We'd all like to walk into a room and instantly know who the clowns are. But it wasn't that easy last week at the Orlando North Hilton in Altamonte Springs, where more than 350 members of the Southeast Clown Association met for their 18th annual convention.
"You've got to ease into it," warned education director Lee McNally, a Gainesville-based performer with the professional name "Juggles," as he welcomed me to Thursday evening's festivities. "Sometimes, the people that aren't wearing makeup are still clowns."
He was right. Half the crowd was an explosion of fright wigs, bulbous noses and polka-dot ties. The incognito half was divided between roly-poly matrons who could easily be envisioned pulling handkerchiefs out of a top hat and ordinary-looking folks who could have passed for the dinnertime audience at Arabian Nights. Only their high-pitched cackles gave them away as accomplished idiots.
The jocular program had begun a day earlier, when members from 10 states arrived (not all in the same car) to catch up on the latest advances in the greasepainted art. Five days of seminars lay before them, learning sessions with titles like "The Clown/Child Relationship" and "What's In My Pocket?" Thank God those two weren't on the same day.
Tools of the trade were also on display, ranging from floppy shoes to puppets to balls for juggling (both "practice" and "professional" varieties). But tonight, it was the live performances in the Abracadabra Room that everyone wanted to see, the demonstrations of silly skill that would separate the Pagliaccis from the pretenders.
"This is nice," sighed James Burns ("Clasee" ), a 10-time attendee from Ormond Beach, as he surveyed the sea of fuzzy-haired humanity around him. "This brings all of them out of the closet."
What a friend we have in Bobo
The program opened with a trio of "Clown Ministry" skits -- bits of Christian-themed buffoonery I was told make up a vital portion of an otherwise secular field. In one vignette, a nonbelieving harlequin refused to pitch in at her neighborhood church, only to be sent off with a "Kick Me" sign affixed to her back.
It was bizarre, all right; Fellini had nothing on these clowns. I was somewhat distressed that all the faiths weren't represented, but the Muslim and Hassidic characters probably would have spent the entire time hitting each other over the head with rubber chickens anyway.
A tribute to Red Skelton was performed by Jackie LeClair, a Ringling Bros. veteran and Clown Hall of Fame member who Burns lauded as "truly a clown's clown." Skelton was never a favorite of mine, but the audience rewarded the mimicry with a standing ovation. And in those shoes.
The "Individual Skits" segment -- a competitive event -- began with a reading of rules. Each of the 14 performers would have no more than one minute of preparation time, and another in which to clear the stage of confetti and other residue.
That was lenient compared to the code of ethics laid down in the convention program, in which any clown who drank, smoked or used profanity while in costume was threatened with disqualification and/or expulsion. "The Simpsons'" Krusty wouldn't have lasted an afternoon.
Men among mountebanks
The contestants ran the gamut of ability, with a few clearly in need of more work before the funhouse mirror. But there was no denying the charisma of Fort Myers' Flippo, whose takeoff of pro football began with a crowd-pleasing, simulated burst of on-field flatulence. No wonder he was later named the victor; clowns aren't always funny, but fart jokes are.
Yukking it up behind me were two players from the "Kick Me" skit -- Toni Martin ("Dimples" ) and Paulette Peck ("Paw Paw" ). Members of the Fools for Christ troupe ("God told us to be clowns," Peck testified), they were looking forward to Sunday's worship service, in which all congregants would be dressed "in clown." Hey, it's no sillier than some of the churches I've attended.
The session's other highlight was a magic act executed by a hobo-type jester, who attempted to saw a doll in half but ended up smothering its shrieks of pain with his tattered jacket. I laughed out loud, and didn't stop when the skit ended. After three hours, the total absurdity of the entire scene had finally gotten to me.
As embarrassed as Mary Tyler Moore at Chuckles' funeral, I bit my lip so no one could hear me chortling at nothing in particular. Then, like Mary before me, I realized it was the reaction they all wanted from me in the first place.
Even the cab driver who drove me home knew the story. Thrilled to be at the site of such an auspicious event, he placed a quick, excited cell-phone call to a friend who was a part-time clown herself.
"She wants me to do it," he confided, "but I ain't got the balls."
Well, he could always start with the practice set.