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Clowning around on the Web

Steve Fowler uses the Internet to promote his sideline businesses and personal interests.

By DAVE GUSSOW Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 28, 1998

Steve Fowler is part Web master, all clown.

"At work I see Web stuff," said Fowler, a k a Bumper the Clown. "At home, at the mall . . . I'm always seeing things as a clown."

It wasn't always that way. Technology came first. Fowler has worked at Paradyne in Largo since 1987, and is a Web master/developer in the company's information systems department.

But the clown bug bit a few years ago, and he used his technical background to learn, and share, more about his passion for clowning.

His Web site (stevefowler.home.mindspring.com/) combines his personal life with -- what else? -- clown information and links. It was featured in a Yahoo! Internet Life (www.zdnet.com/yil/content/mag/9809/am_fowler.html) series called How America Uses the Net.

The evolution of Fowler's Web site reflects not only the change in his interests, but also the way personal Web pages are being used. He started with information about himself and his family, then added material and links on clowns. It evolved into a site for his budding side businesses as a clown and Web developer, a tribute to his late father who also was a clown, and some of the groups he works with, including a clown ministry called Fools for Christ.

"Four years ago, not a lot of people had home pages," said Fowler, 40, of Palm Harbor. "I think most of what you saw out there was primarily people that were Web savvy."

It was part family, part church work that led Fowler to his life as a clown, and it was a quest for information about clowning that helped drive the expansion of his Web site.

His father's sideline was clowning, too. Growing up, he had watched his father and other clowns and magicians, but he never learned the art of clowning himself.

About three years ago, someone mentioned clowning at a church meeting when the group was trying to think of something special to do for Vacation Bible School. "Kind of this little beeping went off" in his head, Fowler said.

Fowler carried on a clown tradition by taking his father's clown name but developing his own look. Theirs had not always been a happy relationship; they were estranged for years. But they reconciled when Fowler was an adult, and the site is part tribute to his father, who died in 1992.

What he needed most at first, Fowler said, was information, and the Web proved perfect for that. At Web sites run by other clowns and vendors, he discovered, for example, that clowns can't wear latex noses in some children's hospitals because they could be harmful to children with spina bifida.

A lot of people interested in clowning still need that kind of information, or need to find makeup, props, skit materials or books. They can use links on Fowler's site to vendors who sell those things.

He uses the site as a billboard for his business, Binky Productions, as well as to gather clown lore.

"I don't get millions of hits a day on my Web site," Fowler said, "but my Web site attracts a particular audience."

One of the mistakes people new to the Web make, he said, is not knowing what they want to do with their site. They try to include so much it becomes a mishmash. He says narrowing the focus helps. That is something he has done by organizing material by subject. Other common mistakes he sees include overloading pages with graphics and photos that take a long time to load, and using images that are too big (he uses small images, which visitors can click on if they want to see the bigger version).

That is the Web master in him. Clowning, though, is never far away.

Fowler does some clown performances free, such as for the clown ministry or charities, and some for fees, such as birthday parties or appearances at stores.

"The money's nice because it helps pay for some of the stuff I have to deal with," Fowler said. "In clowning, things tend to be expensive. A good costume can be $300 to $400."

Fowler doesn't hide his religious faith on the site. He feels strongly about the work he does with the clown ministry, saying its intensity can wear him out because he works hard to make sure he says and does the right things.

"I'm about sharing myself and sharing what I'm doing with the Fools group, where we're trying to teach a message, an object lesson," Fowler said. "I just want to let people know that's part of my clowning. It's not just a business aspect. I'm not in it just for the money."

The ministry work can range from just an appearance ("Sometimes just being there and bringing a smile to people's faces is part of the ministry") to skits. One skit, called Boxes, has seven clowns that bring out boxes with negative feelings (such as hate, fear and greed). An act of kindness lets each clown turn the box around to show a positive response (such as love, peace and understanding).

As the Web evolves and more people turn to it for community information, more people of faith and community organizations may want to give it a try, he says.

Fowler doesn't know how the side business will develop, and with two teenagers in high school, he is not ready to chuck it all for clowning.

Someday, though. You can never tell.

"I'm a clown regardless of what's going on," Fowler said. "I like that. Some may not, but it's who I am."

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