Clown convention brings performers together again after tough times amid pandemic

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NORTHBROOK, Ill. — Clowns energize birthday parties and visit sick children in the hospital. But clowning around is serious business; one who was not immune to the pandemic.

“I say the makeup goes away, but the joy lasts forever,” said Los Angeles-based clown Jozo Bozo.

This week, professional clowns and enthusiasts from all over the country have been brought together.

“I felt rusty as I started doing certain things because it had been a while without anything,” said Randall Munson, a clown, ventriloquist and magician known as Circles.

After a three-year hiatus, hundreds of members gathered in person to attend classes, compete and perform at the World Clown Association’s annual spring convention.

“I love making kids laugh and I love making balloon animals,” said Jozo Bozo. “I’m learning to do that right now, as well as juggling, and it’s so much fun.”

“We have magicians. We have puppeteers. We have balloon artists. We have makeup artists. We had the clowns doing birthday parties. Clowns who host corporate events,” said WCA President Robin “Pinkie Bee” Brian.

Chad Stender, owner of Red Nose Factory, a company that makes custom clown noses in all shapes and sizes, attended the convention for the first time.

“A lot of people consider it like wearing a mask, even though it’s very small, it’s still something you can put on and feel differently about who you are,” Stender said.

It was a difficult time for these creative artists. Their bread and butter comes from in-person interactions.

“I do a lot of fair events; actually county fairs, and I walk around,” professional clown Julia Swanson said. “I have a ukulele and I play music, sing, juggle and take pictures and antics.”

Swanson has literally been a clown all his life. At 18, she joined the Ringling Brother’s Circus. She says social distancing and masking have made her job much more difficult.

“You want me to cover a lot of that, including my nose, which is for us, that’s the money maker, right? That’s the big deal. That’s what makes you a clown,” she said.

She is not alone. For many full-time clowns, the pandemic has nearly ruined them financially.

“I had no income, no job. I found myself in lines to get food to cry out loud. It was tough,” Brian said.

She found support in the generosity of her performing family.

“I would receive a card in the mail. “I thought you might need that $20.” Another: $100. So my clown family supported me and helped me pay my electricity bill during COVID,” she said.

She can’t help but be moved as she talks about the kindness she received.

“I have never had unemployment. I never received anything, but I asked my family of clowns to support me and they helped me,” Brian said.

But this week, these smile-makers left the sadness behind for a fresh start. The meeting here is as much about honing skills and sharing the art form as it is about camaraderie.

“Clowning around makes you live longer. They say, ‘Oh, what’s the secret, right? What’s the secret to living forever? Greasy paint. This right here. It’s amazing. This is amazing,” Swanson said.

It’s a reminder that when the masks come off, there is healing in laughter.

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