Clowns on call to entertain kids at parades, playgrounds, reunions
Linda Terwilliger was a vision in living color.
She was wearing a black-and-white striped shirt, a red flower-spangled vest and bright red hair, pants and nose. She wore an oversized white and yellow daisy near her lapel and had a seat in her customized yellow Volkswagen Beetle clown car.
As Daisy the clown, Terwilliger began to share reds and blues with new friends at Elsmere Elementary School in Delmar. Boys and girls lined up for temporary tattoos in front of Daisy’s tent in back of the school, which was celebrating a community playground day on a hot Saturday afternoon.
Arielle Duval, 4, of Delmar, was one of the first customers. Daisy placed the color on the back of Arielle’s hand and dabbed the small square with a damp sponge.
The first one didn’t work. Neither did the second.
“Do you have sunscreen on?” Daisy asked Arielle, who nodded her head. “That might be it. If this doesn’t work, I’m going to give you a tattoo to take home and put on when you don’t have sunscreen on.”
But the third square worked. And both clown and kid smiled at the finished work of art.
Terwilliger and other clowns in the Capital Region’s entertainment sorority say summer is the busiest time of year for the dress-up sessions. “You have a lot of parades,” said Terwilliger, who lives in Stillwater.
“There’s the Memorial Day parades, the Fourth of July parades, family reunions and things like that. A lot of times at family reunions, in order for the adults to kind of hang out and chat, I kind of take care of the children. I keep everybody busy.”
Terwilliger has kept busy clowning as Daisy for the past six years. Before that, she was an assistant to Ronald McDonald when the hamburger chain’s clown executive officer visited hospitals.
“We’re booking into September right now,” said her husband, Martin, who manages his wife’s schedule, drives the clownmobile and helps Daisy during appearances. “That wasn’t the case the last two summers.”
Cick here for a related story about clowns that raise more fear than fun.
“In the fall, I do Halloween things at firehouses,” Linda Terwilliger said. “I’ll do face painting and balloon animals. School programs, I’ll go to nursing homes in the winter, too. Believe it or not, people may have Santa but they still want me.”
Clowns are represented in the Capital Region by Smoothee, Binx, Ladybug, Mischief and Brisky, among others. They’re all over the rest of the country, too. Tom Newton, business manager of Clowns of America International in Englewood, Fla., said his organization has 3,500 members. “World Clown has between 2,500 and 3,000,” he said of Indiana’s World Clown Association. “There are a lot of clowns who don’t belong to either organization. And we’ve got a lot of members in both organizations.”
There was just one clown on the job in Elsmere.
Terwilliger knew she wouldn’t be painting flowers and rainbows on the kids’ cheeks. Clowns may be crazy, but they’re also practical. “It will take way too long and the line just kind of stands still, so you want to do tattoos,” she said.
The Terwilligers know what kids like. Daisy’s facial makeup is never garish — just a little white and red that allows plenty of Linda’s real face to show through. Sometimes, said the clown, small children who are afraid of good-hearted jokers are really anxious about the colorful skin tones. “They can’t adjust to what’s going on,” Terwilliger said. “Ninety percent of the time it’s just teenagers who say ‘Ooooohhhhh.’ They’re all just trying to get attention from their peers, the girls are hiding behind the boys, that kind of thing.”
The clown car gets a lot of attention from the kids. Photos of Daisy are emblazoned on the hood and sides. “I’ve always wanted a Bug,” Terwilliger said. “My husband is the marketing guru, so he said, ‘You want that bug? We’re going to jazz it up.’ ”
Martin Terwilliger is happy to drive the 1983 model car. While clowns are happy to joke around, Terwilliger said money is not a laughing matter. They don’t discuss how much they charge, because the profession is competitive. “It’s kind of a private matter,” he said. “It’s almost like buying a car. You make your own deal with your own salesman.”
And he’s fine with being married to a clown.
“She’s been like this since I first met her 33 years ago,” Martin said. “It’s just now, she wears different-colored clothes. She’s got a great sense of humor. She’s the most cheerful person on the planet I’ve ever met.”
