helping a mother and her daughter find what they were looking for. Six clowns in full costume and make-up along with Tricia were chatting in the back of the shop. There was a ritual of classes being held in the back part of the shop. I’m assuming this was due to the fact that there was more space. Even when I was observing the Intro Class, I noticed that Tricia likes space to move around. “Clowns have to make things big,” she had said, thus resulting in lots of space so that the students’ actions can be made big without breaking something.
When Tricia saw me she waved me over and had me introduce myself and why I was there—as she always has me do. About half way through stating my name, I received an ambush from my broker, Julia—in the combination of a jump, hug, and “Hi! How are you?” After both of our giggling, fragmented explanation on what we were trying to accomplish, the clowns started in on their traditional mock questions: “This is a what? An Ethnography? What’s that?”; “That’s a big word.”; “It sure is!”; “Well, it sure makes you sound smart!” This showed me how they stayed in character anytime they were in their costume. “We normally don’t dress like this, but we just came from an event. So we’re still in costume!” A clown named Bonehead explained to me.
Bonehead is clown of 10 years. “Well, I was almost 50 and needed a mid-life crisis. But I didn’t want a new car or trade-in wives, so my friends signed me up for Mooseburger camp. I’ve been clowning ever since.” In his real life, he is agastroenterologist, “There’s too much seriousness in this world. Clowning is a break from it all.” Aside from his medical work, he belongs to the Clowns Across the River Clown Club. In the summer, he spends 3 weeks in India clowning doing two shows a day, every day.
The class still had 15 minutes before it had to start. Ilean showed up and seeing that I had my notebook, she giddily held up her own notebook with a smile. We both explained to Bobo that we were new clowns and wanted to work on our costumes. She eagerly started pointing out fun “clown bits” of her costume. Clown bits are similar to Clown Logic; it’s so illogical, it’s logical. It also proves the clowns really do make anything from everything. “The surprise of how an ordinary objet is used in unusual ways is part of the magic of being a clown,” Tricia had explained to the First of Mays during the last clown class. Bobo proved by this showing us her safety-pins in a horizontal line on her “Pin-Striped Suit”. It was a very clever touch to her costume; logical in an illogical way. From her enthusiasm and Bonehead’s i nterjection, I could easily see how much clowns loved to help each other out.
Tricia started the class and went over all of the need-to-knows of a clown costume. She emphasized—once more—how it wasn’t the costume that scared people; it was the aggression. It was beginning to become a trend that clowns are only putting on make-up and losing the costume to avoid scaring kids. Almost every clown in the room instantly agreed that those who followed the trend weren’t real clowns—they were just a guy in make-up. Their resolve on a “true clown” really showed me their passion for being the best possible good clown. Fighting the media, they always did their best to leave a good impression on everyone they met. This was done for two reasons: to change people’s minds about clowns, and to recruit. Also, they wanted to stick to the traditional methods to keep clowning in its true form. “It’s a dying art . There is a lot of selflessness, time, and money involved, and it’s dying out.”
The class had taken many twists and turns from the planned course, but Tricia took everything in stride. Nothing seemed to faze her or her students. If she had to run and go get something, one of the clowns would shout; “Now just talk amongst yourselves!” One of the clowns, Susan, went to check out a hat on one of these breaks. “Oops! I’m shopping. I’m sorry,” she said sitting down when Tricia came back.
Susan is a veteran, and after she retired, she joined the reserves. “For a while, there were so many funerals, and as a veteran I worked them. I was having a hard time finding the happy in life. One morning I woke up said to my husband, ‘I want to be a clown.’ We had been talking that night about how sad it was becoming and that afternoon, he called me saying he found a website and a clown group.” They had been clowning together for almost 10 years with Clowns Across the River. “Two years ago though, my husband passed and I had to put her [clown costume/character] away. Just recently, I found her in the closet and decided to rediscover her again.” Since then, she has been able to heal from the hurt of losing her husband.
The day before St. Patrick’s Day, I had my first opportunity to experience clowning first hand. Using every bit of knowledge that I had gained through my observations, I made it through the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. But everything they had told me about was true.
