Monday, November 24, 2014

Things I didn't Know #1: Are you afraid of clowns?

Clowning Around...

I grew up with Howdy Doody, Clarabell and Buffalo Bob Smith. They were funny and gentle and never frightened children. We laughed right along with them. Yes, we watched them on a black and white TV. Howdy began each episode with “What time is it?” and the roaring response from the audience was “It’s Howdy Doody time!” Clarabell the Clown and a marionette, Buffalo Bob Smith, were two of his most famous sidekicks.

Then there was Captain Kangaroo, who based his characters and skits on the relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren. From Wikipedia: Captain Kangaroo is an American children's television series that aired weekday mornings on the American television network CBS for nearly 30 years, from October 3, 1955 until December 8, 1984, making it the longest-running nationally broadcast children's television program of its day.[2][3] In 1986, the American Program Service (now American Public Television, Boston) integrated some newly produced segments into reruns of past episodes, distributing the newer version of the series until 1993.
The show was conceived and the title character played by Bob Keeshan, who based the show on "the warm relationship between grandparents and children." Keeshan had portrayed the original Clarabell the Clown on The Howdy Doody Showwhen it aired on NBC. Captain Kangaroo had a loose structure, built around life in the "Treasure House" (later known as "The Captain's Place") where the Captain (the name "kangaroo" came from the big pockets in his coat) would tell stories, meet guests, and indulge in silly stunts with regular characters, both humans and puppets.

El Chavo is a long-running Mexican comedy series, now in syndication. My new daughter-in-law introduced me to this madcap group of characters. They're all about slapstick and silly plots, and now Darling Granddaughter #1 wants to be El Chavo next year for Halloween. Generations have loved this show, and I usually don't need any translation---the skits are funny even if you don't know Spanish. Darling Granddaughter # thinks it's the funniest show she has ever seen. I must admit, El Chavo is growing on me. 

And then was the unforgettable Red Skelton with his alter ego, Freddie the Freeloader. The son of a clown, Skelton was loved worldwide. On his TV show he would sit down in front of an empty makeup mirror frame and apply clown  makeup until he had morphed into Freddie. It was amazing to watch. He was a frequent ad-libber and loved to catch his guest stars off guard on live TV. His life was not without great tragedy; comedy was his therapy and coping mechanism when times were rough.

 One of his most touching pantomimes was “the old man watching the parade.” He entertained the troops many times, and wrote a touching speech, which he credited to a teacher in his youth, which explained what each phrase meant. That became a hit record. He was a patriot. Later in life, as a hobby, he began painting pictures of clowns, which became immensely popular. Lithographs of his portraits bring in 2.5 million a year, more than he made in performing. Here is one of his subjects: 

From Wikipedia: Skelton believed his life's work was to make people laugh and wanted to be known as a clown, because he defined it as being able to do everything. He had a 70-year career as a performer and entertained three generations of Americans during this time. Many of Skelton's personal and professional effects, including prints of his artwork, were donated toVincennes University by his widow, where they are part of the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy.

And he ended every show with the sweet phrase, “Good night and God bless.”

I love this picture, though I didn't take it, and that's a mini-engine... but you get the idea when you read the following account: 

Years ago were vacationing in Washington state with our three sons and decided to take them on a tour of the Olympia Brewery. For educational purposes, of course. I’m not sure it had the intended effect on our sons, one of whom thought his non-drinking parents were idiots for not accepting the free glass of beer offered to adults at the conclusion of the tour. And of course there were soft drinks for the kids or those who didn't want beer. 

While we were sitting at a table and enjoying our drinks, in came a troupe of clowns. They were dressed extravagantly in the most outrageous and colorful outfits I had ever seen. Their makeup was elaborate. A couple of them joined us at the table and began asking our almost-speechless sons what they liked to do and what they wanted to be when they grew up (as I recall, none of the boys gave the correct answer—what they wanted to be then was not the careers of an OB/GYN, an exercise physiologist, or an embedded systems computer engineer). 

The clowns explained that they were on a their annual 3 week tour of parades and children’s hospitals and that it was a highlight of the year for their organization. After enjoying perhaps a bit too much of the brewery’s bounty, they climbed onto a bright red shiny vintage fire truck, like the one pictured below. They found their footing on running boards on each side of the truck, holding on for dear life, while one of their party drove the engine. With much honking and waving, they took off for their next event. It was just one of those wonderful and unexpected experiences you’re sometimes blessed to have during your travels. 

Now, this long essay on clowns was prompted by my question: Why are people afraid of clowns? I have learned, only in the past few years, that many people are truly frightened of clowns, and that it's often a deep-seated fear that begins in childhood. Did a clown scare them? Did they see a sinister clown in a movie or TV show? I'd love to know more about this. 

I'm glad that my clowns are and were gentle, engaging, and funny. How about you?

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