In troubled times, it’s good to know who the real clowns are
“If you become a farmer, you’ve the weather to buck. If you become a gambler, you’ll be struck with your luck. But, Jack, you’ll never lack if you can quack like a duck. Be a clown, be a clown, be a clown.”
Kids see the hot pink wig first, as Flutterby rings the doorbell of the Tahoe home.
“It’s the clown!” someone yells. “The clown’s here.”
Flutterby leaps into her clown persona as the door opens. She grins brightly as the hostess points out the birthday girl sisters, 4-year-old Melinda and 2-year-old Michelle Rawlino. The two are dressed in almost-matching red jumpers.
Pause. Flutterby sees the new carpet and rows of shoes on the tile entry. The clown offers to take off her enormous scuffed red shoes, but the girls’ mom shakes her head. I follow Flutterby to the family room, decorated in purple and pink. Streamers are wrapped around a pine post. Balloons are fastened around a stone fireplace. Preschoolers ride around the room on large plastic vehicles. Some eat hot dogs while others dart from parent to toy to snack.
“Hi there, Melinda,” Flutterby says as the older birthday girl stands on a sofa shyly.
“You’re just a clown,” Melinda says.
“I’m not just a clown,” Flutterby replies brightly. She sets most of her gear aside and plops down in the middle of the family room, pulling out color pages and crayons. Soon most of the toddlers have gathered around to play. Some try on Flutterby’s large red shoes.
Parents snack and talk at a dining table nearby as Flutterby prepares to do her magic show. She chats with the kids, pretending confusion over the terms “sister and brother.” When one girl tells Flutterby that she can swim—underwater!—the clown asks if she wears goggles.
The girl nods.
“Do you wear your goggles on your hands?”
The children shake their heads.
“Do you wear your goggles on your feet?”
“No,” the kids say, warming up to this game.
“Do you wear your goggles on your ears?”
“No! No! Your eyes, your eyes!”
“Oh, you wear your goggles on your eyes,” Flutterby says. “On your eyes. OK.”
Parents fiddle with a video camera and others shoot photos. Soon all the kids are giggling again as the silly clown tries to blow up a balloon.
First, she blows at the balloon.
“You have to put it in your mouth!” recommends a girl in a fluffy blue sweater.
Flutterby studies the balloon, shrugs her shoulders and puts the balloon entirely in her mouth.
“No, not all of it!”
Everyone’s giggling now. One child says nothing, but holds her fingers pinched together near her mouth, as if she’s trying to show the clown how it’s done.
“Let me help you!” says Trevor Cook, who is 3 3/4 years old. He bounces over to the clown.
Flutterby finally gets some air into the balloon.
Puff. Pause. Pffffffttttttt!
The air goes in—the air comes out with a funny loud noise.
“You have to hold it shut!”
Puff. Pause. Flutterby holds the neck of the balloon shut, then lets it go once again.
Another funny loud noise. The kids are laughing wildly.
“How do you put the rewards of this job into words?” Flutterby, aka Raili Wilson, of Reno, asks me later. “Clowns change tears into smiles. … It lets me be who I am. I love children, love talking with kids. Children are so wise. They see things you don’t think they see.”
My personal interest in clowns dates back to an oil painting of a white-faced clown that hung on the wall of my childhood home. For some reason, I equate this painting with my mother. Perhaps my mom actually longed to don a mask and step into the limelight. I call Mom, who now lives mere miles from the nation’s largest circus museum in southern Wisconsin, and ask about her clown philosophy.
“So, why the clown on the wall?”
“A teacher friend painted that for us. She painted clowns. That was what she liked to do.”
“But you do like clowns?”
“Your dad likes clowns, I guess. I’ve never been that crazy about them especially.”
Disillusion sets in. My mom continues, though, eager to help me with my clown story.
“Clowns are sad, but they make people happy,” she says. “Most of them are people who, well, for them, it’s kind of a façade. They’re usually people who are depressed, aren’t they? At least I read that somewhere.”
We have a clown in our extended family. I wrote a short skit for Johnny about 10 years ago or so, when he was starting out. The gag relies mostly on physical humor as Johnny tries his hand at several art forms. He has hilarious mishaps with a guitar, and he fumbles miserably with a canvas and easel. Mom says he still uses this routine in his act.
In real life, the clown bought an RV and began traveling the nation, juggling, doing magic tricks and leaving trails of balloon animals in his wake. He divorced his wife and left her with six kids a few years back. The clown’s wife landed on her feet. She went back to school and became a nurse. She met a pilot who likes kids. She plans to remarry this spring.
Running away to join the circus is one of those things that doesn’t exactly win you points with your family. Survival is full of hard choices. Perhaps the clown, like the observant child, is the one who understands what others don’t see. Andre Suares said: “The art of the clown is more profound than we think. … It is the comic mirror of tragedy, and the tragic mirror of comedy.”
Putting on a wig, masking your face with glop and glitter and acting just plain ridiculous is good for your ego. So says my clown friend, Vanessa Aramanda, aka Nessy the Clown.
