April 15, 2007

On Being a Clown

By: Bill Goodwin

It’s 10 p.m., and there’s a light rain. I’m standing in a Walgreens parking lot near downtown Los Angeles, keeping a couple of homeless guys company. A battered Datsun held together by bungee cords and tarp wheezes into the lot, stopping by my car trunk. Mike pops out.

“Hey man, how you doing? Got your stuff?”

As he burrows into the remains of his vehicle, I pull three Hefty bags out of the trunk. He swaps me for another trio, and I hand him a wad of twenties and fifties, around seven hundred dollars.

He splits the cash, gives me a stack. We shake hands.

“All right man. Coo, coo. See you ’round, buddy.”

As I’m driving away, I hear a horn at the light. Mike yells out his window,“Wait up, man, you got an Elmo, too!”

Welcome to the great clown underground.

The Craigslist posting seemed straightforward enough:

Have fun entertaining children and making $35/40 hour! You need:

– a valid Driver’s license

– access to a car

– must commit 14 days in advance

– cell phone

– sense of humor

I didn’t have a car, but I could probably borrow one on weekends. Fourteen-day commitment? I had a better idea of where I wanted to be in 14 years, but for forty bucks an hour, I could fake it. Cell phone? Check. Sense of humor? I’m in.

I wasn’t without reservations. I had graduated from the University of Southern California in May with a degree in classics and a lot of course credit in history and international relations. Come fall, I’d be studying political philosophy in Claremont, an intellectually appealing, if rather impractical, discipline. Pride informed me this job was beneath me.

But, as Benjamin Franklin once wrote, describing an encounter with Cotton Mather, sometimes you ought not walk with your head held high: He said hastily, “Stoop! Stoop!” I did not understand him, till I felt my head hit against the beam. He was a man that never missed any occasion of giving instruction, and upon this he said to me, “You are young, and have the world before you; stoop as you go through it, and you will miss many hard thumps.”

I, too, decided to stoop.

The email reply to my Craigslist inquiry, no name attached, sent me to the 10th floor of an office building in Long Beach, for an “interview process.” Upon arrival, it looked like everyone and their mother had responded to the ad. Hell, everyone and their grandmother.
Young people, old people, short, tall, poor, even rich.

A girl wearing sunglasses the size of dinner plates drove up in a BMW just as I got out of my car in the parking lot. Me, I had discovered a hole in the armpit of my polo shirt on my way in. Fist-pumping would have to be avoided.

New arrivals were ushered into a room with a long conference table. So far, so good. A woman — whom we’d never see again — popped her head in and told us to write down our contact information. They were “out of applications,” so we were instructed to scrounge up some paper. One of the other applicants, who must have been writing the Great American Novel, had with him several hundred sheets of paper. “Don’t forget your Social Security number,” she called over her shoulder. Uh huh. Bill Goodwin wasn’t born yesterday. I had no intention of making the front page as victim No. 73 of the soon-to-be-infamous “Identity Theft Clown Ring.” I gave them a fake. And no address. And I changed my last name. Slightly.

As fast as people arrived, they left, pulled into a separate interviewing room in threes. The queue moved with record speed, and in minutes, I was up.

“Brian,” the interviewer, sat across from us, the applicants. To my left sat a guy with a wormy goatee, smelling of mildew. To my right was a woman born when Eisenhower was a general. She was first in the firing line.

“What skills do you have to be a children’s entertainer?” Brian asked her. “And, on a scale from one to ten, how well do you think you fit this job?”

She was a hard worker (Starbucks for the past decade), loved children, and gave herself a ten. For experience, she had five grandchildren she loved playing with. Brian managed to repeat the ad’s four questions and say, “thank you,” before I could blink. Mold Man
with the goatee was next.

“Well, I was working on the docks, but I got laid off a year ago, and I’ve just been doing, you know, little documentary films and stuff. And I can do a back flip. So, nine and a half.”

This man had twenty pounds on me and looked as physically fit as Sancho Panza. Brian had him out of the room even before I guffawed.

