Thursday, August 14, 2008
Expired clowns, Verne Langdon, and Me: Part Two
Below is the "expired clown"* who was most on my mind when recently I contemplated how much the image of clowns has changed since I was a kid. I blame news and photos of John Wayne Gacy with having the most negative impact on how we think of clowns.
This face, with its angular makeup design (you could describe it as sharp-edged), and bald head with no visible ears, was seen by millions of TV news viewers in 1978-- the year of his arrest-- and again in 1994, the year of his execution. No wonder today people see clowns as creepy with this murderous buffoon becoming so widely infamous.
In a phone conversation with Verne Langdon (a Hollywood makeup artist for many years, distantly related to silent film "clown" Harry Langdon), I asked him if he felt the same way. He didn't agree entirely, but felt Gacy "did have an impact." He also identified "lipstick clowns" as part of the problem. The term, he said, was one used by professional clowns to refer to the amateur who wears a banal (or worse) makeup design and performs at children's birthday parties, parades, charity events, mall openings, etc. (The kind that typically wear cheap "rainbow 'fro" wigs.) "Typically, they're dentists, attorneys, businessmen, with little understanding of the true Clowning Art - including makeup. They won't shave their mustache or and beard, but try instead to work it into their character's makeup" said Langdon, and generally look disappointing, as compared to "the professional career clowns of yesteryear who worked for circuses." The lack of performing talent is a problem for some of these clown wannabes, who rely too much on looking like what they think a clown should look like and acting silly. "Generally speaking, the makeup isn't funny, it's the face underneath making expressions that make clown makeups work," he said. "Too many real clowns are gone. It's a hand-me-down profession that just dried up and blew away."
He pointed out that the lipstick or party clowns are seen close-up, and that can be frightening to a small child. Professional circus clowns don't pick up kids or get right in their face; "kids judged those clowns from a distance as they performed, usually," he said. He recalled a photo-op picture of Liza Minneli as a small child looking "apprehensive and terribly concerned" while being held by Pinto Colvig in his original Bozo the Capitol Clown makeup. And Minnelli would have been used to seeing adults wearing makeup and costumes. A clown's appearance is so out-of-the-ordinary it can be frighteningly weird to a child, much like Santa can be.
Of course, it probably didn't help the clowning profession that the world's most famous clown for the last 40 years is this guy, a shill for junk food:
Of course, I refer to the clown on the right. (From the look on their faces, I'd say both of them were getting super-sized.)
Some photos of truly bad lipstick clowns can be seen here, here, and here.
Langdon said he was less concerned in the way clowns are perceived than in the way circuses are perceived. He longs to see them under canvases again, and with elephants, whom he adamantly insists are not mistreated as PETA, primarily, claims.
But such grand entertainment like an old-fashioned circus is fading, because, Langdon says, "we're a fast-food society, in a hurry. We demand things right now and again in an hour."
I asked about how he got interested in clowns and clowning. He said he was fascinated with clowns from seeing his first circus when he was five. So it was only natural that as a boy of eleven he'd be pulled out of school one day by his father and mother and taken to the Ringling Bros./Barnum and Bailey circus, to watch them unload and see the Big Top go up, and meet the clowns before the matinee. That day he met famed Ringling veteran clowns Felix Adler and Emmett Kelly, who invited him to watch them make up for the show.
Not long after, when visiting Polack Bros. Circus with his mother, young Verne met the famed "picture clown" Harry Dann. Fascinated by Dann's meticulously-detailed, classic makeup, Verne asked the performer if he could touch it. Dann gave permission, and when the young Verne felt the clown's powdered face, he was amazed that the makeup felt dry and didn't smear. Like it was real. And there was green eyeshadow in the clown's makeup design, something never seen then, because most formulations for green greasepaint were toxic.
Verne was so fascinated with clown makeup and clowning that Dann invited him to hang around backstage in "clown alley" and observe the clowns applying their makeup and working in the show. Verne was encouraged to return as often as he liked; he was welcomed because of his interest and the fact he was quiet and stayed out of everyone's way. The clowns liked and therefore befriended him. As an adult in the 1970s, Verne dabbled in circus clowning himself, performing with the Dewayne Bros. Circus and the famous Ringling Bros./Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Eventually, things came full circle while he worked as a clown. A kid who was fascinated by Verne's makeup approached Verne and asked if he could touch it. "The youngster was amazed my makeup was dry and didn't smear! That gave me goose bumps as I recalled my first meeting so many years before with my circus pal Harry Dann."
Speaking of things that cause goose bumps, the fear of clowns is a real disorder, known as coulrophobia. From a National Geographic documentary comes this clip profiling a woman suffering from severe coulrophobia.
Below are two pictures of Verne Langdon from his days as a professional circus clown. The first is a publicity photo for the Dewayne Bros. Circus, the bottom one is from his time at Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey. Standing next to him is Mark Anthony.
Personally, I love clowns. Used to watch Bob Keeshan, Marcel Marceau, and Red Skeleton clowning on TV when I was a kid-- also dressed and made myself up as a hobo clown back then to entertain my baby sister. But if you're a clown bigot (the last acceptable prejudice ;^P ), you'll want to read this funny essay by a clown-hating young woman .
I'll close with a clown joke:
Two cannibals are eating a clown. One asks the other why it took so long to fix supper. The other cannibal replies, "Have you ever tried to clean a clown?"
Recommended website: PAT CASHIN'S CLOWN ALLEY.NET
* I like the term-- it sounds like a clown that is past its freshness point and is turning sour.