Clown Town

Summertime is clown time, from small-town festivals to the Aquatennial. Some simply greet the masses, but the really good clowns work hard at simple fun.

By Tim Montgomery, Pioneer Press staff writer

Summer clowningIt's summer: Send in the clowns.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, they're marching in parades, acting up at picnics and showing their colors at community events and festivals. They're everywhere at he Aquatennial.

Some simply greet the swarming masses and hand out balloons or tootsie rolls. But the really good ones bumble about, babbling and bantering until onlookers are caught up in their creative chaos. Many wonder who these fools are - and how they get away with having so much fun.

"Eat a lot of peanuts," offered Pickles, a character clown posing as a tramp with the Zuhrah Shrine Circus. The largest of Minnesota circuses played in Owatonna this past weekend.

Anoka Police sergeant Denny Reihe corrected him. Dressed as a pink-faced 'auguste' clown, Reihe explained that the "Zuhrah Funsters" actually work for peanuts.

"Don't quit your day job," Reihe advised. As current director of clowns for the Zuhrah Shrine Circus, he observed that, not unlike a life of crime, clowning doesn't pay.

Instead, it's an escape for most part-timers. As a law enforcement officer who frequently deals with the worst that society has to offer, Reihe lives for the moments when his audacious clown get-up steals a smile from a child or evokes a happy memory in an older person.

Munching on a handful of his daily wages, Pickles fumbled through the contents of his pockets. After dropping several items on the floor, he produced some I.D. Pickles is actually retired Stillwater Prison correctional lieutenant Gary Fink. He joined the Zuhrah Funsters in 1980. Clowning initially provided Fink with some comic relief from his strictly regimented lifestyle. Now he also works birthday parties, parades and promotional events -- and he says it has cost him more than peanuts.

"You take a $200 suit, a $200 pair of shoes, this and that; it adds up," Fink said of his investment in clowning. He maintains a wardrobe of seven custom-made suits and various combinations of trousers, shirts and shoes. Then there are props like the two trick bicycles and the "tramp camper" he uses in parades. All told, he figures that's close to $10,000 in funny money.

Fink, who is also an Aqua Jester performing this week at many Aquatennial events in Minneapolis, is a member of Alley 19, a local chapter of the Clowns of America international (COAI). The COAI is a trade group organized for the purpose of sharing techniques, educating, and acting as a gathering place for "serious-minded amateurs, semi-professionals and professional clowns."

Fink is on a committee in charge of planning next spring's COAI International Convention at the Radisson South in Bloomington.

Most often associated with the circus, clowns date back to the court jesters of ancient Egypt, according to local loremaster Mike O'Shaughnessy. It's an art form handed down from generation to generation through an oral tradition. O'Shaughnessy is part of a long family history in the profession. Growing up in St. Paul, he "ran away to join the circus" in the late 1940s.

"I was 11 years old when I asked my mom and dad if I could spend the summer traveling with Uncle Charlie," O'Shaughnessy recalled. "They helped me pack!"

Six years with Cole Bros., one of the original American traveling tent shows, provided O'Shaughnessy with an excellent introduction to professional clowning. It's a trade that has evolved from a headline act in Europe's one-ring shows to a well-rehearsed supporting role in the American three-ring circus.

According to O'Shaughnessy, also known as Bingo the Clown, a well-rehearsed act is what separates most professional clowns from the "town clowns" who may simply dress up and ad-lib some comedy. But he admits that some of the best professional acts may develop by accident.

"I used to do a come-in using pie plates," said O'Shaughnessy of the crowd prep that circus clowns do before the big show. "I'd work the crowd on one side, then on the other. I'd work them to a fevered pitch. Then I'd quit and say, 'Aw, you guys are no good.'"

"One time, I was doing this when I tripped in the track and my pate wig flew off. I thought: Oh, no - this is it! But then I spotted a bald guy in the crowd, picked up my pate wig and put it on him. Well, the house came down, and I did it every time after that.

"A lot of times, that's how you find something that works."

Then there are the traditional routines that simply need a makeover. Like the Shriners' outdated outhouse gag. The way Koko (a.k.a. Raymond Warren) explained it, one clown is sitting inside an outhouse with the door locked while everyone else is hopping around outside yelling for the guy to hurry up because they have to use the toilet. Finally, someone decides to get a big shiny red stick marked 'TNT' and stuff it in the hole in the back of the outhouse. The clowns outside count down to a big explosion that blows the four walls of the outhouse away, revealing a clown sitting in the middle talking on a telephone.

The act was banished because, as Warren put it, "They thought the kids wouldn't know what an outhouse was."

Through changing times and dated props, it's the colorful faces that seem ageless. There are three types: the neat "whiteface" with colors that highlight natural features; the flesh-tone based auguste, with colorful accents that exaggerate facial features; and the exaggerated character themes like hobos, tramps and police officers.

Over the years, the most noted examples of each clown type have been those who developed the most memorable routines. But chances are that most people's impressions of these jokers are colored by the childhood memory of some amateur at a neighborhood ice cream social.

So - bring on the clowns. Whether it be for a picnic at Phalen park or the Aquatennial Parade through downtown Minneapolis - summer is here, and the show must go on.

This story, published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press daily newspaper, was accompanied by 3 photos and 1 graphic by Tim Montgomery.