Putting a new face on fun

People of all ages learn the art of creating laughter in a clown class at the Largo Community Center.

Published October 8, 2005

LARGO - In this makeup class, eyebrows the shape of McDonald's arches are what's happening.

Blue is beautiful when it comes to eyeliner.

Big noses are in.

And lips are white on top, red on the bottom, with little red balls at the corners - it helps achieve a perpetual smile.

You won't see this look in beauty magazines, but you will see it in clown class, where students learn the art of creating laughter.

The eight-week course, taught twice a year at the Largo Community Center on Saturday mornings, teaches the basics of clowning - like makeup, character development, juggling, sculpting balloons and skits.

But clown class is more than colossal feet, big hair and silly stunts.

It's about teamwork, shedding inhibitions and finding your inner clown.

On a recent Saturday, Judy Baysinger, 53, of Largo, who said she's normally reserved and quiet, sat in front of a mirror and morphed into Biffy, a whiteface clown.

"I've always wanted to be a clown, but people would laugh at the idea," she said, painting a red dot on the tip of her nose. "Then I decided if I don't do it now, I never will. I was always afraid to be myself, but underneath a costume and makeup, I can let my inner child out. I can act like a fool."

Gerry Wise, 74, of Largo says she is an "extreme extrovert" and a collector of clown memorabilia. For years, she has suppressed an urge to walk around with a painted face, outlandish wig and a kooky costume.

But no more.

"When you get to be my age and there aren't a lot of years left, you might as well go out and do all the crazy things you've wanted to," she said.

She felt so emboldened by her wig and painted face, she decided to test out her look in Publix after class.

"Everyone was smiling and waving and coming up to me. I loved it," she said.

The class is taught by Yo Yo and Topsy, a.k.a. Jerry and Connie Yarbrough. They've taught the art of clowning for 17 years, eight of them with Largo's Recreation, Parks and Arts Department.

"We have a very unusual relationship with the city," said Jerry, 77. "In return for giving us free space to teach the class, we send our clowns to their events," including parades, festivals and holiday celebrations.

Graduates of the class can become members of Uptown Clowns, Alley 301, a chapter of Clowns of America International.

Many of the clowns also participate in other events in other cities, but Largo gets priority. As they become comfortable with their craft, many entertain at birthday parties, retirement homes and schools.

The current class has four clowns in training.

"Normally we have about 10," said Connie, 73. "We've had ages 8 to 80."

One of the first things students learn about is the three basic types of clowns.

A whiteface clown is a pretty, harlequinlike clown who often wears two-piece fancy costumes. This clown usually gets the gags started.

An Auguste is a slapstick-type clown, usually the mischief-maker. "Auguste means stupid in Berlin German dialect," said Jerry. Augustes usually have a flesh-tone face with comic features and wild ill-fitting costumes.

Then there is the Tramp. Think Charlie Chaplin or Red Skelton's character Freddy the Freeloader.

"The Tramp clown came from the hobos who rode the rails in 1930s," Jerry said. "They'd have dirty faces and wipe their mouths and eyes so you'd have the lighter eyes and muzzle area."

The tramp is usually the fall guy who's always sad. His or her costume is always old and torn, Yarbrough said.

After painting their faces - an affair that takes a couple of hours - the students declare their new names: Pooke, Biffy, Mit-Z, and Happy.

Katherine Donahue of Clearwater is Pooke, an Auguste.

"I was surprised there is so much to learn about clowning, like all the rules and guidelines," she said.

For instance, clowns should never show their teeth. The makeup around the mouth will make them look yellow.

When performing, clowns should wear some type of comedy underwear - just in case of a wardrobe malfunction or the urge to drop one's pants.

And what about those people who are fearful of clowns?

"If a child is frightened, just back away from them," Connie said. "Don't try to talk to them."

And of course, there are the obvious no-nos.

"No smoking, drinking, cussing, chewing tobacco or spitting," Jerry said.

The course costs $90 and includes use of loaner props and wigs. Students make or buy their own costumes. Costumes can be simple and inexpensive or can run into hundreds of dollars for shoes, wigs and elaborate attire.

On this Saturday, the ladies practiced juggling with two different colored scarves, played some simple songs with bells, and began working on a skit. They will show off their newly acquired skills during a graduation on Oct. 30 from 2 to 4 p.m.

During practice for the skit dubbed "Contagious Diseases," the students couldn't stop cracking up.

"The thing that sells this is you have to have a straight face," Jerry said. But the more they tried to contain themselves, the more they giggled.

Laughter, after all, is the bottom line.

Carol-Lynn Schofield, a 50-year-old postal worker, devoted eight vacation days just to attend the classes. "After 9/11, the war in Iraq, and all these hurricanes, I was feeling kind of low," she said. "I just decided I needed to cheer myself up by making others smile."


The next class begins Feb. 11. The three-hour classes are held on Saturdays at the Largo Community Center, 65 Fourth St. NW. The cost is $90. For more information, call Yo Yo and Topsy (known in civilian life as Jerry and Connie Yarbrough) at (727) 517-4244.