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Clowning's sober side

Being funny isn’t always easy, say Shrine clowns competing for honors. One of the hardest parts is keeping a smile on in front of kids in pain.

Published July 3, 2006

TAMPA — It’s serious business being a clown. Monday, several were paraded through an auditorium and told to strike poses individually as if they were in a police lineup.

“With these characters, it should be,” said Terry “Stinky” Boyer, 62, who carried a puppet skunk on his hand as well as green onions and garlic in his overalls.

Turn around. Turn to the side. Stick up your hands and show what’s under your sleeves. “Turn to the right,” a judge said.

The International Clown Association’s annual competition was Monday at the Egypt Shrine’s headquarters as part of the Shriners’ annual international convention in Tampa this week. Members of Shrine centers all over the nation are here, along with their clowns, an integral part of local parades and events for at least five decades.

There is plenty of fun: Some clowns keep their pancake makeup on and go swimming at their hotel pools — just for effect. But past the paint, there is a more somber side to “clowning down.” Some Shrines take the task seriously enough to require a year’s apprenticeship. There are tears of a clown, too. They fall privately after burnt and crippled children touch them during Shriners hospital visits.

The competition is no laughing matter. “It’s cutthroat,” said Sanford “Ootz” Morris, president of the Shrine clown association. A judge’s scorecard is a stringent checklist, which includes, “How well is his makeup applied? Is it complete, dry and powdered?”

Jitters showed. One of the 70 clowns in the competition rehearsed lines from a yellow note pad, his bloated clown shoes mercilessly beating the linoleum while he paced. A wife dabbed her finger on her tongue and repainted her anxious husband’s makeup. One clown worried that his gloves wouldn’t stay on.

Being a Shrine clown comes with a four-page manual. They can’t have skin showing. They can’t smoke or drink in costume. They can’t throw candy. (Errant throws can lure children into parade routes, where they might be run over.)

“Can’t dress like a woman either,” Morris said. “This is a family organization.”

Harlan Anderson, 52, of South Dakota, owns an auto repair center. But he called being a clown his greatest accomplishment.

“This is my calling,” he said. “You want to look your best.”

But to do so, he needs to look his worst. He is a “tramp” or “hobo” clown, who rubbed his outfit raw with a brick to achieve its tattered look. He affixed a can opener and spoon to his hole-ridden hat, used twine for shoelaces and blended makeup to get the right coffee-grounds, days-old, bearded look. He stuck a fly to his red nose.

Clowns had all kinds of props. Elvis had a guitar. The Canadian Mountie had handcuffs. The chef had ketchup and mustard. The artist had a giant paintbrush and beret. Uncle Sam, the birthday boy, looked proud in stilts.

George Kirkpatrick, 72, of Baltimore was “Smiley” the clown. But leaning against a back wall, his countenance better fit his button: “At my age, I’m entitled to be grumpy.”

Many of the participants had been up since at least 5 a.m. Makeup closes the pores, and the outfits can be as breathable as snowsuits. But the most discomfort clowns feel, they say, comes when they feel the most rewarded: Volunteering at Shriners hospitals.

Doug Hutchinson, 55, of Brandon, who goes by “Bobo” the hobo, has seen children with deformities and lost limbs.

“It just tears me up,” he said looking at his giant brown shoes with fake toes sticking out.

“Every one of us has gone into a men’s room and composed ourselves and went back out,” said Jack Jones, 55, a Pittsburgh electrical engineer, whose rainbow-striped pants and curly yellow wig turns him into “Bubbles.”

Barry Maxwell, 53, a retired Ohio fire marshal in a clown outfit that matches Superman’s color scheme, remembers entertaining a boy whose bolted leg looked like Frankenstein’s.

“You can make these kids laugh,” he said, “and the stuff that they’re going through … you want to cry.”
Being a clown is full of hardships, said Charles Howard, 48, of Indianapolis, who goes by “Wrong Way” when he puts on his roller skates and red- and yellow-striped socks.

His young granddaughter gets “freaked out” by his costume. People often stomp on his clown shoes as if they were balloons, not $350 investments.

“It hurts,” said Howard, a government accountant who retired from the Army after 20 years. “There’s a person under that clown costume. It ain’t funny.”

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or

[Last modified July 3, 2006, 22:59:33]

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