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2018-04-11 / Featured / Front Page

Send in the Clowns: As times change, 'clowning' hangs on

BY TAMURLAINE MELBY MANAGING EDITOR


Sandra “Strawberry” Winstead of Chesterfield and Christopher Hudert of Henrico, who performs under his given name, organized the annual Clowns of America International convention in Midlothian last week, drawing more than 100 clowns. 
JENNY McQUEEN Sandra “Strawberry” Winstead of Chesterfield and Christopher Hudert of Henrico, who performs under his given name, organized the annual Clowns of America International convention in Midlothian last week, drawing more than 100 clowns. JENNY McQUEEN Christopher Hudert did not plan to be a clown. He started stage acting at age 11, performing in the 1960s and ’70s at Dogwood Dell Amphitheater, which was across the street from his Richmond home. But at 17, when his mother volunteered him to fill in for a friend who had taken ill and could not perform her roving clown routine at the state fairgrounds, “Clowns weren’t really on my radar,” he says. “Other than what most people don’t really think of as clowns, like Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton.”

A performer nonetheless, the dutiful son donned a latex nose and painted beard and came up with a slow-moving tramp character named “Adam.” It was a hit, and it led to several more gigs.

Some traveled farther than others to attend the convention. Tse “Rice Rice” Nok Man (left) came from Hong Kong, while Tseng “Lian Lian” Ying Chen, Huang “Yo Yo” Sheng Yu and Peng “King King” Cheng-Lun (left to right) came from Taiwan. JENNY McQUEENSome traveled farther than others to attend the convention. Tse “Rice Rice” Nok Man (left) came from Hong Kong, while Tseng “Lian Lian” Ying Chen, Huang “Yo Yo” Sheng Yu and Peng “King King” Cheng-Lun (left to right) came from Taiwan. JENNY McQUEENAdam was Hudert’s first clown character, but not his last. In 1982, while majoring in theater education at Virginia Commonwealth University, he left school to attend Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s highly selective, 10-week clown college, which landed him a circus contract. He spent nine years traveling with “The Greatest Show on Earth,” serving as “boss clown” of each of Ringling’s three clown units. Along the way, Hudert performed for several U.S. presidents, and met another clown named Peggy, whom he would marry. When at last he “ran away from the circus to join a home” in 1991, the clown life came with him.

Jorge “Tico” Adorno was one of three clowns from Puerto Rico this year, his seventh time at the convention. He’s usually one of 10, but devastation from Hurricane Maria caused some to stay home. JENNY McQUEEN Jorge “Tico” Adorno was one of three clowns from Puerto Rico this year, his seventh time at the convention. He’s usually one of 10, but devastation from Hurricane Maria caused some to stay home. JENNY McQUEEN These days, Hudert, 59, lives in Henrico and is a fulltime entertainer, doing puppet shows, storytelling and clowning for museums, schools, libraries, theaters, corporate events and festivals like Monument Avenue’s Easter on Parade, where he performs on stilts. Over the years, he’s watched Ringling Bros. gradually decline and fold, and witnessed shifts in people’s attitudes toward clowns. Though he continues to find paid work, there’s less of it. Meanwhile, many of his fellow clowns struggle to find any. The American market for clowns is dwindling, and fewer people are going into the field.

Dressed as a scholar he’s dubbed “I.B. Smart,” John “Kris Krunch” Kral waits to go onstage at Friday’s single skit competition, wearing medals he’s won at past conventions. “I’ve been clowning 35 years,” he says. “And I still get nervous.” JENNY McQUEENDressed as a scholar he’s dubbed “I.B. Smart,” John “Kris Krunch” Kral waits to go onstage at Friday’s single skit competition, wearing medals he’s won at past conventions. “I’ve been clowning 35 years,” he says. “And I still get nervous.” JENNY McQUEENThis year Hudert helped organize the annual Clowns of America International Convention, held in Chesterfield last week. The weeklong event, hosted by Virginia Clown Alley #3, Richmond’s chartered chapter of COAI, is a chance for clowns from around the world to gather to enjoy each other’s company and improve their craft. By hosting the convention, members of Alley #3 are doing their part to fulfill the group’s mission to “perpetuate and advance the art of clowning.”

