Clown school is no joke! The camp helping professionals of "ancient art" learn new tricks in slow economy

Clown school is no joke! The camp helping professionals of 'ancient art' learn new tricks in slow economy

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UPDATED:

20:41 GMT, 14 August 2012

Even when she's not in character, Julie Varholdt acts like a buffoon.

On
a recent day, the veteran clown named 'Lovely Buttons' gave her age as one billion, 527million and 437,512 seconds; did a few pull-ups on a
luggage cart, and then stretched out on a hotel front desk to the
giggles of the receptionist.

Bring
up professional clowning, however, and the mother of three decked out
in cartoon-sized purple buttons, a red straw hat and oversized shoes
grows serious – and even sheds a few real tears.

Clown frown: Julie Varholdt, aka 'Lovely Buttons,' at the third annual Clown Campin', a week long event held for clowns across the U.S. and Canada to learn, get inspired, and network

Clown frown: Julie Varholdt, aka 'Lovely Buttons,' at the third annual Clown Campin', a week long event held for clowns across the U.S. and Canada to learn, get inspired, and network

'Clowning
is an art, it is an ancient art, said Mrs Varholdt, whose grandfather was a
clown. 'You can't just pull on a wig and slap a watermelon smile on and – 'Poof!' – you're a clown. Unfortunately, we see it a lot.'

These
days, that half-rate competition is cutting into clowning when the
recession has already hit some in the business like a pie in the face.

A
weeklong conference to help clowns amp up their punch lines and learn
new tricks also became a forum for how to make it in a niche industry
that is contracting in decidedly unfunny ways.

For
many at the conference about 40miles east of Los Angeles, the number
of paid gigs have dropped while demand for pro bono performances at
charities, hospitals and schools has soared.

Parents no longer are
content with someone just joking around: They want a skilled face
painter, a magician, a stand-up comic and a wizard with a menagerie of
ever-more-complex balloon animals.

Clowning around: Mrs Varholdt teaches a course on how clowns can entertain with everyday objects in a pinch at the third annual Clown Campin'

Clowning around: Mrs Varholdt teaches a course on how clowns can entertain with everyday objects in a pinch at the third annual Clown Campin'

Pretty as a butterfly: Donna Hofstee, aka 'Dizzy Darla' the clown, demonstrates face painting techniques on Jose Morales

Pretty as a butterfly: Donna Hofstee, aka 'Dizzy Darla' the clown, demonstrates face painting techniques on Jose Morales

'I can't tell you how many
times that phone will ring and they'll say, “Well, they do painting AND
balloons for that price”', said Donna Hofstee, who taught about 15
attendees the finer arts of face-painting, including how to dab on a
tear drop and cover tiny faces with tiger spots, cheetah spots and zebra
stripes.

California Clown
Campin' started three years ago after a long-running camp in Wisconsin
went kaput. Instructors from the U.S. and Canada led sessions on marketing and character development sprinkled among staples of slapstick and sleight of hand.

The
most successful clowns will have a Mother Goose-type character for
schools, a seasonal persona for the holidays and even a special shtick
for parades, said Laura Sicklesteel, the event's co-director who focuses
on church events as 'Molly the Clown.'

'Everybody's cutting the
extras and unfortunately we are an extra,' she said.

After seeing a 15 to 20per cent drop in paid gigs, she added: 'The growth potential of
expanding your character – or maybe even creating a new character – that
helps you to market yourself better.'

Tricks up your sleeve: Morgan Thacker is taught by fellow campers how to make balloon animals

Tricks up your sleeve: Morgan Thacker is taught by fellow campers how to make balloon animals

Tricks of the trade: Deanna Hartmier, aka 'Dee Dee' the clown, (centre), offers tips to Patricia Jannell, and Carol Feldhelm during a face painting class

Tricks of the trade: Deanna Hartmier, aka 'Dee Dee' the clown, (centre), offers tips to Patricia Jannell, and Carol Feldhelm during a face painting class

Make-up tricks: Laura Sicklesteel, or 'Molly the Clown' learns how to get into character

Make-up tricks: Laura Sicklesteel, or 'Molly the Clown' learns how to get into character

Morgan Thacker got a scholarship to the conference from Bristol, Tennessee, with the hope of building her clown character.

She
learned to twist balloons into ladybugs and dogs, apply her own
whiteface makeup, yank a tablecloth without disturbing the place
settings and practiced delivering and receiving a pie in the face.

'A
person opens up so much more whenever you make them laugh, or make them
smile or show them that you're a little bit different,' she said. 'I think that will help me in all areas of my life.'

Rather
than joining the circus, though, she'll start her freshman year this
week at Utah State University – with some new tricks up her sleeve. Her
clowning aspirations will soon be tested off-campus.

She has her first gig at a family restaurant this fall.