Get ready for serious clowning

People from around the region don the red nose and grease paint

Friday, March 30, 2007

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Staff Photo by Darwin Weigel
Pre-kindergarten student Sophie Futchko, 4 1⁄2, of Prince Frederick touches the nose piece of Piper the Clown (Lily Barber) on a recent Wednesday at The Tidewater School in Huntingtown where Barber teaches Spanish. Waiting to touch are Lucas Frankle, 5, of Huntingtown and Kate Howlin, 4, of Owings.

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Staff Photo by Darwin Weigel
Piper the Clown (Lily Barber) gives a clown⁄magic show to pre-kindergarten students on a recent Wednesday at The Tidewater School in Huntingtown where Barber teaches Spanish.

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Staff Photo by Reid Silverman
Alyssa Russell, 4, left, gets a balloon bunny from Dingbat the Clown, and Allison Boothe, 3, makes her request as her mom, Jenny, listens during a Dingbat visit to Hollywood.

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Staff Photo by Gary Smith
Bunky the Clown strikes a clownish pose.

Whether it’s making balloons for little boys and girls or presenting stressed-out employees with paper flowers, clowns find ways to make life just a little more interesting.

‘‘Does this carry-on bag make my butt look big?” Bunky the Clown asked a flight attendant on a recent trip.

Bunky, also known as Bob Gretton, lives in Charles County but takes his clowning all over the country with his wife, Teresa, who is Blinky the Clown. Gretton lives and breathes the art of clowning, mirroring the dedication of other clowns in the area.

Clowning around

‘‘I’m not leaving until everyone has a balloon,” Dingbat the Clown said to children in a preschool and kindergarten group in Hollywood, Md., on a recent Tuesday. Dingbat, who under the makeup is Sandy Snellings of Mechanicsville, said she has been clowning for 16 years.

According to children, she is good at balloon sculpting, but she said it is not her specialty. Her specialty is not magic either, which young Luke Gettson, 4, said was his favorite part of her recent performance. While she is experienced in all of the above, Dingbat said her real specialty is ‘‘being at the level of the children.”

Cookie D. Klown (Ming Diaz of Great Mills), literally finds himself at the level of a child because for many of his shows, he will sit eye-to-eye with them.

‘‘I give each child six to 10 minutes of my undivided attention,” Diaz said.

Piper (Lily Barber of Sunderland) helps children escape from reality into a fantasy world for a short time. ‘‘We live in a crazy world ... for 45 minutes you take a child out of that environment and into a fantasy.”

Clowns also find ways to brighten days even when not performing at parties.

When she is in line at a grocery store, Barber said she will do a little magic trick for a child in line.

Gretton said he doesn’t go into the shortest line at stores, but the one with most distressed-looking employee. Then he will whip out a balloon and create an animal. For the ladies, he will create a paper flower.

‘‘I wake up and say ‘Today I want to make somebody happy,’ ” he said.

Diaz, when not in costume, often wears a badge labeled ‘‘clown, plain clothed edition.” He enjoys making balloon animals for children seated in airplanes who are not enjoying the flight. Diaz said this calms children down and is appreciated by flight attendants and other passengers.

Snellings’ goal, whether in costume or not, is to make everyone smile.

Discovering the calling

‘‘Why are you a clown?” a young boy asked at one of Piper’s most recent performances.

‘‘I was born this way,” she told him.

In actuality, Barber said Piper — a court jester-looking, spunky clown — came to be at the suggestion of her aunt, who thought Barber’s personality would make a great clown. Barber’s aunt is a clown by the name of Sweet Pickle in Virginia.

Similarly, Dingbat came to be at the suggestion of friends who were part of the company Carl’s Clowns.

After 16 years, Snellings said she wouldn’t give up clowning. ‘‘I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing it,” she said. Snellings added she would continue clowning until she can no longer put on her clown makeup.

Blinky became Bunky’s partner in clowning after watching Bunky do his thing for several years. Gretton said Bunky came to be 30 years ago when he realized clowning was his calling.

Diaz became Cookie when an Easter Bunny was requested for a Brownie troop party. The enjoyment of entertaining spurred the birth of Cookie D. Klown.

‘‘When I’m finished with a party, I am happy for an entire week,” Diaz said.

Piper, Dingbat, Bunky and Blinky use a lot of magic when performing at parties. Cookie focuses on storytelling, balloons and face paint.