But that’s getting harder to do. Membership in COAI is down in recent years, currently hovering at about 2,300, less than half what it was a decade ago. Just last month, citing clowning’s waning popularity, the recent closure of Ringling and McDonald’s decision to terminate its regional Ronald McDonald program, The Washington Post published an article proclaiming this the worst time in history to be a clown.

Junior Joey Director Regina “Cha Cha” Wollrabe spent the week teaching young clowns ages 7-18. JENNY McQUEENJunior Joey Director Regina “Cha Cha” Wollrabe spent the week teaching young clowns ages 7-18. JENNY McQUEENWith everything they’re up against, America’s clowns are left wondering: Does the future have a place for them at all?


The James River Foyer at the DoubleTree Hotel in Midlothian is filled with clowns; you just can’t see it.

Absent are the gleaming white faces and neon wigs. It’s Tuesday afternoon, and these are clowns out of costume and mostly out of character. They stand in clusters, mingling with old friends and perusing brochures and color-coded schedules.

At age 7, the youngest clown at the convention, Tonya “Meme’s Clown” Widder and her grandmother Judy “Jujube” Johnson drove for three days from New Hampshire to attend. In addition to clowning, they perform as Mrs. Claus and an elf at the holidays. JENNY McQUEENAt age 7, the youngest clown at the convention, Tonya “Meme’s Clown” Widder and her grandmother Judy “Jujube” Johnson drove for three days from New Hampshire to attend. In addition to clowning, they perform as Mrs. Claus and an elf at the holidays. JENNY McQUEENStill, there are signs this is a different sort of crowd: a tuft of pink feathers here, some tri-colored bowling shoes there, and more than a few balloon animals. A woman wearing a white crinoline over pants flounces past the registration table, and the woman seated at it hollers after her: “Your slip is showing!”

Her child-like retort is automatic: “I’m wearing an invisible skirt!”

It’s day one of the clowning convention, where more than 100 professional, amateur and aspiring clowns have assembled for five jam-packed days of workshops, competitions and social hours. They come from as near as a few miles down the road and as far as Taiwan and Hong Kong. The youngest is just 7, debuting “in clown” for the first time, while many around her sport gray hairs and enough wrinkles to make white greasepaint application a challenge.

The educational offerings are as varied as the crowd. There are classes in magic, face-painting, balloon art and puppetry; classes for parade clowns, birthday clowns, “caring clowns” who visit hospitals, and clowns who double as Santa and Mrs. Claus during the holidays. Need to design a costume that’s both funny and practical? There’s a class for that. Struggling to engage in physical comedy now that your body’s not so nimble? There’s one for that, too. Interspersed throughout is the continual patter of colleagues sharing stories, tips and gags, all in the interest of becoming better clowns.

“When we get with our kind, we’re a pack. We’re a different breed,” says Sandra Winstead of Chesterfield, who goes by the name “Strawberry” when she’s performing. A stay-at-home mother of two and part-time clown for 24 years, Winstead is president of Virginia Alley #3 and treasurer of COAI. She’s chaired the convention all three times it’s come to the county – 2008, 2013 and 2018.

This year’s convention celebrates the 50th anniversary of Alley #3 – the oldest surviving chapter of COAI. The term “alley” for clown groups is thought to derive from circus lingo – the clown alley being the backstage area where clowns would get into costume and be on hand when called. Winstead says attendance at the convention is lower than normal this year, in part because another organization, World Clown Association, held its convention in Minnesota last month, and many clowns went there. The conventions offer a sense of belonging to members of the clowning community, who do not shy from addressing the pink elephant in the room: The world isn’t always kind to clowns.

“Clowns have been under attack for the past few decades,” says Tricia “Priscilla Mooseburger” Manuel, 56, a clown of 38 years who worked for Ringling in the 1980s, owns a clown costume design shop and founded the long-running Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp in Minnesota, where she lives. In addition to the clothes she’s selling, she’s quick to direct convention-goers to a display of cards listing what a clown is and is not, for passing to people when “they start to give you some push-back about clowning.”

