Filling big, floppy shoes at Clownfest 2013 [video]

     Walter Slaymaker, a 22-year clown veteran, applies an Auguste style clown at Clownfest in Lancaster, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Walter Slaymaker, a 22-year clown veteran, applies an Auguste style clown at Clownfest in Lancaster, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Funny men and women from across the region converged at the 32nd Annual Clownfest last weekend in Lancaster, Pa. Participants competed in a costume contest, attended performances and magic classes, exchanged tips on make-up, and perused the big shoes, rubber noses and other clown goods at the Lancaster Host Resort.

    Festival participants headed to Clipper Stadium for a Barnstormers baseball game on Friday afternoon where they entertained the crowd.  A few hours before the game, Walter Slaymaker of Warmister, Pa., carefully applied make-up to his face in his hotel room.  Slaymaker, or “Buttons,” has been performing part-time as a clown for 22 years, and although he’s typically a reserved person, he said the costume changes him.

    “Once I get in front of a crowd, I do things that are crazier,” said Slaymaker, “Once you’re in full regalia, once you step out of the house, you’re on from that point, because kids will constantly come up to you, toot the horn at you when you’re driving, it’s a lot of fun.”

    One of the youngest festival-goers, Joey Klein, 15, or “Jozo,” said he uses his character to accentuate his natural clown and takes inspiration from real life to develop his act.

    “I’ll do a chair gag, which is pretty much me trying to sit in a chair, but it goes terribly wrong so I end up getting folded up in the chair,” said Klein. He added that getting stuck in a chair has happened to him in real life.

    Klein’s been clowning since he was 3 years old and now works professionally at fairs and parties. He hopes that after college he’ll continue to perform close to his home in North Caldwell, N.J.

    Like Klein, Carol Collins, or “Bingo” uses her character to accentuate her natural silliness.  Collins worked as a sixth grade teacher before becoming a clown, and after 30 years, she now owns her own agency that manages 50 performers throughout Virginia and Maryland.

    “I actually have a hard time not just joking around with people, no matter what I’m wearing,” said Collins. “But if you are down sometimes, and you just don’t want to put the make-up on, as soon as you start putting it on, something happens.”  She described the experience as “transformative.”

    “Laughter is a tranquilizer with no side effects,” said Collins. “Except if you have a full bladder!”

    Retired clown Leon McBride, once a famous performer with The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, sold custom rubber noses at the festival. McBride said that each clown should have a unique face and that it takes about 13 years to fully develop a character, until the application of the face becomes part of an individual’s subconscious.

    McBride trumpeted the importance of laughter, that after a personal experience — a disaster in one’s life, when someone begins to laugh again, it is a sign of recovery.  “Clowns are reflections of ourselves as imperfect human beings,” McBride said. “We have to be able to laugh at ourselves.”


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