Photo by Lesly Juarez
A woman with yellow hair, cherry red glasses, a bright green dress and white boots decorated with balloons answers the door of a Lorena Street storefront. She goes by the name of Roo Roo. The one-room space, Boyle Heights Club de Payasos, is crowded with shelves containing porcelain clowns. A male clown with bright purple hair and a big smile, called Bling Bling, sits on a chair behind a big wooden desk.
When the clowns enter the Club, they do more than just cross the threshold. They also step into another world and persona. All the makeup and colorful clothing keep their identity hidden, leaving people curious to what they might look like underneath. And they don’t want to share their real identity to outsiders. “We enter as civilians and leave as clowns,” says Bling Bling.
For the clowns, El Club De Payasos, or Clowns’ Club, is a second home. This is where the clowns get ready before each of their events. Their clothes, makeup and anything else they need are stored here. The makeup the clowns wear varies and depends on the individual. “Every person adds his touch,” said Roo Roo. “To be a clown is an art,” and “it’s a beautiful art form because aside from amusing others you are doing what you love,” says Bling Bling.
For the clowns, entertaining people means much more than the money they receive at the end of the event. “Forget about the money,” said Bling Bling, as they are doing what they love.
The clowns at the Boyle Heights club charge $80 an hour for one clown, or $110 an hour for two. There is a higher charge if the event is far away, or if it is bilingual instead of in Spanish only.
They treasure “seeing the faces of children who are laughing, as well as the adults,” said Bling Bling, but especially the children “because they are innocent.”
“To serve as something that is delivered to the public” ”“ that is what being a clown is all about for Roo Roo, who grew up loving clowns.
It’s a sentiment shared by others who belong to a little known international world of clowns, whose members include 31-year-old Suzanne Santos, who has worked independently as a clown all over the country for the past eight years and who is a member of “Payasos Sin Fronteras,” or Clowns Without Borders, a group founded in Spain with branches worldwide.
“Clowning is a living and breathing art form that is constantly evolving,” said Santos. “My sole purpose is to make people laugh,” she said and “leave them a little lighter (in spirit) than when they came in.”On a recent Saturday, Roo Roo and her partner for the day, Chirigon, drive to a performance in full costume. As they head down Lorena Street in an old model brown Honda Civic, they receive many curious glances and honks. Because of the amount of time they spend together, the clowns build strong relationships with each other. Chirigon’s bright green tie with music notes and a piano stands out against his royal blue costume, which is covered in balloons, rainbows, clouds and stars. Roo Roo sits next to him. Her hair is brighter than the sun and the bold colors in her outfit clash in a unique, yet beautiful way. In the backseat sits a case full of candy, balloons, face paint and the many other goodies the clowns will need.
After the thirty-minute journey to their first event of the day, the clowns arrive to their first event in Monterey Park to the noise of children bouncing in an enormous jumper at the front of the house, loud Spanish music coming from the back, and the smell of grilled meat in the air. It is a six-year-old’s birthday party. The clowns unload their things and hurriedly walk into the party to set up. Upon the mother’s request, the clowns start the morning with face painting. Roo Roo begins with the birthday boy, who after hearing the variety of designs he can select from, decides on a Batman logo on his right cheek. The clowns move from face painting to balloon art. Kids surround.
After about half an hour, the clowns start their show, encouraging both parents and kids to participate. Their show consists of animated introductions and games where they model and test their strength. Winners receive treats at the end of every game. The clowns end their show by having some of the parents play a game of silly sounds, interrupted by nonstop laughter.
Then, it’s on to the next party. About an hour away, accompanied by small talk, the clowns arrive at their last event of the night. It’s seven o’clock and they will work until eight. The clowns still look fresh, despite the heat and the long day. A chaotic and unstable schedule is what this job sometimes means. Saturdays are the biggest days for the clowns, as the Club usually does six to eight events. During the week, the clowns sometimes also do promotions at stores, such as grand openings, but most hold other jobs, as nurses, restaurant managers or even students.
In all, nearly 20 clowns belong to this Club which has been entertaining kids, and adults, since 1985. The Club was founded and established in Boyle Heights by Papá Borón, a Mexican immigrant. To become a member, the clowns must audition in front of the founder, who gives an idea for an improvisation if they aren’t sure what they want their show to be named.
Roo Roo is one of the seven female members. She says being a woman and working in this industry is more difficult and rare because of all the strain it causes on their families. Santos agrees. “Clowning is predominantly male focused.” She says she dresses as a male clown, “because she doesn’t want to play into female stereotypes.”
Bling Bling understands how the hours can make it difficult for women. However, loving what they do, they eagerly await the weekend to “go out and enjoy themselves,” says Bling Bling, “and leave behind problems ”¦ as happiness is all they want to communicate.”