Caring ClownsJune 7, 2014
Story by Tony Raap
Photos by Carolyn Van Houten
In a housing unit for the elderly, more than a dozen Alzheimer’s patients are sitting together in a room, waiting for the show.
It’s a Monday night in April, and the residents at Northwood Retirement Community in Jasper have just finished dinner. In a few hours, they will be in bed, sound asleep beneath their blankets and comforters. A collective drowsiness is already taking hold.
But then, a group of clowns bursts through the door. There are four of them, each dressed in outrageously loud attire — a riot of polka dots, silly hats and colorful wigs.
They quickly fan across the activity room. Bubbles, a tall jester with slender hands, dangles a yo-yo between her fingers, while her sidekick, Giggles, uses a back scratcher to tickle a resident’s funny bone. The other clowns, Tootie and Peppermint Patty, make balloon animals. Soon, a boom box is pumping out the ragtime blues. A minute ago, the room was quiet. Now, the joint is hopping.
Bubbles sidles up to a resident wearing a green sweatshirt.
“Is ‘Trouble’ your middle name?” she asks.
“‘Mischief,’” the woman replies.
“You should be a clown,” Bubbles says before christening her with a red nose.
For the next hour or so, the clowners cajole the nursing home to life, cracking jokes with cheesy punch lines, contorting balloons into tickle swords and helium poodles — always clowning, clowning, clowning.
When the show is over, the residents return to the solitude of their rooms.
The clowners, though, are still wired. As they pack up their props, they continue to joke. Their routine is finished, but they’re not quite ready to break character, not ready to go back to being Ruth or Donna or Darlene or Patty.
If only they could keep clowning, just a little while longer.
There is something about being onstage in costume.
Normally, Darlene Francone is shy, but she becomes a different person when she puts on a clown outfit.
Before each performance, she undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts, taking on the persona of Tootie, a freewheeling jokester who craves the spotlight.
Thirty years ago, while working at a day care in Hammond near Chicago, she dressed as a clown for Halloween. The kids got a kick out of it, and before long, she was performing at children’s birthday parties. At one of her first shows, she was so scared she began trembling. Skits were flubbed, punch lines forgotten. Her face burned bright red under her clown makeup.
Her stage fright continued until she took a 10-week class at Purdue University called “The Art of Clowning.” There, she learned the ins and outs of clown etiquette and studied the finer points of costuming and makeup. Most important, she became comfortable in her clown skin.
“And then after that,” she says, “it was like (the class) had created a monster.”
When she began clowning, her main prop was a bicycle horn that made a tooting noise. Hence, the name Tootie. She has performed at parades, fundraisers, hospitals — even a wedding. She has clowned in basic one-piece costumes as well as more gaudy attire such as poodle skirts and bikinis.
“I’m not as quiet and shy as I used to be,” she says with a grin.
Darlene moved to Jasper in 2000 to be closer to her daughter, Crystal Crosby. After settling in, she ventured back into the clowning realm but was tired of the solo routine.
Around 2004, she decided to round up a clown posse. She placed an ad in The Herald and held meetings at local restaurants. A cast of characters emerged from the woodwork, but interest in the group, which Darlene dubbed the Red Nose Society, soon flagged.
One person, though, kept showing up. Her name was Patty Boeglin, otherwise known as Peppermint Patty. She began clowning shortly after high school, mostly at birthday parties for her nieces and nephews.
“I was real green,” says Patty, who works at furniture maker Jasper Group. “I didn’t know anything. I just kind of goofed off.”
Darlene, an activity assistant at Northwood Retirement Community, helped channel that goofiness, smoothing the edges from Patty’s stage persona and teaching her how to compose and arrange skits.
The third member of their troupe was a hobo clown named Jesse Mayo, who played a harmonica and called himself Hootie. For several years, the trio entertained audiences throughout the county. But diabetes, dementia and other health issues eventually caught up with Jesse. He spent his final days in a nursing home, unable to clown.
After Jesse died in 2010, Darlene didn’t feel like clowning anymore and thought about quitting. But Patty coaxed her back onstage, telling her that is what Jessie would have wanted.
In 2011, the group expanded. Patty saw another clown perform at the St. Joseph Catholic Church picnic in Jasper. Her name was Donna Linette, and she went by the stage name Giggles. After the show, Patty asked her to join the Red Nose Society.
Donna, a preschool teacher at Shiloh United Methodist Church in Jasper, was flattered. She had clowned at birthday parties and church picnics for about a decade but had never performed with a group.
At first, she followed Patty and Darlene’s lead. But over time, she has gained equal footing among the group.
More than a year ago, a fourth member joined the society. Ruth Kuebler, a retiree who calls herself Bubbles, has clowned on and off for more than 20 years. She picked it up in Indianapolis, taking a class from an outfit called Smiles Unlimited.
Ruth grew up in Jasper but has lived in Marion, San Diego and Frederick, Md., among other places. All that moving interfered with her clowning. She’d do a few gigs, then her ex-husband’s career would take them somewhere else. It was hard for her to find a groove.
One day, after moving back to Jasper, she saw Donna perform at a church picnic. Afterward, Ruth walked up.
“Hey, I clown, too,” she said. “But I haven’t done anything in a while.”
The two swapped phone numbers, and a few days later, Ruth got a call from Darlene. After a few rehearsals, she began clowning with the rest of the gang. Their shows crackled from the start.
It’s getting late, and Ruth has more work to do.
Standing in her kitchen, she meticulously applies white grease paint to her mother’s upper lip with a paintbrush. Eyebrow pencils, brushes, adhesive, eyeshadow and a copy of “Strutter’s Complete Guide to Clown Makeup” are strewn across a countertop.
“Smile for me, Mom,” Ruth says. “As usual, the right side looks better than the left.”
It’s about an hour before their performance at Northwood, and the transformation process is slowly taking shape. Ruth tugs a hair net over her mother’s head followed by a blond wig. Next comes the red nose and ... voila! Lucille, Ruth’s 88-year-old mother, is now Loosey Goosey.
Shortly after joining the group, Ruth decided to bring her mom to a show. She had an extra costume and a spare wig. She told her mother, “I’ll just put some simple makeup on you.” Before she knew it, she had a full clown.
Lucille doesn’t recite any lines. She sits quietly in a chair near the front of the room and smiles. Still, she is part of the group, serving as the Red Nose Society’s unofficial fifth member. The other clowns are glad to have the company. The more the merrier.
On average, they perform eight or nine times a year, all at local nursing homes. The goal, of course, is to entertain. But more broadly, they try to get people’s minds off their troubles, to take them on a short vacation from whatever is going on in their life.
“That’s therapy for us, too,” Donna says, “to see them happy and put a smile on their face.”
Maybe that’s why, after the show is finished, the clowns linger in the activity room, afraid to break the spell they’ve cast. Eventually, they’ll scrub off the clown makeup and return to their normal lives. But for now, they want to keep clowning.
Just a little while longer.
Contact Tony Raap at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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