Joanne Palmer's Life in the 'Boat column appears Wednesdays in the Steamboat Today. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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A midlife crisis is a predictable rite of passage, like getting a driver's license at 16 and collecting Social Security at 65. Some people trade spouses. Others opt for a visit with their guru. Still others quit their corporate jobs to open a surf shop in Hawaii.
I got an oversized red rubber nose, size 26 shoes, a wiggle-giggler, and at age 46 decided to spend five days in La Crosse, Wisc., at Clown Camp.
Clown Camp is a month-long series of classes at the University of Wisconsin that began in 1981. Students trying out clown names like "Giggles" and "Gertie" willingly bunk in dorms with cinder block walls, cold linoleum floors and sagging mattresses. No one seemed to mind. We were too busy. Classes on how to make, throw and even take a pie in the face, how to spit water between your teeth, and, yes, even how to pull a rabbit out of your hat consumed all of our time.
Fun always is on the agenda at Clown Camp, and no one needs a Palm Pilot to schedule it. A fellow participant might arrive at breakfast in a curly green wig, shocking yellow and orange pants and a polka dot tie, anxious to try out a new joke: "Hi, I'm Clarabelle. What do you get when you cross a chicken with a bell? An alarm cluck!"
Co-Co Nut, a clown from Hawaii who topped off her costume with a palm tree, took me aside to share an important tip.
"Never shake anyone's hand," she said.
My puzzled look caused her to continue. "They'll get you every time with a gag."
Late at night, clown campers crowded into any available room for "balloon jams," practicing the twists and turns for monkeys and mice. Every time a balloon popped, someone would shriek, "It's pop-ular, get it? POP-ular?" (No one ever said clown humor was sophisticated.)
There's lots to learn at clown camp. Who knew there were three types of clowns? A tramp is a sad, hobo clown; a whiteface is a more elegant, frequently silent clown; and an Auguste (Aw-goost) is most commonly associated with Bozo and Ronald McDonald. Each type requires different makeup, costume, character development and physical movement.
At Clown Camp, clowns select courses that will prepare them to work in one of three settings. Caring clowns work primarily in hospitals and nursing homes. Christian clowns perform in churches and Sunday school classes, and "regular" clowns get the laughs at birthday parties, corporate events and company picnics.
Clown costumes come in two sizes: XXXXL or XXXXXXXXXXL. I tried on everything from gigantic patched pants with polka dot suspenders to baby doll dresses with petticoats. In the end, I settled on a cowgirl clown outfit complete with a poofy red skirt, star-patterned shirt, vest with fringe, mismatched socks and big red "Mary Jane" shoes with green bows.
I joined the ranks of Bozo and became an Auguste. My name would be Pickles (to rhyme with Tickles.) Clown makeup takes about an hour to apply, starting with the lightest and moving to the darker colors. The upper lip is always painted white, never red. By just painting your lower lip red, and leaving the upper lip white, the red area changes shape, making it possible to see and understand your expressions from a greater distance.
As every day passed, I gradually grew more confident in my ability to make people laugh. When I arrived home, I taped the clown credo to my mirror.
"Help me to create more laughter than tears, dispense more happiness than gloom, spread more cheer than despair. Never let me grow so big that I will fail to see the wonder in the eyes of a child or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged."
At midlife, I could happily live with that.