It was my turn. I gave myself a 6.5, saying my most successful comedic performances had been in front of college kids already three sheets to the wind. My favorite entertainments were The Pickwick Papers and the comedies of Aristophanes. But I could juggle, unicycle, and had grown up with eight siblings, so I could handle kids.

I, “Will Goodman,” got the job.

Entertainer training occurred in a different set of offices two weeks later. Otherwise the business was run out of Brian’s truck. In an hour and a half of training, we learned one magic trick, one joke, and how to make ten balloon animals. Six of them were identical: Careful application of Sharpie marker can make that doggie into a cat, tiger, fox, leopard, cheetah, or lion.

Less than inspiring, yes, but I was in good company. An old friend of mine was there. Mike and I went to high school together and had actually kept up over our college years, but obviously not well enough. Without each other’s knowledge, we had both answered the recurring Craigslist ad.

After training, over food from the In-N-Out, Michael revealed that “Chuckles” (another pseudonym, this time to protect them from me) was willing to employ us even without the shred of training we had just received. Overbooked, they’d called him in for a party the weekend before training — in Compton, no less, as Yellow Bird. The Yellow Bird costume is enormous, almost impossible to see out of, and hotter than a thermal vent.

The party was a “multi,” as in multi-character, so Michael wasn’t the center of attention. He ambled around the party, eventually trying his hand at face-painting. Face-painting while wearing Yellow Bird is like defusing a bomb using your feet. That exercise in futility came to a halt when a wannabe Spiderman smeared red grease paint on Yellow Bird’s chest, and a child tearfully asked, “Big Bird, why are you bleeding?” Michael chucked the face-painting and ended up doing the gangsta-dance known as cripwalking with the birthday boy, aged five, to Xzibit. On the way out, a crowd of Pacifico-swilling middle-aged men surrounded him and began to kick him in the tail-feathers, yelling “Gran Pollo! Gran Pollo!”

Yellow Bird, as you may have guessed, bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain other aviary character known as Big Bird. To keep the lawyers from Sesame Street at bay, Chuckles Entertainment emphasized his color rather than his size, a practice followed with all the characters: Bob the Builder was transformed into “Construction Dude,” Batman became “Bat Hero,” and Jack Sparrow was “Silly Pirate Man.”

Brian took it easy on me at first, giving me two gigs, playing “Spiderboy” and a clown, respectively. The parties were, however, 55 miles apart. That’s another thing I learned in a hurry: Chuckles will take any job you can drive to before the sun sets. I covered more than 90 miles on my first day. No worries. Brian covers the gas.

The first party was a dream: a classic birthday in the park, I had plenty of space to spread out the parachute and leap around while performing. The kids liked the magic routine, forgave my historical inaccuracies (“You mean the Hobgoblin right, Spiderman? The Green Goblin’s dead”), and waited patiently for their balloon animals. I wasn’t a smash hit, but the kids had a good time, and I got a $30 tip for only an hour’s work. Driving away, I couldn’t believe the ease of it all. I got so excited I practiced a few animals in traffic en route to the next party. Ah, the innocence of youth.

An hour and forty minutes later, my eyes were finally open or, more precisely, one of them was open. A couple feet from me, separated only by plastic mesh, a man wearing alligator-skin boots and a cowboy hat stared back. I’m not sure just what caught his attention: maybe the seething mass of children on top of me, the gross distortion of my face as it pressed deeper and deeper into the netting on the side of the moonbounce, or the prospect of witnessing a mob killing. I’m not sure.

It hadn’t begun this way. Billy the Clown had entered to cheers. The kids cracked up at the juggling. Billy’s magic created a sense of wonder and the kiddies wanted balloon animals so badly, I deputized some of the older ones to keep the crowd at bay.
In retrospect, there were some warning signs I might have heeded. The “Butts-Up” generation nailed me a couple times with extra juggling balls. The “magical coloring book” drew sneers from certain kids, though

I dismissed these as the complaints of Philistines. And perhaps it was telling that to avoid being overwhelmed by balloon-hungry kids, I had to have bouncers. Well, I actually said, “Who wants to be in charge of keeping everyone in line?” A pair of older boys with a vicious glint in their eye volunteered. But all this I disregarded, intoxicated by the chants for “Billy-the-clown, Billy-the-clown.” Then, as I prepared to leave, the fateful
cry went up.

