NORTHBROOK, Ill. — Clowns energize birthdays and pay visits to sick children in the hospital. But clowning is a serious business; one that wasn't immune from the pandemic.
“I say that the makeup comes off, but the joy lasts forever,” said Los Angeles-based clown Jozo Bozo.
This week, professional clowns and enthusiasts from around the nation have been reunited.
“I felt rusty as I was starting to do some things because it's been a while of nothing,” 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 to make kids laugh and I love to make balloon animals,” said Jozo Bozo. “I'm learning how to do that right now, as well as juggling, and it's just so much fun.”
“We have magicians. We have puppeteers. We have balloon artists. We have face painting artists. We had the clowns that do birthday parties. The clowns that do corporate events,” said Robin "Pinkie Bee" Brian, The WCA’s president.
Chad Stender, the owner of Red Nose Factory—a company that makes custom clown noses in all different shapes and sizes—attended the convention for the first time.
“A lot of people consider it similar to wearing a mask, even though it's very small, it's still kind of something that you get to put on and feel differently about who you are,” said Stender.
It’s been a challenging time for these creative performers. Their bread and butter come from in-person interactions.
“I do a lot of fair events; actually, county fairs, and I stroll around,” said professional clown Julia Swanson. “I have a ukulele and I play music and sing and juggle and take pictures and antics.”
Swanson has literally been a clown her whole life. At 18-years-old, she joined the Ringling Brother’s Circus. She says social distancing and masking made her work much tougher.
“You want me to cover this much of it, including my nose, which is to us, that's the moneymaker, right? That's the big thing. That's what makes you a clown,” she said.
She’s not alone. For many full-time clowns, the pandemic nearly ruined them financially.
“I had zero income, zero work. I ended up in the food lines to get food for crying out loud. It was tough,” said Brian.
She found support in the generosity of her performing family.
“I'd get a card in the mail. ‘I thought you might need this $20.’ Another one: $100. So, my clown family supported me and helped me pay my electric bill during COVID,” she said.
She can’t help but get emotional talking about the kindness she was given.
“I never got any unemployment. I never got anything, but I got my clown family to back me up and they helped me out,” said Brian.
But this week, these smile-makers left the sadness behind for a new start. The reunion here is as much about honing skills and sharing the art form as it is about camaraderie.
“Clowning just makes you live longer. They say, ‘Oh, what's the secret, right? What's the secret to living forever?’ Greasepaint. This right here. It's amazing. It's amazing,” said Swanson.
It’s a reminder that as the masks come off there is healing in laughter.