Sharon Dunlap of Schenectady is also in good cheer when she dresses in the reds and yellows of her alter ego, Ladybug the clown.
“I do birthday parties and company picnics,” she said. “I’ve done grand openings for new banks and things like that. I’ve done things in downtown Schenectady when they’ve had things going on down there. I’ve gone to school in Niskayuna elementary schools and taught clowning to little kids, showed how to make up and make balloons.”
Easing job stress
Dunlap originally worked as a paralegal and took a class in clowning at Schenectady County Community College. “When you work for lawyers, it’s very stressful,” she said. “I took the class, enjoyed it and here I am today.”
Like Daisy, Ladybug seems to be in greater demand this year. “It must be picking up,” she said. “I’ve been very busy these last few months.”
Once in a while, Dunlap has a small child in her audience who is afraid of clowns. She said that even her hairdresser is uneasy around people in fright wigs and red, bulb-like noses.
“A lot of people have watched the movie ‘It,’ ” Dunlap said, remembering the 1990 television adaptation of the Stephen King horror novel that featured Pennywise the dancing clown. “Even teenagers. When they say they’re afraid I don’t rush them, I let them come to me. I think that makes a big difference.”
Dunlap once attended a clown convention in costume and met a mother and her little girl. The child was cautious — and curious —her because she didn’t see any flesh-colored skin on Ladybug. “I took off one of my gloves and showed her I was a real person and she was fine,” Dunlap said.
And magic tricks will win over just about anyone, nervous about clowns or not. Skittish kids will often end up helping Ladybug with the abracadabra commands.
“You have to make the people feel like they’re connected to you,” Dunlap said. “I always wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. I ended up being a paralegal and clowning. I just love the little kids, I love to be with them. I love to make them laugh. I think I have more fun at a party than they do.”
It takes her just under an hour to put on her face and costume, which includes garish dress, red wig, long clown shoes and an oversized bow in her hair. It took her less time to come up with a name for her character.
“I’ve loved ladybugs since I was a little girl,” she said. “When we had to pick a name I was thinking about ‘Irish,’ and then thought, ‘Why not Ladybug?’ People remember me. Everybody loves ladybugs.”
Marie Beck of Niskayuna thinks everybody loves mischief when clowns are in the house. She’s been playing her creation, Mischief the clown, since the late 1970s. A friend was just getting into the funny business, and Beck was full of ideas and suggestions. The friend, Giggles the clown, persuaded Marie to join the jolly souls and she began work as Freckles the clown. She later changed her name.
As Mischief, Beck has done mission work in the United States, Ecuador and Bosnia. She was invited to perform at the White House for the annual Easter Egg Roll in 1991. Beck has taught clown courses at Hudson Valley Community College. Another one of her characters, Dr. Funnybones, visits Capital Region hospitals. In 1999, she earned the “Clown of the Year” award from Clown of America International.
While clowns are often seen outdoors at birthday parties during the summer, Beck prefers to work indoors. One reasons is her partner — Popcorn the bunny — is sensitive to heat. And because Popcorn is usually hidden away before Mischief begins her routine, a long stay in a warm place could mean disaster for the old “Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat” number.
Beck, a former secretary and auditor for New York state, has seen changes in the clown world. She said some performers will wear less makeup to allow more skin to show. Short-sleeved shirts are popular with some Pagliaccis of the profession.
Beck said clowns also have to be careful about what they say and do. Pies in the face are no longer part of any legitimate clown’s routine.
Old reliables are still in the gag bag. If Mischief bends over and wiggles her rear end, kids laugh out loud.
“When I teach clowning, I say when you’re out there entertaining, you’re entertaining everyone in that room, even the adults,” Beck said. “One example. I have a small Winnie the Pooh that I hook onto one of my shoes. Someone will notice and I’ll say, ‘Didn’t you ever get Pooh on your shoe?’ The parents take it one way and the kids take it another way. It’s a silly thing, but silly things are what people like. Even if you get a groan, it’s better than nothing.”