What a clown is? “Friendly people in makeup and costume.” What a clown is not? “Someone who wants to frighten or harm you.”

The scary clown image is a relatively recent contortion in the history of clowning, which stretches back to antiquity and includes many iterations of fools and jesters, both with makeup and without. And it is a kick in the gut to real clowns, who will tell you they just want to bring people joy. The central premise of Stephen King’s novel and twice-made movie, “It,” the idea of clown as killer manifested locally in 2016 when a Chesterfield teen used a scary clown Halloween costume and knife to terrorize kids at a school bus stop (he was found and arrested).

Manuel says that image has led to a widespread animosity toward clowns that affects people like her personally. She recounts a time she was in costume when a man turned to her and said, “I hate you,” to her face. In front of children.

Julia “Miss Julia” Bothun, 23, another former Ringling clown from Bloomington, Minnesota, has had similar experiences, and says they stem from a prejudice that can be dispelled by getting to know a clown. “[People] tend to dehumanize us,” she says. “We’re kind of like a creature but not a person. We’re like this magical thing, like a giant toy, so they don’t really think of us as human beings.”

Not everyone is hostile, Bothun adds, saying, “Four out of five kids I meet run to me.” What’s more, clowns remain beloved among older people and in other countries and cultures, where clown styles and audience perceptions are different. Owing to Hurricane Maria’s devastation, this year’s convention received a diminished contingent from Puerto Rico – just three of its usual 10 attendees. “Clowning,” Winstead says, “is very popular [in Puerto Rico].”


Though it doesn’t account for all negative attitudes toward clowns, Hudert is quick to point out that coulrophobia, an extreme fear of clowns, is a real thing that cannot be rationalized away. At any rate, a damaged public image may not be the only thing making clowning a tough vocation in America. Some who have been in the trade for decades point to broader cultural and economic changes.

Winstead and Hudert both speak of the internet as a double-edged sword: While it’s made it easier for clowns to connect and self-educate, it’s changed the way people, and young people in particular, think about entertainment. When there’s a world of virtual entertainment at your fingertips 24/7, live entertainment becomes less important.

Then there’s the loss of clowning’s most prominent American arena. Since its early days, clowns and their humor have been a defining aspect of the American circus, from one-ring tents to the three-ring spectacles of Ringling. A combination of three 19th-century circuses, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey enjoyed a long run as America’s largest traveling circus. But as it started to feel the squeeze from declining ticket sales, rising costs and competitors like Cirque du Soleil, Ringling made a series of structural changes, including cutting back the number of clowns in its act. During his time with the circus, Hudert says his unit dropped from 26 to 18. Then the clown college closed in 1997.

In 2016, Bothun was one of 12 in her unit when the show, responding to public sentiment over animal rights, retired its elephants. Eight months later, Ringling announced it was closing. Bothun left when the elephants left. “Everybody stopped coming to the shows,” she says. “You don’t stay on the Titanic when you know how it ends.”

While smaller circuses continue to exist in America, the loss of Ringling was a blow and “a heartbreak,” Hudert says. Economic uncertainty hits his industry hard in other ways, he notes. When the economy collapsed in 2008, budgets everywhere got slashed, putting children’s entertainment on the chopping block in common clowning venues like schools and libraries.

“One of the first things cut and last things to come back is anything viewed as disposable,” Hudert notes.

Many of the performance opportunities now available to clowns are unpaid gigs in places like hospitals and nursing homes. And a number of clowns are embracing the volunteer route.

Manuel derives income from her design business and teaching, and clowns in a volunteer capacity. Winstead performs primarily with Alley #3, which lends its face-painting, balloon-art and performing skills to causes like ASK Childhood Cancer Foundation, the Special Olympics and The Virginia Home, a facility for adults with disabilities. She says the alley likes to help causes that have touched members personally, such as volunteering at Walk MS, as Winstead herself has multiple sclerosis.

