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A clown's clown

The world's strongest clown? A snake charmer? A fairy godmother? Whether you need one or you are one, Koz-mo is the clown for you.

By LEONORA LaPETER
Published March 23, 2005


CARROLLWOOD - The princess is late, very late.

Tom Theriaque, a tall man with thinning, curly hair, looks at his cell phone for the third time. The princess hasn't called and the fairy godmother, Jorda Jones, is sitting across from him in a strip mall restaurant. Jones is one of those people who is always smiling. She adds pleasantly that she needs to get to work soon.

"I called her, and she didn't answer, but she said she was going to be here," Theriaque says, a tad irritated.

"I guess when you're the princess, people wait for you," Jones says.

Theriaque is hoping to pair Jones with the princess for a birthday party act. The princess doesn't do face painting because she doesn't like to get her expensive dresses dirty. But Theriaque knows that people who have princess parties want face painting, and Jones can do face painting.

He sighs and punches in the princess' phone number again. No answer.

* * *

Theriaque (pronounced Theory-ack) is a stay-at-home father who turned a part-time Shriner's clown act into an entertainment business. The 39-year-old owner of Koz-mo's Professional Entertainment strives to book some 200 acts at birthday parties and festivals, department store openings and corporate events.

He gets jobs for dwarfs and snake charmers, ventriloquists and mind readers. He puts on Santa Claus seminars and finds stilt walkers for the Flapjack Festival.

He says he goes for the more unique acts. He can get you a human slinky or the world's strongest clown; an organ grinder and a monkey or a thrill-seeking motorcycle rider. You need two elephants for your kid's birthday party? Theriaque can get them for you, though it will cost you about $3,000. Each.

"If it's entertainment, I can get it," he says.

A number of circuses winter in Florida, including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and many of the performers retire here, so there are plenty of odd acts to be found. But Theriaque has a particular fondness for clowns. He's even taught his two children, Nathaniel, 7, and Danielle, 4, to be clowns. Both have their own clown personas.

His own path to clowning started in the hospital. As a 17-year-old in Springfield, Mass., a sports-related injury landed him in a Shriner's Hospital, which have volunteers who perform as clowns for patients.

Theriaque moved to Florida a decade ago and took a job as a land surveyor for an engineering company. On the side, he joined the Shriner's clown unit and volunteered in Tampa Shriners Hospital.

At first he got jobs for a couple of clowns and himself, but soon he was putting together groups of entertainers for larger events.

Now if he needs a Santa, he has a dozen to pick from, so many that he's putting on a Santa Claus seminar in August with a Santa to the Stars from Hollywood as the featured speaker.

He also has a dozen lookalikes, including Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Steven Seagal and Sean Connery. He's been looking for a Tom Cruise lately. Everybody wants him. And a Harry Potter. The latest Harry Potter movie is about to come out and there is sure to be demand.

He tries to book jobs for about eight clowns, including former Ringling boss clown Chuck Sidlow and Buffo, a former member of the Pittsburg Pirates who bills himself as the world's strongest clown. Buffo, also known as Tom Toman, can juggle chain saws and balance an extension ladder on his face. He charges $4,000 to $5,000 per event.

Theriaque doesn't actually have the performers sign contracts with him. Some work with multiple agents and some work only with him. But he likes them to have liability insurance, in case, for example, the fire eater's sparks accidentally burn somebody. If he gets them a job, he gets 15 to 20 percent on average.

Though he deals with some very unique characters, Theriaque is not a particularly exciting person. He is amiable enough and he laughs fairly often, but his plodding demeanor reminds you of a mailroom clerk or maybe Cliff Claven, the mailman from the popular sitcom Cheers.

He says the quirky side of his personality comes out when he is clowning.

Put some clown makeup on his face for his character, Koz-mo (named after Cosmo Kramer in Seinfeld), and he'll do three cartwheels across the dining room.

But if he and his wife, Heather, go to a wedding, he's always been the type who sits at the table far from the dance floor.

"I'd say "hi,' but I wouldn't go out of my way to talk to you," he said.

* * *

The princess was a no-show. Something about long hours with one too many princess gigs. She didn't even call until later that day. He decides not to work with her.

As Theriaque has learned, entertainers come and go, and so a week later, he finds himself back at a restaurant to meet a mind reader he found doing magic and balloon twisting outside an ice cream shop.

He acknowledges that he's building his business and so often it's him going after the entertainers. So far this year, he took on Bruce, a man with a reptile show that includes a 15-foot albino snake called Banana Boy (Theriaque found him in the Yellow Pages); a Western guy from Texas who does rope tricks; a circus family who performs a high-wire act; and the human slinky, who dons rainbow-colored duct-like piping and does a bunch of flips and rolls.

He already has one mind reader, but it's good to have a backup.

The mind reader, Jack Lazzara, who performs as The Great Cerlini, is sitting on one end of a table with a black felt fedora on the table in front of him.

He does not immediately offer to read Theriaque's mind. Instead he slips him some promotional material and admits that he has no supernatural powers.

"Tell me about your mind reading," Theriaque says.

Lazzara says he bends spoons with his mind, identifies items from the audience while blindfolded, picks out cards that people have identified from a deck. Lazzara used to be a magician, but he had a kidney transplant in 1999 and could no longer do the heavy lifting.

So he turned to mind reading. He performs a demonstration, cupping a spoon with his hands and depositing it in the hands of Theriaque's assistant, Rick Lambert. Lambert uncups his hands and reveals the bent spoon.

"Do you have liability insurance?" Theriaque asks.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.