“Billy the Clown, the jumper! You promised!”

They spoke the truth. At the height of balloon madness, even my bouncers could not keep the horde at bay, and I resorted to pledging to climb into the castle moonbounce, which sent half the kids to practice. What they were practicing, I didn’t know, but it kept them out of my hair.

“It’s all about the moonbounce,” Brian had said at our first training session. “You get in there, you jump around, kids love it, parents love it. You get big tips most of the time.”

For some reason, I trusted Brian.

I couldn’t tell how many kids were wrapped around my legs. My right hand clung desperately to my rainbow rats’ nest masquerading as a wig, while the left tried to retrieve the platter-sized shoe being ripped off my foot. Two kids were tugging at the ties on the neck of the suit, trying to throttle me. Something bit my shoulder. It felt like I was wrestling with a pack of spider monkeys, all pressing my head into a plastic waffle iron.

For a good thirty seconds, the kids and I had bounded about while I grimaced and made curious noises intended to entertain. The moonbounce seethed with little airborne bodies, and they were squirming through the opening two at a time. Just before I stepped on my own enormous foot, one of my bouncers fought his way in and shouted, “All right! GET HIM!”

I won’t say the next few minutes were an-out-of-body experience. There was too much in-body pain to make that claim. But it certainly was surreal. I stood motionless for half a second, as I witnessed the leaping masses around me transform into a swarm; then, we were off to the races. Billy the Clown sprinted along the rim of the jumper, hurdling fallen tykes, swatting at the hands grasping for my suit.

The bigger the shoes, the harder they fall. My toe clipped the netting as I was dodging a small phalanx of children, and I went down. For one horrible moment, it looked like Billy the Clown was going to squash a six-year-old. He rolled out of the way in a move worthy of Indiana Jones, and I face-planted into the base of the southwest turret.

Later, in the car, I waited for my breathing to return to normal, staring in the mirror at the multi-colored smear that ran down my face. The clown shoes looked like the surface of the moon, cratered by little feet.

The suit had a new tear in the shoulder. My body smelt like a sweatlodge, my voice sounded like Liza Minnelli’s, and my hands had a touch of Parkinson’s. But I had survived. I was a clown.

You might think that once you get the hang of it, being a clown isn’t so bad. Allow me to disabuse you of that notion. For me, being a clown is not like riding a bicycle; it’s more often like riding a bicycle after you’ve been dropped out of a helicopter on top of a mountain without any trails. Blindfolded.

This was due to the completely random character of the parties Chuckles sent me to entertain. One minute you’re at a McMansion in Yorba Linda, then you’re performing in front of a graffiti-stained wall in a park in Glendale. There’s no way to know.

Of course, it’s not the place that matters so much as the people. Many’s the time I’ve driven into a neighborhood of rundown tract homes, only to find, at the address I’ve jotted down, a suburban palace with a small armada of luxury vehicles, the latter contrasting nicely with the neighbor’s bumper-less 1992 Isuzu. The hosts of such parties tend to be extremely nice, and they pay me in perfectly crisp fifty-dollar bills. Curious.

Chuckles also runs in classier circles than I would have expected. I spent two hours at a house in Malibu Canyon. There were no more than four children present at any point, while two dozen parents hovered, sucking on craft brews and buttery Viognier and applauding when a pair of infants started eating the Play-Doh. A feisty pair of nine-year-olds started a kind of arms race, the weaponry made of balloons and fashioned by me.

The two kids would bat each other and duel, then return, and we would come up with a new custom weapon or armament for each. By the time I left, they were wearing balloon helmets, breastplates, and leggings, each wielding a pair of swords and a shield. It was
like watching two multi-colored Michelin men battle to the death.

