Like a Gathering of the Juggalos but with better makeup: Tales from a Clown Convention

Earlier this month I decided that you people have stood in my way for long enough.  For the first time ever, I was going to a clown convention!

The Clowns of America International (COAI) is one of the two major clowning organizations in North America.  The other is the World Clown Association (WCA).  I wish I could say that they were the Marvel and DC of the clown world, but the reality that a lot of clowns have membership in both organizations. The President of the WCA was even at the COAI convention, and not once was he drummed out of town, tarred and feathered, or tied to the cowcatcher of a train.  Membership gets you access to a local alley (which is a clown club), a weekly magazine, a nifty card, and the opportunity to attend the yearly clown convention.

The convention itself is held in Las Vegas.  Not on The Strip, as one might expect, but in a less world-famous one built more for conventions.  The week before, the casino hosted dune buggy enthusiasts.  After us clowns cleared out, they’d be getting ready for the reptile expo.  Somehow, my Uber driver knew about that.  Those reptile handlers have good PR.  Incidentally, when he asked me what I was doing in Vegas, I coyly told him that I was there for an entertainers’ convention.  Saying straight up that you’re a clown might not get the reaction you want.

So when yow imagine “clown convention,” especially one of the major ones held in a city people might be excited to go to, you have, perhaps, expectations as big as a foam comedy prop.  I did, at least.  My major convention going experience have been comic cons, naturally.  Even the tiny ones in the middle of farmlands have a certain bustle to them.  Vendor booths lining the hallways, groups hanging out, that sort of thing.

Instead, the hallways look like this most of the time:

To be fair, not all COAI members go.  I had been a member for six years, and this was the first time I’ve gone.  I also probably wouldn’t have gone if my alley hadn’t covered the cost of everything.  Folks going independently to cover the cost of the convention fee, the lodging, and the travel.  Then there’s the time commitment.  Like many clowns, I only do this part time.  I hold a day job at the same time I’m doing my clowning thing.  So you have to somehow tell your boss that you’re going to be out of town for an entire week to do a clown convention.

And yet, from what I had heard from convention goers who had been there for the last three decades, it is in decline.  The convention had once attracted 500 participants.  This year, the number was somewhere over a hundred.  Of those, I know that thirty were there for the first time… which means the regular attendees hadn’t come back.  Aging performers are one reason.  (Darkly, the convention began with a poor elderly clown falling ill at breakfast and being taken to ER.)

I’m sure you can speculate the other reasons as to why.

I got into a discussion with the guy who was also the competition organizer.  He was a tall, older man with a strong Massachusetts accent who was salty as hell.  I like the guy.  For some reason, we got to talking about the profession, and he tells me that one of the things that bothered him were people who were calling themselves full-time clowns.  He used to work for the Cole Circus, he says.  He was on the road twenty-eight days straight.  That was being a full-time clowns and not, what he class it, “a weekend warriah” clown.

While I agreed with him, the days he’s talking about are past.  Most circuses have closed, even the once mighty Ringling Brothers.  Most of the attendees are going to be these “weekend warrior” clowns.  The leadership, though — instructors, organizers, judges… they’re all veterans who got their lumps working at the circus.

One night as I was walking the halls, I spied two of the teachers (out of make-up, of course) taking a break.  One was a young woman, a second generation clown, who had been performing for the Ringling Brothers just two years ago.  The second was an older master of silent comedy.  They were seated in a circle with other veteran clowns.  The two of them had ukuleles.  The young woman belted out in a fragile voice that wouldn’t be out of place in a coffee house during the 1990’s.  She had said that she learned the ukulele because there was nothing to do on the circus train when you were between gigs.  I felt a tinge of melancholy watching them.  I imagine scenes like this once played out on circus trains across the country — clowns taking a break between shows and singing around a circle — and that those days were gone forever.

All that said, being at the convention was like living in an odd fantasy world away from home.  I was up at six and often wouldn’t get back to bed until midnight.  Twice the custodians would try to shoo me off, insisting that there was no one in the halls.  But nope, they were wrong.  There was an all night balloon twisting session going on!  For four days, you lived and breathed being a clown.  Putting on make-up, taking off make-up to eat somewhere (the casino made it clear that out of the convention space were were not allowed to wear clown make-up), taking classes, twisting balloons, everything.  It was tiring but a strange and delightful alternative universe where your biggest concern was whether or not you remembered to “click” your hands when doing the tried-and-true “mime trapped in a box” routine.

I didn’t really appreciate it until I got back home, saddled with delinquent work projects, family troubles, and getting preparations ready for guests who were coming over the same night I returned.  Oh, to be back in the world when I was taking notes on simple children’s magic tricks!

Julie Varholdt (“Lovely Buttons”) is the 2019 Clown of the Year.  She deserves it.  She was one of the most supportive and friendly clowns I’d met at the convention.  Some of the clowns from my alley were a little surprised that she’d entered so many competitions, being that she was one of the staff as well.  In their opinion, only amateur clowns should’ve entered.

