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Consider the clowns: Wisconsin-based entertainers share experiences

Are clowns scary? The latest film adaptation of Stephen King’s “IT,” centering around Pennywise, a carnivorous, sewer-dwelling clown preying on children’s worst fears, seems to say yes, but what do real clowns have to say about it? Surely, those performers who work hard at and enjoy cheering people up resent and are affected by the countless negative portrayals of clowns in popular media. What’s it like in their big red shoes?

“I believe that I have the heart of a clown, and it came honestly,” Deanna Loewenhagen, a.k.a. Apple Annie the clown, says. To Loewenhagen, clowning isn’t a job, but an art form and a calling. Clowning was part of Loewenhagen’s life from the beginning. She remembers that her grandfather used to like to dress up as Charlie Chaplin, her first doll was of Emmett Kelly, a famous American clown, and her mom gave her a scarf with a red clown nose attached.

“I began the art of clowning in 1979,” Loewenhagen recounts, remembering her first performance for her sister’s high school reunion. “I didn’t know much about clowning. I wore a mask and my makeup was…not professional.” In 1985, Loewenhagen moved to Lacrosse, Wis., home of the Lacrosse Clown Camp, the largest training facility for non-circus clowns in the world. She attended the camp until 1990, before joining her first clown ‘alley,’ the name for a group of clowns in the circus jargon of the profession.

Her career as a children’s entertainer really got going in Madison, Wis. In her first year after moving to the city, Loewenhagen worked hard to refine her skills in face-painting, balloon-twisting, puppetry and comedy magic. “[The magic]’s kind of fun because if you mess up you can say, ‘I’m just a clown!’” Loewenhagen sees herself as an entertainer first and foremost, and isn’t just going to hand a child a balloon without putting on a show. She talks with the kids and customizes her shows to the event she’s performing at, subscribing to the World Clown Association’s rules and guidelines for professionalism and respectability. “I learned from…one of my most favorite clowns on Earth, he was with the Big Apple Circus over in New York, he said, ‘Be good or be gone.’” Loewenhagen applies this mantra to all of her clowning, making sure that she’s putting on a good show and that her audience is happy.

Nora Murdoch, Aunt Nora the clown, performs at birthday parties, fundraisers, festivals, picnics, and parades. “I also do libraries,” she says. “Especially for literacy. Because, ‘the clown needs to be taught how to read!’ And we have the kids help the clown learn how to read.” Murdoch explains that clowns are heavily involved in non-profit work. “Clowns go out consistently and do fundraisers. We are the ones who go to the food pantries, we are the ones who show up at the hospital. For free.” Murdoch believes that if you want to complain about clowns, you have to ask yourself just how much volunteering you’ve done in the past month.

“With the new release of ‘IT,’ it’s going to start a new generation of children that fear clowns, and Stephen King does not care. He thinks that all clowns are scary to children.” Loewenhagen says that she’s been lucky and that the children she works with don’t tend to fear her. “I’m smaller-framed, I read the body language, I’m honest.” Children and adults have told her that they are scared of or hate clowns, and Loewenhagen tries to make them feel comfortable with humor.

Murdoch has been around for other clown scares in the past, including the infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy. “Here’s the thing that I will say. Out of 14,000 clowns, you’ve got two bad guys. I’ll put that against any other group. 14,000 teachers and you only have two bad guys? Nah. Out of 14,000 reporters, only two bad guys? Nah. Out of 14,000 politicians? You see my point here?”

Loewenhagen believes the scary clown sightings of last year affected her more than the release of “IT” will. “People are able to say, ‘This is a demonization of a clown in a movie.’ The sightings of clowns were more serious…the police took it more serious.” During that time a policeman followed Loewenhagen into a gas station because she was wearing her makeup. She explains that she has to put on her makeup right when she arrives at venues, and doesn’t enter any public spaces in costume because of misperceptions perpetrated by those out to frighten others.

Murdoch argues that there are fewer clowns now than ever before because of negative portrayals. “We would have, going to the hospital, between fifty and sixty clowns. Now it’s me and…sometimes me.”

Despite everything, Loewenhagen is optimistic, and states that the film hasn’t had as great an impact on her art as she thought. “The clowns were bracing for it,” she admits, supposing that perhaps there will be more of a tangible affect on her audience when the movie goes to DVD, as most children will not be allowed to see the R-rated film in theaters.

Murdoch says young children definitely shouldn’t be taken to the film. “Five-year olds—it’s either black or it’s white. They don’t see shades of gray yet when they’re small children. It’s normal childhood development. They’re being completely normal. To be frightened of something that looks frightening is a matter of survival.” Murdoch believes adults have to take responsibility for not allowing their children to be so badly frightened. She, too, makes sure everyone is comfortable and no one is frightened at her performances.

Anything can be demonized, and though the character of Pennywise is terrifying, he’s an inhuman monster, and not a representation of the real-life clowns who care and work hard to make others happy.

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