Bunky and Cookie also perform sans clown costumes. Bunky will take his magic show to day-care centers and other locations as simply Bob Gretton. Cookie sets aside his costume and goes by his given name for schools and parties to tell stories. Diaz then tells tales from many genres, ranging from cultural history to the Renaissance.

Behind the makeup

When at a birthday party, Cookie D. Klown is self-described as ‘‘really silly.” He has a Brooklyn accent, a soft voice, big red wig, a white glittery face and ‘‘everything is subject to ridicule.”

Behind the Cookie D. Klown makeup, Diaz is a more-refined version of the clown he dresses up as. In the clown outfit Diaz said, ‘‘I have a license to be silly.”

When not in costume, Diaz works as an electronics technician for the government.

Barber, when not in costume as Piper, teaches Spanish at The Tidewater School in Huntingtown. Barber has only been clowning for four years and does it more as a hobby. She said the difference between her personality and Piper’s is that Piper is ‘‘a little younger.”

Snellings said there is no difference between hers and Dingbat’s personalities.

‘‘The only difference is the makeup,” she said. Snellings said when she is in costume she seems to acquire talents she hadn’t had before.

‘‘I can’t draw worth a lick, but I can paint a face,” she said.

When not performing as Dingbat, Snellings does volunteer work throughout St. Mary’s County and is representative for a cosmetics company as well.

The Grettons, much like Dingbat, are similar to their clown personalities. Bob Gretton said he takes nothing seriously in life. Gretton is 60 years old and has been Bunky the Clown for 30 years with Blinky at his side.

The two were also high school sweethearts. Gretton said the two were not married as Bunky and Blinky. However, Cookie and his former stage partner and former wife Shoozie (Suzie) renewed wedding vows during a performance.

Scared silly

Not everyone is delighted to come across a clown. In fact, the brightly colored energetic characters of clowns frighten some people. Others are merely uncomfortable around them.

‘‘They freak me out,” said Heather Baker of California. Baker, who works at Calvert Memorial Hospital, said her fear of clowns is due to watching the movie ‘‘Poltergeist” as a child. In the film a boy is pulled under his bed by a possessed clown doll.

Others are truly scared to come across anything clown related. These people may have a clown phobia. According to David Sacks, a licensed clinical social worker at Calvert Memorial Hospital, for no particular reason a person can become extremely anxious around a particular thing, in some cases, clowns. Sacks said while it may be irrational, ‘‘for that person the feelings are very real.”

Diaz said a close friend of his has a terrible fear of clowns and is afraid of Cookie even though she is well aware it is only Diaz under the makeup.

Sacks said there is a variety of different ways to treat a fear of clowns or other phobias.

He included hypnotherapy, a method of healing through the act of hypnosis, and an energy healing method, known as thought field therapy. According to Sacks, this method works by tapping energy fields throughout the body.

Roger Callahan, founder of Callahan Techniques, Thought Field Therapy, discovered this process to work on phobias. Sacks said this method has been known to cure phobias in as little as five minutes.

Clowns deal with frightened children and adults often in their clown careers and over the years have developed some techniques.

‘‘[Clown phobia] exists, is real and needs to be respected,” Diaz said.

Gretton said he and his wife teach approachability at conferences and clown classes. They teach clowns to let children approach them and not the other way around.

The Grettons have separate clown characters they transform into when working with a potentially timid audience and when teaching classes. Eeriesponsible (Bob) and Blondie (Teresa) are two clowns who wear less clown makeup and are more approachable.

Bunky said a good way to make sure a child won’t be frightened is to ‘‘not make it a surprise party.”

Cookie said when he spots someone timid around him, he likes to ask for their help. Then, he said that child is taking care of literally the biggest kid in the room, he said.

The show must go on

For years clowns have been providing smiles to faces across the world, whether on stage, at a birthday party or on television. For the clowns of Southern Maryland the art of clowning is more than just slapstick comedy.

‘‘Birthday parties are our nuts and bolts, it’s what keeps us alive ... but we are much more than that,” Gretton said.

These clowns and other clowns in the area perform at charity events, schools and day-care centers supporting, educating and providing laughter and fantasy to residents of Southern Maryland.

According to Bunky, ‘‘The world needs comic relief.”

E-mail Gretchen Phillips at gphillips@somdnewscom.