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Clowning around: Retiree is serious about finding fun — and meaning — in costume

Jean “Jingles” Jenkins, instructor at the Barelas Clown Academy, leads a parade at Barelas Senior Center. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Jean “Jingles” Jenkins, instructor at the Barelas Clown Academy, leads a parade at Barelas Senior Center. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jean Jenkins, also known as Jingles the Clown, is on a mission to help seniors and their families lighten up.

The secret to that is clowning around, of course.

It saved her retirement, after all.

Jenkins had been a middle school and high school teacher for 25 years in Albuquerque, but after she retired in 1996, she found herself a little lost.

“You’re lost. It’s like, what do I do with me?” Jenkins, now 67, says of the life change that retirement brings after a long career. “I knew I wanted to be around kids, but I didn’t want to have to be somewhere everyday. And I knew I wanted to have fun.”

So Jenkins enrolled in Premier Clowns, an Optimist Club school in Old Town, that ran from about 1995 to 2010.

She rediscovered herself by creating her clown character: “You just keep discovering yourself. Who are you? What’s your name? Clowning is an art that encompasses all the arts. If it’s an art, it’s covered in clowning. It’s a matter of taking your interest and doing with it whatever you like. Some go into miming, some go into magic. There’s balloon sculpting, face painting and puppetry. And there’s music.”

She says some clowns follow their spiritual and religious beliefs and create a clown ministry.

Some medical studies show that hospital clowns help children recover more rapidly by boosting their morale.

“There are all different levels of clowning,” Jenkins explains.

Boss and sidekick

Jenkins says she’s a whiteface clown, meaning she paints her face white with red accents – a red nose and lips and a red wig.

In clown culture and history, a whiteface clown is the boss, like Bozo the Clown of the 1960s, while sidekicks are often call auguste clowns. Think of circus clown Emmet Kelly, who played a tramp or hobo, Weary Willie, popular in the Great Depression.

A clown friend, Janet Dominguez, also known as Jungle Janet, says she is an auguste. “I’ve been doing it since 2004,” Dominguez says of attending the Premier clowning school.

Jenkins admits that she persuaded the talented Dominguez to give it a try. “I mentored her. We walked our dogs everyday in the park and all I could talk about was clowning.”

Jenkins says it’s fun to help other people uncover their clown characters.

She loves nothing better than spending an afternoon in a second-hand store, like Savers, and using her imagination to find just the kind of wild and wacky clothes and accessories to make another clown come alive. “You can pull it from everywhere. You can use everything.”

Jenkins says clowning gave her and her father a common interest. “My daddy took clown school too. You know, he never was excited. I taught school for 25 years. I got my master’s degree. But he was excited when I went to clown school. He took a picture of me (in her clown character costume) and showed it to everyone.”

He told her he wished he had started clowning when he was younger.

“It frees your inner spirit,” she says. “Maybe we didn’t have enough fun when we were children. Let’s give ourselves permission to have fun and play.”

Jo-Jo the Clown laughs at Jingles the Clown, who designs a balloon sculpture at the Barelas Clown Academy at Barelas Senior Center. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Jo-Jo the Clown laughs at Jingles the Clown, who designs a balloon sculpture at the Barelas Clown Academy at Barelas Senior Center. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

‘Jingle Bells’

She knows that some people are afraid of clowns, so she would like to create a more vibrant community of clowning in Albuquerque.

“Nobody’s ever been afraid of me,” she says, adding she introduces her clown Jingles’ connection to Santa Claus when she first meets children.

“I tell them I’m Jingles and I’m Santa’s favorite clown, so you don’t have to be afraid of me. I help with the bells and elves. There’s even a song about me, ‘Jingle Bells,'” she says, explaining her character. She encourages the children to use her line that she substitutes in the carol, “Oh what fun it is to play with Jingles everyday.”

Her dream is to engage enough grandmothers and grandfathers into clowning that a second class for grandchildren could be offered.

She offers a clowning academy at Barelas Senior Center on Tuesdays from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.

Barelas program coordinator Corinne Elwell says Jenkins donates her time and often volunteers to face paint at events. “She’s amazing.”

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