Clowns are incredible, accepting, and welcoming and so is the audience. Though there is this fear of clowns, “Everybody loves a clown,” just as Tricia had said. There was a point in the parade where I was separated from my group and I was all alone. I was walking the parade route trying to find them and people would call out “Clown! Clown! Come here! Clown! Hey, Clown!” Panicking, I did what I remembered being told, “Give them a story. If you believe it, then they’ll believe it.” Showing them I was lost, I jumped up holding my hand to shield my eyes and looking frantically around. I had a “license to play”, and the people picked up on what I was doing and started shouting “She’s lost! She’s looking for the others!” There became more of an understanding bond between the crowd and me. After t hat moment, I understood what Julia meant with; “Clowning is like nothing else. It’s amazing when you connect with the audience.” After showing them that I was lost, some even helped me out and pointed me in the direction of the others.
Even behind the scenes, I could feel a connection between all of the clowns. Just like in the Intro Class, all of the clowns helped each other. Julia wasn’t clowning that day, but she still showed up to decorate my face and dress me up. Another First of May showed up right as she was finishing up with me. Jules didn’t hesitate to help her out with her make-up either, even though she didn’t know this clown.
The acceptance between the clowns was incredible and probably one of the most important take-away from clowning. Overall, in this society, we too often aren’t welcoming. Hiding behind our own mask, we forego letting others in and opening ourselves up to them. Clowns let go and extend their personality’s in their clown characters to enhance other people’s lives. “We do it for the joy, not the money,” one clown told me.
Money was a factor I never considered in clowning. It is an expensive hobby. The Intro Class was 80 dollars for six weeks—which is reasonable—every jar of make-up is 2-9 dollars (and a clown needs several colors), and the average professional costume can cost up to 200-300 dollars. Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp is almost 900 dollars for the week. It includes lodging meals, education and entertainment, but clowning is not cheap by any means. “That’s why a lot of people stop clowning; it’s hard to afford; it’s the easiest thing to cut. When the economy gets tough, people cut entertainment first,” Julia said from experience.
But there are a few who persist, and I think there is something worth learning from them. I can be frugal, but they have shown me a way of doing an expensive hobby with no regrets and cheap alternatives. They selflessly spend money to improve their clown costume so they can bring smiles to other people.
Not every clown needs an elaborate costume to be an Ambassador of Joy. According to Julia—a clown of 12 years, “You can make somebody laugh, and you don’t need any props… [a real clown] doesn’t need to hide behind props…You can tell somebody is a real clown. There’s more to clowning then putting on a red nose and being able to face paint.”
That was something else I realized right away. The fact that there are clown classes and schools show that there is a lot to learn about clowning. Truly, when I was out on the parade route alone, I drew on every little thing that Tricia had said in the Intro Class. If I hadn’t been observing and taking notes, I would’ve cried because I wouldn’t have known what to do.
There is so much more to clowning than I could ever learn and write about. There are books, classes, and conventions to help clowns grow and learn. In this past month of clown exploration, I’ve just begun to count the buttons on a clown costume; there is much more to learn.
I have, however, begun to understand their importance on society. They truly are ambassadors of Joy. They work parades and do shows in nursing homes to bring a little joy into people’s lives. From experience Julia explains that, “It’s not about you. It’s about that one kid in the parade who probably had the worst morning ever. It’s about that kid, not you.”
The parade she mentions in her paper is the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Maple Lake, Minnesota. Here is a photo we took of all our clowns and Irish Washer Women on the float, before we took off down the parade route!
Here are more articles I wrote about the topic of “Creepy clowns”. Please share these with your fellow clowns, and with those who think dressing up as a clown to scare people is funny:
- Stopping Scary Clowns – Part 1
- Stopping Scary Clowns – Part 2
- It is Coulrophobia? Or is it bullying?
- Responding to “You might scare kids”
- Clowns are gifts, not creeps
- Great come-backs for “I hate clowns”
- Why creepy clowns are wrong, wrong, wrong
- She faced her fear of clowns!