Our daughters are the same age, and Nessy’s been active in their schools and clubs at every level. The way she juggles her careers as a clown and artist with her parenting and community involvement make her one of my heroes.
Nessy has taught others to clown. In fact, she tells me about one friend and neighborhood mom who loved the job, well, a lot. She dug the unconditional love. The acceptance. The brief escape from mundane demands of motherhood. As a clown, she was the star of the show, the center of attention. The mask she wore freed her from expectations about how a woman should act.
“She hated taking her make-up off and getting back to real life,” Nessy says.
I can see the attraction.
She pours coffee into a Disney mug for me and sits down at her kitchen table to talk. Her 3-year-old, Gracie, watches cartoons nearby. Nessy’s home feels warm and happily untidy—"I’m an artist, not a housekeeper,” she explains—and yes, the walls are packed with art, mostly her own. Besides working in stained glass and running a toy-making business, she has performed as Nessy for 16 years in northern Nevada.
“Having kids tell you they love you is the sweetest thing in the world,” she says. “It melts your heart.”
She describes clowning as a dream job. The money’s good—she gets about $150 for an hour-long birthday party gig, though that fee covers about five hours of preparation, travel and clean-up.
And when clients pay you, they often do so with a smile on their faces, giving you hugs as they slip you the dough in an envelope.
“I could do stained glass full time,” Nessy says. “I turn away a lot of work. I could make toys full time. But clowning is so fun and satisfying.”
And in what other job is your performance improved by messing up?
“You don’t have to worry about making mistakes,” she tells me. “That’s what clowning is—people can’t tell if you made a mistake or if it’s part of the act.”
Once Red Skelton boasted, “A clown’s got it all.
“He never has to hold back,” Skelton said. “He can do as he pleases. The mouth and the eyes are painted on. So if you wanna cry, you can go right ahead. The make-up won’t smear. You’ll still be smiling.”
A truck packed with grimy dirt bikes flies past us on Interstate 80 as Flutterby drives toward Truckee. We’re on our way to Melinda and Michelle’s birthday party. The truck, packed with teenage males, honks and matches the speed of the clown’s ancient Pontiac. The guys lean out the window, shouting and giving the pink-wigged clown the hang-loose hand sign.
Flutterby the Clown grins and waves back.
“Guys going by me and beeping their horns is nothing new,” she says joyously. Things were even crazier when she drove around in her clown limousine—a pink ‘81 Cadillac. Her husband Terry bought her the car, and he’d drive during parades so that she could stand up and wave out the sunroof.
The limo got horrible gas mileage, though, and it eventually broke down. The estimated cost of repairs was too steep, she says, so she donated the car to a charity.
I meet Flutterby and her husband, Terry, just before noon on a Saturday. The couple lives in a 35-foot trailer parked at Chism Trailer Park, just north of Keystone Avenue. Though the trailer doesn’t have a view of the Truckee River, which flows along the length of the trailer park, they can walk a short distance to a small park along the river.
You can’t miss Flutterby’s trailer. She has butterfly ornaments perched along the windows, a string of butterfly lights around her door and butterfly cut-out shutters adorning the trailer’s windows. The park is homey enough, though it seems a far cry from the posh neighborhood in which she’ll be performing. In her career, she’s seen some of the largest, most impressive mansions at Tahoe.
“The homes up there are beautiful,” she says. “But can you imagine trying to keep a huge home like that clean? I guess if you had enough money for a house that big, you could afford a maid to clean it.”
Terry comes out of the trailer to see his wife off. He’s wearing baggy pants held up with suspenders and a gray felt hat with Flutterby’s business card attached. Terry created Flutterby’s Web site as rehabilitation when he was recovering from a heart attack. He tells me about his wife’s beginnings as a clown, about the time she sat on the trailer’s porch and used a book to learn how to tie balloon animals.
“I was inside working,” he says, “and after a while, I heard laughter. She said, ‘You’ve gotta come out here and see this.’ So I came out and I had to push the door open. I had to push it because the porch was up to here (he holds his hand at mid-thigh) with balloon animals.”
Terry seems like a natural vaudevillian. In fact, he did work as Who-Did-It the Magician for a while before opening a magic shop in downtown Reno. The shop went bankrupt a few years back. Terry doesn’t dress up as Mr. Flutterby.
“If I put on the make-up, I’m afraid the kids will laugh at me.”
“When you consider the great clowns, think of Molière,” Zero Mostel told writer Studs Terkel. “His theory of drama was based on the clown. … The truthful actor is a comedian, who heightens drama and enlarges life, rather than offering us a piece of realistic acting.”
When I first read this, I decide that the statement couldn’t possibly apply to clowns who work at birthday parties. We’re talking serious clowning here—like circus clowns, at least, or that crop of edgy Gen X clowns that sprouted up to do experimental theater in the mid-1990s in New York.
Then I thought about Flutterby’s act—which she says makes kids “feel 10 feet tall,” and about Nessy’s observations on the nature of kids. I think of how both clowns tell me, separately, that they aren’t able to interact much with children if they aren’t wearing the clown suit and make-up. Parents don’t tend to like grown women (or men) chatting comfortably with their kids.
