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A Shrine to the Clown - 2001-07-28

Over the years, the Midwest city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been called "Beer City" for its breweries and "Cream City" because of its many dairies. But you might call Milwaukee "Clown Town" as well. Dozens of clowns cavort in the city's annual circus parade, the nation's largest. And Milwaukee is home to the International Clown Hall of Fame, which VOA's Ted Landphair recently visited.

The International Clown Hall of Fame, in the basement of downtown Milwaukee's Grand Avenue shopping mall, is a shrine to the oldest known performing art form. It's packed with clown paintings and photographs, clown costumes, books on clowning, and videos of famous clowns.

Kathryn O'Dell is executive director. She walked into the Clown Hall of Fame one day fifteen years ago when it was located in a small Wisconsin town. She volunteered her time, ended up running the operation, moved with it to Milwaukee, and became such an expert on clowning that she was the U.S. representative at the World Clown Congress in Moscow in 1993.

In most of the world, she says, clowning involves much more than a silly, grease-painted face, manic gestures, and a few tricks. "It's very difficult to be a clown, for instance, in China," explains Ms. O'Dell. "It takes a tremendous amount of education. And the makeup is beautiful. Just a tremendous amount of training. They're acrobats. The clown is elevated in most European communities. It's quite different than here in the United States. For instance, when I was in Russia, the clown there usually has top billing in the circus. He probably would have the same amount of prestige as a concert pianist or a ballerina. Here in America, when politicians do something unfavorable, they are called 'clowns.'"

The hall of fame maintains an honor roll of more than fifty distinguished clowns, like the Swiss clown Grock, heard here in a scratchy film clip. Grock, whose real name was Adrien Wattach, is considered history's greatest clown. He spoke nine languages and played 27 instruments in performances during the first half of the twentieth century. Grock was an "auguste", which, along with the whiteface clown and the hobo, is one of the three basic kinds of clowns. The auguste, whose largely unpainted face is wildly accented with exaggerated lips and big eyes, is a troublemaker, often teamed with a prim and proper white-face clown.

Many American clowns, like Lou Jacobs, the famous Ringling Brothers Circus clown who romped in a midget car, are a hybrid white-faced but silly. Ms. O'Dell says, "I asked him, 'What's it like to work for a circus for sixty years. And he had a huge smile on his face, and he said, 'It's hell, honey.' And you could tell he enjoyed every minute of it."

Another famous American clown is Bozo, a red-nosed character with flaming hair and floppy blue shoes. He entertained two generations of Chicago television audiences and was copied in almost two hundred other cities. Ronald McDonald, the symbol of the McDonald's hamburger chain, looks a lot like Bozo.

Kathryn O'Dell says there's a big difference between an amateur clown who dresses up and performs magic tricks at a birthday party, and a pro like Lou Jacobs of the Ringling Brothers Circus, or hobo clown legend Emmett Kelly. "The amateurs like the attention they're going to get when they put on the make-up," she says. "They spend a lot of money on costumes, and they go to the magic shop and get the expensive magic tricks. And they go out in front of an audience of children, and they look beautiful. And the children are not impressed. It has to come from the heart. Every professional clown I have ever met has an unbelievable heart. I really believe that clowns are born."

One amateur clown who also has a big heart is Bert Berger. He's a Milwaukee clinical psychologist who works with troubled patients at a medical center for military veterans. Fifteen years ago he learned to juggle, then took up clowning, and today he's a volunteer and board member at the International Clown Hall of Fame. "Today I'm gonna teach you-all a little bit of juggling," he says at the beginning of his act in front of children. His ball falls on floor, and the kids laugh loudly.

Bert Berger performs before a tough audience. In addition to his professional practice and jobs as a juggling clown, he works with teenage thugs who have been thrown out of school, and often into jail, for violent behavior. Listening to them strut and curse, they can appear to be beyond society's reach. But in what he calls the "SELF" program the letters standing for "Self-enhancement through laughter and fun" Bert Berger meets them head-on.

"I talk about grief," he says. "I talk about anger management. I'll talk about violence prevention and dealing with bullies and things like that. And each one of those sessions will have a component of maybe a magic trick that I'm teaching that session, too. So as I teach something about dealing with everyday life and problems with everyday life, I'm teaching them something fun along the way."

Not everyone loves clowns. Their bizarre make-up and costumes, and hyperactive movements, can scare children. But Kathryn O'Dell points out that often those same children also cower before the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Barney the Dinosaur figures, and other larger-than-life characters. The International Clown Hall of Fame runs a program to help kids overcome their fear. But many more children and adults love clowns, and a lot of people want to learn clowning.

The hall of fame's most popular program, called "clown encounters," teaches aspiring clowns everything from make-up skills to how to twist a long balloon into a squeaky dog. Getting a laugh is easy, says Kathryn O'Dell. Touching the heart is the hard part.