Of course, not only the well-off want to have “Bat Hero” come to their party. If 95 percent of Americans believe they are middle class, a cool 100 percent think they’re clown-worthy. Case in point: the Sesame Street kids. One party near Montclair, we had three characters from Sesame Street (well, only two of us showed, but I did a quick change and came back as Cookie Monster for an extra hour). The cost of the event, even with a multi-character discount, was well north of three hundred dollars. This party also featured the requisite “jumper,” every piece of Sesame Street paraphernalia you could imagine, and more children than Benjamin Franklin fathered out of wedlock.

As the tired dad thumbed out the bills afterwards, I had nothing but respect. His house wasn’t much to look at, the family minivan could have used new shocks (to say the least), and a third of the money was in fives and ones. This guy had worked his rear off to give his kids a wonderful time. He couldn’t offer a tip, but I was glad we’d stayed late. His kind warms the cockles of your Yellow Bird heart.

Sometimes, as a children’s entertainer, you arrive at a party and find little reason for celebration. A couple months ago, I pulled up to a house and had to triple-check the address to determine it was the right place. Southwest of the USC, the neighborhood was pretty rough, but this house was unbelievable. It looked like it hadn’t been painted since George Sisler held the batting-streak record. The massive warp in the front door prevented it from closing. All the windows seemed to be boarded up.

A moonbounce stood outside, empty, since it was absolutely freezing out. Inside, the kids were playing musical chairs to a 50 Cent album. As I entered, everything went quiet.
Spiderman had no fans in this house. My magic bombed spectacularly. My costume hands made balloon animals almost impossible, and there wasn’t any room inside for my parachute. Some of the older kids in the back walked off, saying, “This is bullshit.”

I started up a game of Hot Potato, desperately seizing on the suggestion of a little girl. For the final twenty minutes, the kids and I actually huddled in a circle, tossing a red rubber ball around. As I got up to leave, I suggested a picture. Suddenly, out came more camera-phones than you’d see in a Tokyo club, some even with a flash, which was good, because the lights in the kitchen didn’t work.

The parents were seven bucks short. I told them not to worry about it.

Every party begins and ends with adults. Children view you as a character, possibly endowed with superhuman or extraordinary powers. Parents tend to perceive the entertainer more as plantation owners viewed sharecroppers. They’ll work you within an inch of your life, and show as much emotion as a dead rock.

At a Sesame Street-themed gathering (Don’t kid yourself, that show is still popular as hell. Go suck an egg, Spongebob), a woman with a voice only the deaf could love, wouldn’t stop screaming, “Dance, Big Bird, dance! Everyone dance with Big Bird!” Big Bird danced. Soon Big Bird began to see large red spots and stepped on a kid en route to the john to pull his head off and breathe.

Adults sometimes see the children’s entertainer as a rival. One party had a favorite uncle, who came wearing an Incredible Hulk shirt. He was going to show up my Spiderman. “Hulk, fight Spiderman! Let’s see who’s stronger!” the kids yelled. The man had arms like a gorilla and surely knew a thing or two about steroids. In a stroke of incredible luck, his Brunhilda of a wife decided to tackle him into the pool, sparing everyone a very awkward confrontation and me a surely painful one.

Most conflicts are subtler. As I walked into a Yorba Linda party, the hostess inquired when I would be face-painting. As I hemmed and hawed (“Funny you mention face paint, because as bad luck would have it . . .”), an exceedingly stout woman stormed away from the greeting party. I remained baffled until I began offering balloon animals. At that point, Barrel Bosom went to the garage and wheeled out an airbrush system worthy of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot. As I twisted giraffes, she painted faces with a precision that would have impressed Rembrandt, firing bitter glances my way every time I paused.
On rare occasions, parents can be downright terrifying. I had a wonderful cohort of kids at a birthday in San Gabriel. Not to indulge in stereotypes, but the kids, all Korean, had a sense of obedience that made them just a pleasure to work with. They loved the magic tricks, soaking up every minute of my performance. As I reached the crescendo of a story, with each kid poised to fling some birthday magic into my “Magical Coloring Book,” the birthday mother entered screaming like a banshee. With a fusillade of foreign imprecations, she declared that the magic was over and “Now is balloon time.”

