NH answer to clown shortage? Make 'em laugh
NASHUA -- Bill LeBlanc, a veteran clown and prop-maker from Bridgewater, Mass., and his wife and co-clown, Paula, visited with the Granite State Clowns last week to share some tips on making props.
The Granite State Clowns are a group of about 15 seasoned clowns who make up the southern New Hampshire chapter of Clowns of America International, a nonprofit group that offers support and education for performers and promotes the art of clowning.
The Granite State Clowns meet once a month at the Nashua YMCA to network, plan events and hone their clowning skills.
This month, they focused on the uses and benefits of giant foam hot dogs and foam pizzas. Denise "Luce Buttons" Duchesne, a Granite State Clown from Manchester, was busy painting her pizza prop when all of a sudden her eyes, and her entire face, filled up with absolute, unapologetic, pure delight. "I just got it," she said as she looked over a collection of foam pizzas decked out with dominos where pepperonis are usually cooked.
Duchesne had been so busy making the prop that she'd overlooked the gag. Once it hit, she was all giggles, attracting the attention of the fellow clowns working alongside her. Naturally, hilarity ensued.
And that's how it works with the Granite State Clowns. They enjoy performing, and they are serious about their art, but what really unites them is a love of laughter.
Last month, the New York Daily News stunned clown fans with the news that the clown population is dwindling to dangerously low levels. Older clowns are calling it quits and retiring, the paper reported, leaving only a trickle of younger clowns coming along to fill their big, floppy shoes.
Merrimack resident Barbara Foristall, president of the Granite State Clowns, agreed clowning has been in decline. Although the Granite State Clowns have members of all ages, most local clowns are women in their 40s and older.
Foristall said the Granite State Clowns are reaching out, trying to bring people in to continue the art. Starting on May 22, the group will hold one of its periodic clown schools at the Amherst Public Library.
The five-week course is free and open to anyone ages 8 and up. Participants will learn about makeup, silly magic, puppetry, balloon twisting and comic movement. Graduates of the course will march in the Amherst Fourth of July parade.
Foristall, who has more than 25 years of experience clowning, got her first taste of making kids laugh when her children were young and she decided to start a day care center.
When her children grew older and headed off to school, Foristall jumped into a corporate job in the telecommunications industry. But she missed the company and laughter of kids and decided to take up clowning on the side.
Foristall's path into clowning isn't unusual.
"A lot of us who have been mothers or teachers find that we are missing something in life," she said. "We want to make people laugh."
The Granite State Clowns do a lot of laughing, and they share many talents and traits. Unlike specialized performers who sing or dance or play a musical instrument, clowns have a variety of skills they use for their many various audiences - at birthday parties, parades, local festivals, hospitals, nursing home visits ... Most clowns perform some magic, mime, a little storytelling, juggling, face-painting and their own brand of stand-up comedy.
Pam Bridge, a Manchester-based clown known as "Lollipop," specializes in balloon-twisting.
"I took a class in clowning because I have a lot of nieces and nephews that I play with," said Bridge.
Bridge has gone a lot further with balloon-twisting than simply making balloon dogs and swords that kids line up for at community events. She is the official balloon twister for the Manchester Monarchs and appears regularly to twist balloons at local restaurants such as Texas Roadhouse and Applebee's.
She creates balloon bouquets and other formations that she delivers for people who want an alternative to long-stem roses.
Clowns can earn a nice secondary income performing at parades, community events and private parties, but it takes a lot of time, practice and patience. And collecting a stock of personal clown gear is an investment. The shoes alone run about $400 a pair, custom-made dresses go for about $300, and a decent red nose with adhesive is about $40.
Foristall said the appearance of clowns, particularly their makeup, has evolved dramatically over time. Fewer and fewer working clowns use the white-face look of a Bozo or a Ronald McDonald. Instead, clowns today tend to use white, red and black makeup to accent their features but leave a lot of natural skin showing.
Paula Leblanc said the sparse makeup is a move away from the scary clown look made famous by a string of horror movies and novels. Scary clowns are not a topic the Granite State Clowns like to discuss.
And there's another reason for giving up on the jars of white grease paint, particularly among an older generation of clowns.
"After a while, the white sinks into the creases of your skin and brings your wrinkles out," laughed Foristall.
Still, makeup is a big deal in clowning.
Bob Bilodeau of Hampton said he's normally a shy kind of guy. He started clowning when he was 18, but gave it up when he got busy with a family and career.
Now that he's older and has some time to spend, he's planning a clowning comeback.
"When you are in makeup, you can do anything," Bilodeau said.
Foristall agreed; she said a clown's performing persona is often an extension of herself or himself.
"Once you get out there, you develop your alter-self," she said. "You become a wide-open person."
Clowning stretches back thousands of years, and different cultures have different styles of clowns. In some past cultures, clowns played an important role in tending to the sick, because laughter can indeed be an effective medicine. Court jesters are often credited with keeping tyrannical monarchs in check, and sad or hobo clowns were known to help audiences understand different aspects of human life.
Overall, though, clowns are in it for the laughter.
"That's why we do it," said Foristall. "We love fun, and we love to laugh."