The overabundance of U.S. national commemorative days, weeks, months and years ranges in theme from the profound to the mundane. And in the case of clowns, what lies beneath the superficial during their official days in the sun is often ironic.
On Aug. 2, 1971, then-President Richard M. Nixon urged that "the people of the United States recognize the contributions made by clowns" and proclaimed Aug. 1 through 7 as National Clown Week.
Bon Bon, a self-described "girlie" Auguste-type clown, coordinated this year's clown week schedule for the San Diego All-Star Clown Club. "A lot of clowns take a whole week of vacation for it," Bon Bon said. "Oh yeah, everybody loves a clown. Well... not everybody."
Clowning history dates back several thousand years, and the art form had major manifestations in such diverse cultures as ancient Egypt and China, Native America, Medieval France, Tudor England, 16th century Italy and the post-Civil War United States. But in recent years, clowns have often come to be reviled, feared and even hated, especially by Gen X and Gen Y individuals.
According to the MacMillan English Dictionary website, coulrophobia (fear of clowns) was first coined in the 1990s "in response to a surprisingly large amount of interest in the condition." Never mind that the word comes from the Greek koulon, meaning "limb," and "related derivatives suggestive of stilts and stilt-walking"; it's now widely used in the context of clown-bashing.
Coulrophobia has become a cottage industry on the Internet, where numerous websites hawk anti-clown merchandise or cures for the coulrophobe. Many people attribute this phenomenon to negative clown media images that emerged in the late '70s and '80s. The culprit most often cited: Pennywise from Stephen King's It.
Bon Bon commented that most children are immediately acceptant of clowns, but if someone is afraid, "you can see the fear in their eyes right away. We don't approach them. We give them time to breathe, think about it and see that we're good. We allow them to approach us. We never scare anybody because you can do people serious trauma for the rest of their lives."
One clown stereotype Bon Bon dismisses outright is the old chestnut, "the tears of a clown when there's no one around."
"I've never gotten that concept," she sniffed. "I don't think our clowns are hiding any crying." Clowning's whole concept, she asserted, is for clowns to bring out the joy within themselves.
During clown week, club members go out in full clown regalia to entertain children and adults at such venues as skating rinks, bowling alleys, miniature golf courses and bay cruises ("We've got a captive audience there-they can't get off the boat!" muses Bob Bon).
But the club, a volunteer organization that performs at numerous health-related fund-raising events throughout the year, also makes visits to convalescent homes and hospitals throughout the community. For Bon Bon, a major attraction of clowning is one-on-one interaction and the "amount of joy you can bring to people that need cheering up."
Much mystique surrounds clowning, and Bon Bon said it's not unusual for club members to go for years without knowing the real names of their fellow clowns.
About 10 years ago during El Cajon's annual Mother Goose Parade, "We had a fire truck, and [one of the new clowns] fell off," Bon Bon recalls. "The paramedics arrived and asked, "What's her name?' and we said, "Calamity Jane!' We had no idea what her real name was."
The club features an annual "clowniversity," during which students take numerous character-development courses. Individual clowns then take this background in the extensive tradition and iconography of clowning, expound on it and make it their own. This past April, the club had the largest number of new clown graduates in its 27-year history.
Nixon's first clown-week proclamation invited appropriate government officials to issue similar proclamations. Bon Bon said that in 2003, the club requested 25 proclamations from San Diego communities and received back three (La Mesa, Escondido and Encinitas)-plus one "commendation" from San Diego.
"I got a phone call from Mayor Dick Murphy's office," said Bon Bon, who had requested a proclamation from that office in May and again in mid-July. On July 31, "They called me and said, "We have your commendation.' I said, "Not commendation-proclamation!'"
Requesting clown week proclamations is "our way of having the [city] government be aware of clowning and talk about clowning," Bon Bon explained. "People in mayors' offices of different cities would probably go all year and not talk about a clown. [When] we request a proclamation, it's promoting the art of clowning."
And why is that important?
"Because people, in general, take life too serious," Bob Bon concluded. "They need to lighten up."