“Kids and animals seem to like me,” Nessy says. “But parents get suspicious. Kids want to sit on my lap even when I’m not in my clown suit. Parents wonder, ‘Why is she so friendly?’ I have to explain that I’m a clown and I work with kids.
“Even teachers, these days, are told not to touch kids. Don’t hug kids. The teachers’ unions tell them this. I refuse not to hug a kid. There are kids out there who are desperate for that safe, platonic contact.”
Flutterby says: “I love talking to kids. But if I’m not in my make-up, talking to kids the way I do would probably get me arrested as a pervert. That sounds terrible, but I’m a typical grandma. Children are all like my grandkids.”
The most important thing in dealing with children, Flutterby theorizes, is getting on their level and listening.
“You have to be attuned to what a child is saying,” she says. “You have to almost become childlike again. … They are special. They are little people, and they’re going to grow up to be big people. The influence you have now will influence them for the rest of their lives. I know that’s heavy, but it’s true.”
Speaking of influence, I spent a half-hour or so watching Cuddles the Clown begin a tour of Circus Circus Hotel Casino with a third grade class from a Reno elementary school. Circus Circus has been giving tours to schoolchildren for six years.
Cuddles, one of two house clowns at Circus Circus, is a lovely elfin character, with a regal gold and magenta jester’s outfit and cap, gold shoes and a glittery face. A tiny red ball graces the tip of her nose. And she’s a natural teacher, instructing the kids how to behave in the casino kitchen.
“It’s all about safety!”
She promises them a gift at the end of the tour, after they’ve made pizzas and sampled the food at the buffet—"Just take a little bit, and because we love your teachers, we’re only having one dessert!"—after they’ve played circus games and, for education’s sake, observed the many, many jobs that people do to make the casino run.
The lights of nearby video poker machines twinkle hypnotically as the 8- and 9-year-olds listen raptly to short speeches from Cuddles and a nice, pretty woman from the casino’s marketing department. The kids are on their very, very best behavior. After all, what could be more fun than a field trip to Circus Circus?
Of course, clowns aren’t just for kids. One of the most memorable events Nessy has worked was a birthday party for Ferenc Szony, president of the Sands Regency Hotel Casino.
At first, Nessy was nervous.
“I had a stomachache in the car on the way over,” she says. “I thought, ‘What in the hell am I doing this for?’ It was my first adult party.”
But she found that Szony and friends are “really nice people.” Though they’d booked her for an hour, they kept her for five or six hours. She made balloon animals for the adults and did face painting. She saw The Temptations in person when they sang to Szony. Her past bartending experience came in handy as she bantered with the adults.
“I can joke with the best of them,” she says. “And I did paint a naked lady on a guy’s muscle—stuff I would never do with kids around.”
In another vein, clowns aren’t just great entertainment for birthday parties. They can also be healers. Think Robin Williams in Patch Adams.
Groucho Marx said, “Clowns work as well as aspirin but twice as fast.” Flutterby, who’s taken her act to hospitals, would agree.
But cheering the sick isn’t always easy, she tells me as we drive back from the Tahoe party. Once she got a call from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. A young girl with cancer wanted to meet a clown.
“They didn’t know how long she was going to live,” Flutterby says. “But she was close to death.”
Flutterby went to the girl’s house. The girl was dressed in pajamas, her skin gray and her demeanor weak. She got out of bed to greet Flutterby.
“I just talked to her like I’d talk to any kid,” Flutterby says. “And I got her laughing. I filled her room with animal balloons, filled it. When I left, she was still smiling. … Damn, right now, I have tears in my eyes.”
Turns out that Skelton was right. The thick white make-up doesn’t smear.
“A woman called me and said, ‘You made her day.’ She told me that it’d been one of the happiest days in that little girl’s life in a long time. That little girl never let on that she was sick, that she knew she was dying. It was one of my toughest jobs.”
Flutterby told the people at Make-A-Wish that she didn’t want to know when the girl died.
“I couldn’t take it,” she says. Flutterby reaches for a tissue and blows her nose. Some of the white wipes away with the tissue, leaving her nose smudged, revealing a bit of flesh. “I’m glad I didn’t tell you this story on the way up.”
As we arrive back at Chism Trailer Park, Flutterby is once again cheery and bright.
Terry must have been watching for the Pontiac, because he comes out to greet his wife and ask how the party went.
Flutterby tells me she and Terry are “like two peas in a pod.”
“When he ran the magic shop, he used to tell people that his wife paints her face and goes around town doing tricks. One day, I replied, ‘You’re a clown pimp. What else can I do?’ And he said, ‘You’ve finally got a comeback!’ “
Sometimes she’s still wearing her make-up when she goes into the bank. She enjoys telling people, “You gotta watch out for this place, they’ll let any clown in.”
I’m thinking that my mom’s sad clown theory isn’t playing out. Flutterby doesn’t seem depressed. Nor does Nessy. In fact, these clowning women seem better adjusted than many other working women I know.
The secret, Flutterby says, is to do what you love. “Don’t worry about dollar signs.”
Yes, I’ve heard this before. But sometimes the truth is just that simple.