Let me tell you as someone who competed directly against her in three of the four competitions: I am very glad she was competing against me.  If the circus is dead, Lovely Buttons points to a glorious, post-circus future.  The things she came up with — whether it was a single balloon heart that looking like it was made out of pixels or a butterfly costume on stilts — were awe-inspiring.  She showed up at the comedy whiteface competition dressed up like this:

The first thing running through my mind, of course, was, “There’s no way I am beating THAT.”  The second though, was: “I NEED to have a costume like that in my wardrobe.”  Here’s the thing: I thought I had a pretty good chance of placing because I’d seen entries from previous years.  They weren’t that remarkable.  Standard jumpsuits in primary colors, with stripes and polkadots being the order of the day.  Just look at the header image.  That’s what it looks like most of the time.

Lovely Buttons?  She was taking things to the next level.  This is like that Comic Con moment when people started dressing up in spray-painted foam armor and elaborate dresses and realizing that dressing up in your Rubie’s Superman outfit wasn’t going to cut it anymore.  This is clowning with the boundaries being pushed is great and exciting ways.

I actually started wondering what would happen if the clown convention started being more like comic con.  It’s not going to happen… but imagine a world where some people just hung around just for the opportunity to dress up in colorful costumes all day.  I imagine there really isn’t much separating people who like to dress up in rainbow dresses and people who dress up like Harley Quinn.  It’s just that the former is more likely to know how to make a balloon dinosaur.

Besides, there’s something refreshing about knowing you’re not winning.  The makeup competition is actually a fairly somber affair.  You have to parade in front of the judges as stiffly as possible, do quarter turns, a pose, and then basically stand still for five minutes while they do their evaluations.  And… standing still is sort of impossible when you’re dressed like a clown.  So knowing I wasn’t going to win anyway… I was going to clown a bit.  While the judges had their heads down, I did some silly poses for the audience, then snapped back to being serious whenever a judge lifted their heads.

I got two firm “settle down” warnings from the judges.  Stop clowning around, basically.  At a clown convention.  I’m sure there’s some meta-commentary in there that I can weave in if Alex Trebek asks me to relate a humorous personal anecdote on Jeopardy.

But, man, the ladies watching in the front row couldn’t help it.  They bust out laughing.  Honestly, I don’t care if I didn’t win.  I made people laugh.  That’s what I’m in the game for.

The competitions themselves felt like some combination of Face/Off, Chopped, and a magician competition combined.  I hadn’t really planned on competing that much, but when I saw that sign in sheet I said, “This sounds like it could be fun” a bit far too often.  The most nerve wracking was the balloon twisting one.  For a multi-balloon piece, you have 15 minutes to complete.  I went with an ambitions project: a football player.  I did a few dry runs in my room and determined that I could get it down to 13 minutes if nothing went wrong.

Well… it went wrong.  I flubbed several twists and couldn’t keep track of the colors I wanted to use.  I didn’t even have time to make a football, which was crucial.  You know those cake competitions, and the judges boom out, “ONE MINUTE LEFT, COMPETITORS”?  I now know what that terror feels like.

Also, now that I look at it, the foot was backwards.  Overall… I placed 10th.  I have no idea if that’s good or not.  The alley thought it was good placement so… hurrah.

People who saw my pieced guessed it was either Popeye or a deep sea diver.  To which I said, “Hey, if you think it’s Popeye… it’s Popeye.”  Which… well, I know which sailor man I want to attempt at the next convention in any case.

And if you think that balloons aren’t a physical challenge, let me tell you: by the end of the contest, my thumbs were literally bleeding.  You don’t realize how important thumbs are until you try to operate an iPhone.

The convention attracts all varieties of oddballs.  I mean that affectionately.  You do have to be a little odd to even consider being a clown in the first place, especially in this day and age when It: Chapter Two is poised to be one of the biggest movies of the year.  There are first-timers who are wearing the same Halloween costume outfit that I bought when I started out.  There are small town performers who take tiny seaplanes to get from gig to gig.

All in the noble pursuit of trying to make people smile.

Incidentally, I did win an award, but not in any of my singles competitions.  Out team placed first in performance. I did a lot of physical comedy for that one. There is no better feeling than knowing that one of the judges, a professional comedian who specializes in physical comedy and the same guy playing ukulele from earlier, laughed out loud when I scooted onstage in a wheeled board and pretended to be rowing.  High praise from the master.

But, like I said, I didn’t do it on my own.  I guess that’s the lesson here and why I want the COAI convention to come back year after year after year.  If I were to learn balloon twisting alone — maybe just watching from YouTube — I’ll eventually run into a brick wall and progress no further.  If I was doing a performance myself?  I am guaranteed to place last.

But to be in an alley where there a people who’d been doing this for decades?  An alley where one of the members was an instructor for one of the teachers currently teaching at this convention?  One where people are experienced enough to know when to tell you to “settle down”?  You can push yourself to do better things.

There’s strength in community.  And now I have a championship medal that proves it.