When clowns gather, it’s serious business

By Bob Jackson

Clowns invest considerable time, effort and money into making themselves the best they can be.

BOARDMAN — Don’t let the red noses and the rubber chickens hanging from their back pockets fool you: George Caban and his friends are dead serious about clowning around. No fooling.

“Clowns aren’t just people that get dressed up and act silly,” the 57-year-old Campbell man said with a face as straight as the hair hanging from his screaming-orange wig. “It’s a profession you take seriously, just like a doctor or a lawyer would.”

So seriously, in fact, that clowns came from miles around to gather at the Holiday Inn for a weekend of performance training and evaluation geared toward helping them be even better at their craft.

The Mid-Atlantic Clown Association had its annual convention here over the weekend, drawing some 100 folks adorned with painted faces, glaring, loud costumes and, of course, red rubber noses and oversized shoes.

And though it may look on the outside like they are merely people who don outlandish costumes, ride in tiny cars and toss bubble gum to kids in parades, those who do it are quick to say that clowning is actually an art form whose primary reward is not money, but smiles.

“Clowning comes from the heart,” said Caban, a retired autoworker who’s been a clown for 27 years. “It’s something you do because you like people, you want to spread joy and cheer to those who need it, and even to those who don’t need it.”

Caban is president of the Assorted Nuts Clown Alley, a local arm of the MACA with nearly 30 members. A clown alley, he said, is “any town where you gather a group of people interested in learning and promoting the art of clowning.”

Offering a quick primer in Clowning 101, Caban said there are two types of clowns: the traditional white-faced clown, whose face is completely covered with white makeup, and the Auguste clown, who sports a natural face tone accented by bright makeup.

In performances, white-faced clowns are generally more assertive and in charge, while the Auguste clowns are more comical and boisterous, and often end up being the brunt of the white-faced clowns’ shenanigans.

“You just choose a character that fits your personality,” he said. “I fit in well with being an Auguste clown. That’s what I enjoy.”

Selecting the proper name is also a key part of clowning, the goal again being something to reflect the individual’s personality. Cabas goes by Porgie, with the “g” pronounced as a “j.” It’s a play on his real name being George, and the fact that he was often called Georgie Porgie as a child.

Sue Marranconi of Meadville, Pa., had an equally logical reason for selecting Squeeze as her clowning name.

“I’m an accordionist,” she said, smiling broadly beneath her neon-green wig.

Marranconi declined to give her age, but said she has 11 grandchildren and has been clowning for 30 years.

She said clowning was a male-dominated profession when she began, but that has changed through the years, and now there are more women than men who sport the face paint and fright wigs. The average age for newcomers getting into the act is 40.

Marranconi said she got her interest in performance from her grandmother, a former vaudeville pianist who lived with Marranconi and her family.

“She taught me hat-and-cane routines, and I used to do little shows for my family,” Marranconi said. “It just took off from there.”

Marranconi is so passionate about clowning that, even though she suffered heart failure just two weeks ago, she was in full costume and ready to please crowds at the convention.

“You can’t keep a good clown down,” she said, flashing another smile and a thumbs-up.

Both Caban and Marranconi said a clown’s most rewarding work is often done away from the glare of spotlights, when they visit nursing homes or stop to see a sick child in the hospital. Bringing joy and smiles to those who have little to smile about is a clown’s greatest reward, they said.

And that’s all a part of what they share when they gather at events like this weekend’s convention. They trade stories and tips aimed at helping others know how to better perfect and perform the craft.

“These competitions we have aren’t intended for one person to say he’s better than others,” Caban said. “It’s all about improving and getting better. If we don’t share what we know, it’s going to become a lost art.”

There were clowns of all ages and ilk at the convention, including hobos, farmers, rag dolls and some who defied description. Each wore a costume that set him or her apart from the others.

Caban said it can take as long as two hours for a clown to get into full costume and makeup for a performance. And although their costumes may look like just a bunch of glad rags thrown together, there is actually rhyme and reason to it, and it comes at a price.

For instance, a good pair of clown shoes starts at about $375.

Vendors had tables and booths set up at the convention where clowns could buy or order shoes, costumes and clowning accessories to help them in their performances.

Steve Roeske, who makes leather clown shoes, traveled from West Melbourne, Fla., to peddle his wares to the clowns. His full-time job is as a government worker for the state of Florida, but he’s been in the clown-shoe business since 1996, working with his uncle. He said it takes between eight and 15 hours to make a pair of shoes.

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