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FEAR AND LOAFING: Big Shoes to Fill (Clown)

Reporter proves wobbly on stilts and while making balloon animals

 

Click on the photos to enlarge them...

Cole Durrill has had enough of this clown.

"You're annoying!" the 9-year-old yells while chasing me through the backyard. (My fiancee, Jo Ann, who is videotaping the proceedings, nods in agreement.)

Charlie "The Clown" Strachan, my trainer, warned me about the honesty of his audience.

"They really let you know how they feel," he said.

When Durrill finally catches up, what he feels like is attempting murder with a green balloon sword.

"Die clown, die!" he yells while bouncing it repeatedly off my shoulder blades.

It's hard to discount Durrill's skills as a budding entertainment critic. Strachan set expectations a tad high by introducing Corey the Clown to the guests at Tony Valentino's eighth birthday party as "the best clown in the world."

The disappointment began as soon as Strachan strapped his stilts to my shaking knees.

"Charlie did higher than that!" Durrill screamed.

It's true. Earlier, Strachan towered 6 feet over his already-vertically challenged audience. Frequently, he hops backyard walls to make his entrance. ("The kids love that," he said, adding that an unfortunate lack of access to the neighbors' yard made it impossible today.)

My stilt setting was the lowest possible, 40 inches, elevating me merely to an acceptable level for dating Gisele Bundchen.

"You're not even close to Charlie!" Durrill said, adding for good measure, "You're a guy in a girl dress!"

Strachan, 47, taught me Clown 101 earlier, at the headquarters of his booking company, Las Vegas Entertainment Productions. Or at least he tried.

"Most people don't think of clowns having any sort of talent," he said. "But it takes a lot to be a clown. People dedicate their lives to it.

"It's not something you can learn overnight."

After my attempts at plate-spinning and beanbag-juggling prove the accuracy of this statement, Strachan determined that my clown bag of tricks will be exactly two deep.

Standing on stilts was easier than I thought, since they're secured to my knees -- and since I had plenty of practice teetering on 2-inch shoe inserts in my single days.

The problem is that walking on stilts is the trick. If your sneakered fake feet land less than shoulder length apart, your body will tumble like the price of a new condo in Mountain's Edge. And since a beginning stilt-walker's inclination is toward dangerous baby steps, not safe big ones, Cole nearly got the dead clown he'd been praying for.

"Don't worry," Strachan said while tilting me in the opposite direction. "Like a tree falling, you've got a longer time to make corrections."

Strachan -- who joined a circus in his native South Africa in his early 20s -- taught stilt-walking in 1986 at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Venice, Fla., from which Penn Jillette graduated 13 years earlier. (The college relocated twice, then closed in 1997.) He later formed a juggling comedy duo, with pal Bill Witter, that played for a year at the Holiday Inn that became Harrah's Las Vegas.

"It was fame and it was fun, but it wasn't the big bucks I expected," he said. "It wasn't something you were going to make a career out of."

As a clown, Strachan earns $150 for each of the as many as seven parties a day he brightens.

"Cirque performers don't make that kind of money," he said. "I wasn't in love with clowning. I came into it from a business perspective. It was the perfect way to market all these skills I had.

"Later on," he continued, "I realized what a great way it was to connect with kids and influence the positive aspects of their life."

Strachan has no children of his own, although he admits his job "doesn't make me miss having them too much."

"I said a cat," a young lady with doe eyes corrects me during my second and final trick.

Strachan only taught me how to make a balloon dog -- specifically, a dachshund. I was hoping the kid wouldn't notice.

"Here," I say, moving the balloon's head.

"Meow!"

Unconvinced, the girl retreats to her friends with her wiener cat and the impression that even adults who paint their faces funny are lying jerks.

"You can't please everyone" Strachan tells me, adding that I'm lucky none of the partygoers are cowering in the corner by the Bounce House.

"I've had kids that are so scared they literally pee their pants," he says. (Fear of clowns, or coulrophobia, is so prevalent that anti-clown T-shirts, sweat shirts and messenger bags inscribed with slogans such as "Can't Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me" are for sale on ihateclowns.com.)

To Strachan, the only real drawback to his career choice occurs when he finds himself with time to kill between parties -- but less than the hour required to remove and reapply his makeup.

"Sometimes, I'll do my grocery shopping," he said. "But if it's a 7-Eleven, I'll always announce, 'Don't worry, I'm not here to rob you.' "

Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.

 
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