Words By Ambar Ramirez
I should start this article by saying I am not one who fears many things. In fact, I pride myself on the fact that I can usually face fear in the eyes and scare it off — except for that time when I watched the movie “Boogeyman” at the prime age of 5 and refused to go in my closet for a whole year. (As a result, my mom became my stylist, and frankly, the boogeyman wasn’t as scary as my outfits.) Will Smith said that once you get past the point of fear, you find happiness and joy … or something like that. That sounds great in theory but there are two things I am so afraid of that no amount of exposure therapy can cure — cockroaches and clowns. Fear of cockroaches makes sense. I’ve faced many cockroaches in my life (unfortunately), and I don’t care that they are small insects that are probably more afraid of us than we are of them. They are ruthless and natural selection should have selected them already. But to be honest with you, I don’t know where my fear of clowns stems from. Maybe it’s because of John Wayne Gacy or because they are always so happy it’s a little scary. Nonetheless, I refuse to watch any movies with clowns in them (no, I have not seen “IT” and I never will). I’ve made it through 23 years of life without coming face to face with a clown, but it seems my time is up. And of my own free will, may I add.
I decided that since I don’t know much about clowns (except for the fact that they make appearances at birthday parties and the occasional scary movie), many others may also have misplaced fears regarding those cheeky, red-nosed, always laughing jokesters. And what better way to kick off the spooky season than to come face to face with one of your greatest fears?
What’s crazy is that clowns have been around since 2400 B.C. in the fifth dynasty of Egypt. While I thought clowns were similar to jesters, that could not be further from the truth. According to Britannica, clowns, unlike jesters, perform a set routine characterized by broad, graphic humor. Clowning was a common act during medieval times but was not considered a professional act until the Middle Ages. The earliest, true circus clown was Joseph Grimaldi who first appeared in England in 1805. Grimaldi (aka Joey) is remembered as the father of modern clowning and is the clown after whom modern clowns take their nicknames.
What’s even crazier is that Jacksonville is home to a nonprofit clown alley and school. And what’s even crazier than that is the fact that I visited it —all in the name of research (you’re welcome “Folio” readers) — and it wasn’t that scary after all.
Gator Clowns of Jacksonville, Florida relies on volunteers to promote the art of clowning. It is one of the oldest, active clown alleys in North America and works toward spreading joy and laughter in north Florida and south Georgia. Other than clowning about at volunteer events, Gator Clowns is also home to a clown school where they teach the history of clowning, help you choose your clown persona, show you how to apply makeup, work on costuming, performance, improv, character development and so on.
Clowns come in all shapes, genders, ages and personas. And as the times have changed so has the act of clowning.
Toe-Knee The Italian Clown
Bill Gilespie also known as Toe-Knee the Italian clown has been with Gator Clowns since 1991. But his history with clowning goes back further than that. From a young age, Gilespie had an inclination toward art and magic, though that didn’t mean he saw himself becoming a clown.
“I think it was 1990. I was in season field in a squadron, and it was at Christmas time. And we had a clown invited. Her name was Rainbow —and she just passed — but she was down there doing face painting, magic shows and balloons,” Gilespie recalled. “And I asked our command master chief, ‘How much are we paying?’ And he said, “65 bucks an hour.” And then I was like, now I know what I want to do when I retire. So that’s what I did.”
One of the oldest members of Gator Clowns, Gilespie noted how nothing has changed about the non-profit other than the size of the group.
“When I came here in 1991, we had 165 members,” Gilespie shared. “But we’re still here. We’re here to serve the community.”
And while the act of clowning and what Gator Clowns does for the community hasn’t changed, the way the masses view clowns has. Gilespie shared that ever since the infamous killer clowns showed up, he’s been doing more magic shows than clown performances. Obviously, Gilespie and his fellow Gator Clowns haven’t allowed this negative portrayal to keep them from doing what they love. Gilespie volunteers at Wolfson Children’s Hospital where he lights up the faces of those wearing a frown too often.
“To be honest with you, my favorite part is entertaining the kids,” Gilespie shared.
Sprinkles The Clown
Carole Jennings also known as Sprinkles the Clown has been with Gator Clowns since 2011 along with her husband Sean (clown name: Shorty), though, if you saw her and heard her contagious laugh, you’d think she was born to be a clown. While Sean played a huge role in convincing Carole to become a clown, it wasn’t until she attended the Easter parade in St. Augustine that she got a glimpse into what being a clown means and the effect it can have on people.
Eventually, she was convinced and went to Clown College where she found a piece of herself that (I think) was always there.
“I wanted to be Sparkles. And I got to class that night and somebody said, What’s your name? And I said I want to be Sparkles. But then somebody else said you can’t be Sparkles because she wants to be Sparkles, and they pointed to a 10-year-old girl,” Carole recalled. “So the next logical word that just came to me was Sprinkles.”
Interestingly, I found out that clowns don’t just come up with a name but a whole persona that they embody when they put on their make-up and costumes. Since Carole didn’t originally want to be Sprinkles, she had to get creative with her backstory.
“One of the things they tell us early on is to come up with the back story … And I couldn’t come up with anything,” Carole shared. “But then a couple of years ago, one of the kids asked, ‘What’s your name?’ And I had to think, ‘OK, what’s appropriate?’ So I said that when my mom was waiting for me to be born all she did was eat cupcakes with sprinkles on them. And, you know what, the kids loved it. I love that because it’s a fantasy they can relate to.”