Shaken, I turned to the balloons. They were a smash, as usual, and the kids actually started cheering every time I completed another katana blade. But, lo and behold, just as joy climbed to its previous high levels, the materfamilias roared back into the room, popping our bubble of fun.

We ran outside to the moonbounce, but she hectored everyone back indoors, saying it was too cold to take off our shoes. We started playing musical chairs, but it was clashing with the music in the next room, so she stepped on our game. We started playing with the
parachute, indoors, but Mom said we were going to break something.

I resorted to a system of covert balloon-making. I posted a child at both entries to the living room and told them to warn me if the mother approached. It worked a couple of times, but then we let down our guard. Mom caught me making balloons again and gave me the boot. I had to wait at the front door while she collected the cash.

Other parents are less aggressive, but no less scary. Chuckles doesn’t just do house calls. We also have corporate gigs and, believe it or not, celebrity customers. One lucky Sunday, Chuckles dispatched five of us entertainers to a hotel in Manhattan Beach for
the son of the lead singer of pop punk band. I can’t tell you the name of the group, but let’s just say it rhymed with Schmlink 182 (no, I’m not kidding).

This birthday party was out of control. We Chucklers were just a few foot soldiers in an army of entertainers that had been assembled. Santa and FAO Schwartz must have combined powers to create the birthday boy’s mountain of toys, which could have ranked among the highest peaks in the state of California. A number of children drove into the party on their own Power Wheels.

But the adults in this chocolate factory were even scarier than Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka. Demented tattoos peaked out from under designer tees. Disaffected mothers dangled cigarettes while sucking down cocktails. Everyone over the age of 21 felt compelled to comment and praise the birthday boy’s “sweet Mohawk.” He was two.
The chaos was more than the kid could handle. He spent most of the party on the floor, in a corner, or in his dad’s lap. His well-tattooed father looked like the Illustrated Man, but he had broken his arm, so could only awkwardly cradle his kid. Mom was nowhere to be seen.

As we left the party, two hours later, a group of “The Wiggles” came in, heavily burdened by every juggling implement you could imagine. We exchanged a professional nod and sigh. They entered the party and a feverish collective scream of delight went up from the youngsters. I hope none of them had a seizure.

But clowning isn’t really about moving social commentary or parents; it’s about kids. The sweet, lovable, cherub-like children you hope to find at the parties and the rotten demon spawn who actually show up.
As Tacitus wrote in his Histories, “Such was the attitude of their minds that the foulest of crimes was dared by a few, desired by more, and acquiesced in by all.” This, in a nutshell, is the attitude of children at a party. There’s one little rat, a couple of cowardly crooks, and a big group of kids who gawk — as the clown gets pummeled.

Once I was working a company party. A number of Chucklers and I were assigned to entertain the little guys and take them off their parents’ hands. I soon saw why.

As Darth Vader (Chuckles didn’t even try to disguise this character), I roamed the party, manufacturing light sabers by the handful and attempting to beat the antique voice modulator into a functional state (it refused to yield and I lost my voice very quickly).
After many requests to do battle, my young Jedi friends won me over. “Fine, I will destroy you just as surely as I destroyed Obi-Wan.”

Bad idea. As I maneuvered to defend myself, the kids started shrieking that I was cheating. So, Darth bit the bullet and took ten lightsabers to the gut. I slumped against a wall and breathed my last, waiting for the crowd to disperse. Instead, it was like pouring chum in the water. Their numbers swelled, and I was attacked with even greater ferocity. “Darth Vader is dead, I am dead,” I kept saying. “Luke and Lea, your father is dead! HEY! I’m dead already.”

Alas, no one cared. A pair of boys climbed on me and started whaling on my mask with Tonka trucks. I was forced to throw off the kids and flee to the bathroom. The buggers had cut me just above the eyebrow.

