Forty years ago, Donna King, Air Force wife and mother, suddenly realized she was a clown. Well, a clown at heart in any case.
It was the late 1970s. Donna’s husband, Mike, an Air Force pilot, was stationed at Panama City, Fla. A friend asked King if she’d be willing to dress up as the storybook rag doll Raggedy Andy for the spring fair at the pre-school King’s daughter attended. The friend assumed the role of Andy’s sister Raggedy Ann.
“I was Andy because I was taller,” said King, now 70 and a resident of Albuquerque’s East Mountains. “I don’t think we did anything much (at the fair). But I came back home and told my husband, ‘I think I want to be a clown.'”
King had been bitten by the Bozo bug. But her clowning achievement was still many years away.
Clowns in town
King had no idea how to go about becoming a clown. Back in the ’70s, she couldn’t find any books about it. Couldn’t find anything about it.
“Where do you find clown makeup? Where do you find magic equipment? Where do you find stilts. I didn’t know about balloon pumps.”
That was before the World Clown Association, which was founded in 1982 for the purpose of teaching the clowning arts and supporting clowns around the world.
The association, which is made up of about 2,500 amateur and professional clowns in 35 countries on six continents, is holding its annual convention at Albuquerque’s Sheraton Uptown Hotel March 3-7. Clown competitions – in makeup, balloons, facepainting, groups skits and variety arts, single skits and paradability (parade skills) – are open to the public for free.
WCA past president Deanna Hartmier, also known as Dee Dee the Clown, said 150-250 members attend the annual conventions and that so far this year clowns from the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Sweden, England, Japan, Malaysia and Guatemala have signed on for the Albuquerque gathering. About 15 WCA members, including King, live in or near Albuquerque.
“Many people really do not know about the clown world and are surprised to learn more about real clowns and what we do,” Hartmier said.
Not all clowns work in circuses, carnivals and fairs. Some clowns work children’s birthday parties or do education programs in schools. Caring clowns visit hospitals, hospice centers, assisted-living homes, disabled-veterans facilities and other communities where a smile or a belly laugh helps people deal with tough times. Ministry clowns often go where caring clowns go but may bring a message of faith along.
King, who did not become aware of the WCA until about 2003, said the organization is rewarding because of the skills it can teach members and because it exposes members to clowning techniques from around the world.
“Puerto Rican clowns are just crazy. They have a great sense of humor,” she said. “Mexican clowns do beautiful airbrush makeup. Japanese clowns study their circus skills eight to 10 hours a day.”
An orange-wig debut
Before she learned about WCA and all it had to offer fledgling fools for fun, King searched for clown mentors wherever her husband’s Air Force career took them.
But it was not until some years after Mike retired from the Air Force in 1997 and they moved to Fayetteville, Ga., the town from which her husband launched his career as a pilot for Delta Airlines, that King found the clowns, a troupe working out of a local church, who gave her the direction for which she had been searching.
“That was 16 years ago in January,” she said, smiling at the memory. “I made my debut in an orange wig from Party City and a red-and-white-striped jump suit. I had so much fun.”
She developed the character of DandiLion, a mischievous clown who is also somewhat on the flighty side.
“I know a lot about everything, but I forget the details,” King, quoting DandiLion, said.
In Georgia, King clowned at church festivals, school festivals, nursing homes, on a mission trip to Japan and in Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Game parades in Atlanta. Since 2015, when she and her husband retired near Albuquerque, where they had lived during two of Mike’s Air Force assignments, King’s clowning has been limited to mission trips to Honduras once or twice a year and weekly visits to the University of New Mexico’s Children’s Hospital.
She makes her UNM hospital rounds as Dr. Cora Zón, a physician clown. She brings with her a special stethoscope, outfitted with the business end of a plumber’s helper, and her trick flea Felix, who is difficult to see and sometimes gets lost in the beds of young patients.
“A lot of the kids are there for weeks,” she said. “They come from all over, from babies in cribs up to 18 years. You open the door and you never know what the child is like, what condition they are in, who is in the room with him.”
Much more often than not, King said, she is able to put some fun into that room.
“It’s good to make someone’s day a little better, a little brighter, to put a smile on someone’s face when they have been in a lot of difficulty, to make parents laugh at a joke,” she said.
King doesn’t walk on stilts. She does magic stuff, but she’s not a magician. And forget juggling. That’s not going to happen.
“I do skits. I make it funny,” she said. “I’m not a professional. I just do it because it is in my heart. It’s something in your heart you just can’t explain.”
It’s something in the heart of a clown.