Both Manuel and Hudert refer to clowning as “selfish giving,” in which performers receive as much as they give. Asked what she gets out of it, Winstead says, “Just joy,” adding, “You never know what you’re going to say to a kid that’s going to make them feel special, that’s going to make them feel loved, that they’re going to take with them.”

That joy is a two-way street that Hudert says is about more than being funny. “What people think of as a clown a lot of times is making people laugh,” he says. But “that’s only reaching into one bucket. … I want to entertain. I want to move people. I, as a clown, want to reach into the pathos bucket and maybe literally make them cry. I want to show them a little bit of beauty. I want to take them where I want to take them through that performance. And when you do that successfully, it’s like nothing else.”


For those who have found their calling in clowning, the show must go on, even if the venues are getting smaller and the crowds tougher. But those shifts are changing clowning in ways that extend beyond the pocketbook. Today’s clowns are less likely to wear the full whiteface of the circus clown, opting instead for a “light Auguste” look, i.e., toned-down features painted directly on the skin.

Hudert says it’s a natural evolution: Clowns performing at hospitals and birthday parties don’t need to “carry to the back of a stadium” like Ringling clowns did. And, he says, the Auguste look is “a little less intimidating and a little less mysterious.” A lot of people, he says, “get blocked by the makeup, they can’t get past that.” Both he and Winstead alternate between full whiteface and Auguste makeup, depending on the event.

Still other clowns are considering ditching the makeup altogether as more and more gigs request balloon art or magic without the clown costume. But such concessions can lead to something of an identity crisis: When does a clown stop being a clown?

Within this trend, one holdout is Bothun. “I personally will fight tooth and nail to do my whole whiteface for as long as I can,” she says, “because I see it as giving in [to prejudice against clowns], instead of making it a teaching moment.”

At the same time, she sees clowning getting more theatrical going forward, and potentially catering to a more adult audience with more sophisticated humor. She recently performed at Saint Paul’s “queer circus,” Can Can Wonderland, alongside drag queens, burlesque dancers, aerialists and other circus performers. “It’s fun,” she says. “It’s kind of a vaudeville-type thing.”

But as for the clown as children’s entertainer, she fears the future is murkier: “I hope there’s a future to clowning. I really do. But I’m really scared it will just stop.”


It’s a sleeting Saturday morning, but inside the convention, there’s a parade going on. It’s COAI’s annual paradability competition, where clowns are scored on their ability to perform the same gag over and over for judges on an indoor route. Next on the schedule: the Junior Joey Showcase, in which a group of five clowns, ages 7 to 18, will show off the skills and skits they’ve worked on all week, under the tutelage of Junior Joey Director Regina “Cha Cha” Wollrabe.

Not surprisingly, most of the Junior Joeys – a term for young clowns that honors the legendary 19th-century English clown Joseph Grimaldi – have clown parents. This holds true for young adult clowns, too. For now, it seems, a red nose that runs in the family might be clowning’s most secure lifeline to the future.

“There are lots of people who clown, there just aren’t many my age,” Bothun says. “Most of them are children of clowns.” She’s speaking of herself, too; the costume designing, camp-founding “Priscilla Mooseburger” Manuel is her mother, and started her clowning as a young girl. Bothun’s adopted brother also clowns and was with Ringling when it closed.

Winstead’s college-age son has no interest in her avocation, but her 18-year-old daughter, Emma, a senior at Cosby High School, clowns alongside her mother under the name “Bubbles.” Hudert’s is a family of clowns: his son, Christopher, 15, clowns occasionally, and his daughter, Candace, 19, incorporates clowning into her theater arts studies at Sarah Lawrence College.

As for Hudert, 42 years in the field has given him some perspective on clowns’ current predicament.

“I think that clowning is evolving,” he says. “Sometimes faster now than we’re ready for or maybe able to keep up with. And that’s part of the difficulty of what clowns are facing today, is not that clowning is disappearing or anything of the sort, but that it is changing.”

He goes on, “I see the end of clowning when I see the end of the need for laughter and entertainment. … It’s inconceivable. And of all the inconceivable things that can happen, that is one of the least likely.” 

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