I regained my composure and returned to the party. The coast looked clear, so I went over to Buzz Lightyear to tell him it was time to take off, but then there was an eruption of youthful yelling. About ten kids had been lying in wait behind the fake plants by the door. Two of them ran off with Darth Vader’s cape, and the rest tried to take me down, swinging from my legs. Buzz and I left immediately.

Plotting by kids isn’t out of the ordinary. Spiderman also sees coordinated attacks on his mask, to reveal his secret identity. For some reason, kids love kicking Elmo in the hindquarters. They’ll even set you up, by having one of the kids divert your attention with a question, thus exposing your flank as much as possible. And as Mickey Mouse, preparing to climb on the moonbounce, I once heard a 12-year-old directing his forces. “Okay, Leon and Matt, you get his feet. Me and Madison get his knees, and everyone else jump on top.”

Combating such conspiracies, though, is actually kind of fun. You can laugh at the young Catilines trying to overthrow the ruler of the party. Worse for the morale, though, are the jerks.

I remember shlepping to one party as Big Bird, I mean Yellow Bird. The costume had deteriorated dramatically. To keep the head in roughly cranial shape, two shards of a yardstick had been crammed in sideways. On each of the shoulders rested a croquet mallet, which gave structural integrity to the neck and kept Yellow Bird’s beak from skewering any nearby children. Walking in this thing was one part asphyxiation and two parts manipulation of a retarded robot.

I had almost made it to the party (the particulars of which I could only dimly make out, since my glasses wouldn’t fit inside the neck) when a trio of junior high jokers stepped in my way. They wouldn’t let me past on the sidewalk, so I had to walk around them, in the street, as they started frontin’: “Wut? Wutchu want, Berrrrrrd?” Assholes.

But let’s be honest. The kids really aren’t all bad. In fact, some of them are really great. My favorite example is Kevin.

Kevin’s seventh birthday marked my first freelance gig. Yes, I’ve started booking shows behind Chuckles’ back. They charge around a $120/hour for a clown — and pay you $40/hour — but they let you keep the costume. So, I’ve started working my own clown routines on the side, splitting the difference, keeping it on the down low. Kevin’s was the first, and since it was a referral, I knew some of these kids had seen my act before. I had to step it up.

I added a couple tricks to my magic act, brought in some new games, and improved my juggling. But I also added a personal element. Using a “wizard pouch” that I’d pinched from Marty the Magician at the circus, I had Kevin drop in a little magic dust. With a little sleight of hand, I retrieved a “magical birthday quarter,” which made all the little eyes around go wide, Kevin’s most of all.

An hour later, we were playing with the parachute, when Kevin caught my eye. Everyone was frenziedly flapping the chute, but Kevin was only using one hand. “Kevin? What’s wrong, man? He held out his hand and revealed the quarter; he’d been clutching it so tightly it left a mark on his fingers.

Nothing stays the same, not even Chuckles. Brian ended up selling the business to a fellow named Tom. Tom’s got great plans. He’s invested in an office of sorts and set up a distribution plan. My buddy Mike has become the distributor of costumes and goods for the Los Angeles area. He replaced Brian in the Walgreens parking lot. Sometimes, Tom shows up, a sign of his commitment. He had Chuckles hats made, and presses all sorts of trinkets on me to pass out to the kids. Mike says he has big plans, to make Chuckles much more than a fly-by-night operation, to transform it into a Southland dynasty.

As for me, I’m soldiering on. Chuckles keeps me busy on weekends, and I get the odd independent job from time to time. The sun has started to set on my career, though. My fiancée just declared that she will not tolerate professional clowning in a husband, though she doesn’t mind if it pays for the honeymoon. The skills translate well to civilian life. Over the holidays, we visited my fiancée’s family in Cleveland. Her little cousins loved me. They can’t wait to come out for Billy the Clown’s wedding.

Bill Goodwin is a writer and graduate student in Los Angeles. He chronicles his clowning experiences at thegreatclownunderground.blogspot.com.