But again, time has opened up a lot of doors within the clown industry, as well as closed a lot of them. Carole emphasized how she has found that there is a very fine line between real life and clown life. And it’s not just because she has been in this profession for so long or that she is naturally inclined to make people smile.
“We were mentored by a guy who was a ringstar. So that was a lot of great exposure for us.
And he taught us a lot about what’s proper, what’s right, you know, how to dress and so on,” Carole said. “He’d probably die if he saw me now because, you know, in the old days, every inch was covered. And when we started, Tony taught us that everything was covered either by makeup or clothing. No jewelry, no earrings, no nothing to identify you as a human being. Because you were a fantasy creature. But times have changed. And that’s a hard thing for some of the older classes that have been around for 30, 40 years.”
Time has allowed for less makeup and more leniency when it comes to costumes. And while not every clown may agree with the changes, I can’t imagine being outside all day in the heat at a birthday party or parade, fully covered, head-to-toe.
“It’s hot. I’ve found ways to lighten up my makeup. I don’t need to cover my face in every space. I don’t wear a wig anymore, And who cares? I mean, I don’t. Like, you know, look at the world, some people dress really funny,” Carole said.
Shorty The Clown
Carole’s husband Sean Jennings, also known as Shorty The Clown (even though he is nowhere near short), was one of the few I spoke to who actually always admired clowns.
“I got out of the military in ’74. And my sister and I were talking and trying to figure out a career. And I think I just mentioned that I always liked clowns,” Sean mentioned. “And she said, ‘You know, they have a clown college.’”
That led Sean down a long road that many of us fall victim to — not feeling like he was good enough — but a couple of years later when Sean saw his friend’s post about going to clown school he decided it was time to follow his dreams. But on his first night at the new school, Sean didn’t find what he expected.
He was about to leave when he came across a guy sitting outside by himself. After a little back-and-forth conversation, Sean finds out that he has been a clown for years. And it was his words that convinced Sean not to leave.
“This guy, his name was Rich Baumann, but everybody called him Uncle Rich. And he said something like, ‘If you stay here, you will never, ever regret it,’” Sean recalled.
Since then, Sean has never regretted it. And not only did Uncle Rich encourage Sean to stick with clowning, but it was he we have to thank for the ironic clown name Shorty.
“Uncle Rich would always say, ‘It’s Shorty, my good friend, the world’s tallest little person.’ He was just a great guy,” Sean expressed. “I had like a week and a half before graduation, and he says, ‘Well, I don’t know what you’re going to do now so I guess I need to get my house together so everybody can come over. And on Memorial Day, Uncle Rich died. And so the first time I was ever in full costume was Uncle Richard’s memorial.”
But it wasn’t the last time Sean would wear his clown costume. Clowning has taken Sean and his wife to places he never thought he would see and do things he only dreamed about. Being a clown is more than a profession; it’s an escape from the mundane.
Sarah Page, also known as Buttons the Clown is one of the newest (and youngest) members of Gator Clowns and is changing the game when it comes to how the Gator Clowns community communicates and is taking engagement to new heights.
Before Page and before the pandemic, all Gator Clown meetings and classes were held solely in person. There was only a public Facebook page that would post events and upcoming meetings the day of, not giving members enough time to be involved. But now, members can attend meetings and classes through Zoom. Members are notified of events well ahead of time through a private Facebook page and can put in their two cents on a forum created by Page. Not only has Page brought back life and activity to the pandemic-affected Gator Clowns but through her own experience clowning, Page has also re-ignited excitement in her own life.
“It’s like growing up, all the things that were exciting about childhood and young adulthood started to fade and you’re like, ‘Oh, real life is settling in and it’s boring.’ And I just started to think about, like, what things made me happy when I was younger,” Page recalled. “When I was really young, my mom used to collect some clown memorabilia. And I’m one of four siblings, so my parents were all about the DIY, and my mom would make the birthday cakes herself and she used to always make a little clown face on my birthday cake when I was a kid. So it was just something that was familiar to me”
In the search to feed her inner child, Page remembered how most of her happy memories as a kid were tied, in one form or another, to clowns. In her early 20s, Page did a lot of volunteering and costume character work but never was she a clown.
“And I was like, you know, I want to just do that,” Page shared. “And that’s what led me to, you know, getting my knee out of my own slump and trying to find a community of people and after doing a little research I found Gator Clowns.”
Unlike the other clowns I had the privilege of speaking with, Page did not attend clown school. Instead, she taught herself through a lot of research, YouTube videos and, most importantly, DIY projects. Which is also how she came up with the name Buttons.
Page said she always gravitated toward arts and crafts and felt that it would be fun to still do the balloons and face-painting that come with clowning but also to be a crafty clown.
“I kind of thought it was fun to use the word ‘buttons’ because, you know, that’s something you’d use in arts and crafts. But a lot of what I also had read was humor is healing and when you’re clowning, you’re walking this fine line like a tightrope of, you know, extreme feelings, extreme emotions,” Page said. “And so it’s like the best and the worst times because clowns are like big emotion, big energy. And I thought, again, kind of the urge to conflate the fabrics of healing and humor and fastening things together. And I was like, oh, that’s cute.”
Needless to say, I’m not that afraid of clowns anymore as long as they aren’t holding any objects that can harm me. Sometimes all we need to do is lift that veil of uncertainty to look past all of the over-exaggerated makeup and costumes and see the person underneath.