For Balloons the Clown, the joke's over

For Balloons the Clown, the joke's over

PALMER TWP. — Most days, life as a clown is pretty good. You crack jokes, play tricks, make people giggle and guffaw. It's an honorable trade, plied with professional dignity at circuses, birthday parties and fairs.

But, like phony police officers pulling over motorists on the highways, a few malevolent characters are spoiling things for clowns these days, lurking in woods and desolate parts of town, scaring people.

Since cropping up in South Carolina a couple of months back, creepy clowns have been spotted all over and have infested Twitter and other social media, making vague — and sometimes specific — threats of violence. There have been a smattering of sightings in the Lehigh Valley — North Catasauqua, Wilson, South Whitehall. Across the Delaware, Phillipsburg has been crawling with them.

In scaring or intimidating people, they are doing things real clowns never do, and Neal Fehnel, who has been clowning as "Balloons" for decades — and is a 1977 clown college graduate — has had enough.

"If you're going to impersonate a clown," Fehnel said the other day as he smeared a line of makeup above his eye in his Palmer Township home office, "I don't think the penalty should be any different than impersonating a police officer."

Put them in jail for awhile, he said. Fine them and give the money to the Ronald McDonald House.

If this seems a bit over the top, you must understand Fehnel, 57, — who also owns a sign company and venerable Bushkill Park amusement park in Forks — is defending the honor of a trade that has existed since the time of the pharaohs.

Men and women in makeup made buffoonery a distinctive art form, combining slapstick and magic and outlandish costumery (and, often, pointed satire) into diversion for kings and queens, czars and emperors.

Clowns always played for popular audiences, too, as figures of fun or, sometimes, pathos. Perhaps that's why the evil clown is such a terrifying figure. It is the dead opposite of what it ought to be. When horror writer Stephen King dreamed up Pennywise, the homicidal clown of his novel "It," he created a template of sorts for the sinister clowns making headlines today.

Fehnel's wife Terry, incidentally, thinks the current crop of clown sightings probably began as a publicity stunt for the "It" movie coming out next year and got out of hand.

"Let's get it straightened out," she said. "It's going to make parents feel funny about Halloween."

The Fehnels aren't the only ones tired of the creepy clowns. Not long ago, a crowd of University of Connecticut students armed themselves with golf clubs and hockey sticks and, like the mob pursuing Frankenstein's monster, headed to a cemetery to confront the clowns rumored — falsely — to be roaming there.

Alas, it's enough to turn Bozo into Weary Willie, Clarabell into Pagliacci.

Neal Fehnel was only 18 when he went to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Florida and spent eight intensive weeks learning the trade. He does about 200 performances a year these days, mostly at birthday parties, and is friendly with many of the other clowns in the Lehigh Valley.

"Here's Tootsie's number here," he said, pointing to a red business card pinned to the wall beside his desk. "Tootsie the Clown."

He is friends, too, with Dapper Dan Bonner, the 90-something entertainer who was the dean of the local clowns for decades but is now enjoying retirement in Florida.

These clowns are uniformly of the nice variety, as far removed from Pennywise as Glinda from the Wicked Witch. But Fehnel said clowns do encounter anxious audiences sometimes, especially among the very young who, he contended, have probably been primed to be afraid by apprehensive parents.

Inexpert clowns sometimes bring the problem on themselves by being too aggressive when they meet younger children. Best to start with a gentle hello and a compliment before getting into the silly business, Fehnel said. That way, children won't develop coulrophobia — the fear of clowns.

After all, no one should fear a clown, whether the sad hobo perfected by Dapper Dan or the Auguste — red clown — favored by Fehnel, with his giant shoes and red schnoz.

Fehnel has not yet been mistaken for a creepy clown, and doesn't expect to be. After all, the car he drives has "Balloons the Clown" written on the side.

To the malevolent clowns — whatever their motives — Balloons offers a blunt message:

"You're an embarrassment to humans."

daniel.sheehan@mcall.com

Twitter @LVStories

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