A pair of psychedelic pink shoes completes the getup. I'm wearing gobs of face paint, neon green thigh-high socks, rainbow striped bloomers and of course, a big grin. "Look, she's a natural," says Denise Janes, 46, president of the Clown Krewe Alley. Janes and other Clown Krewe members have just put me through a two-hour version of their seven-week clown training academy.
It was a crash course in makeup, magic and, most important, confidence.
By the end of the session, my butterflies are gone. I'm hamming it up and fearlessly, if not flawlessly, pulling a never-ending stream of tie-dyed ribbon out of a bag.
"Some people are basically shy and reserved," says Gail Hirst, 73, Clown Krewe vice president. "But when you put a costume on them, they become a different person."
The full seven-week Clown Academy covers the ABCs of clowning around. (Corny puns are welcome when you hang out with this group.) By the end of the course, students will have the basic skills to work a festival crowd or entertain pediatric cancer patients.
Clown Krewe members will lead the class and help newbies avoid common beginner mistakes. These include making a one-piece costume (hard to take off when you have to use the restroom) and not painting a red dot under your stick-on nose (because you never know when that thing will go bouncing down the hospital hallway or be ripped off by some grabby paradegoer.)
And never give in when a group of teenagers say they want you to meet their friend — chances are that friend is petrified of clowns.
After completion of the course, students can join the Clown Krewe and learn more skills, like face painting, puppetry and creating balloon animals, at the group's monthly meetings.
Advanced clown classes include "how to pick your nose," a definitive guide in selecting the best red dot for your face.
"You never stop growing as a clown," says Krewe member Janet Cahill, 63.
The most important lesson? Always remember you're a clown. It's not easy. Even experienced clowns in the Krewe have to be reminded not to flick off idiot motorists while driving in costume.
The Clown Krewe is a group about 20 strong and three-quarters female. They're loud, funny and total hams.
"Clowns are a pretty fun group to hang out with," says Janes.
They met through various clown networking methods — conversations outside hospital rooms, conventions and workshops.
Last July, they chartered their alley (slang for a clown club) with the professional group Clowns of America International. They're one of a few alleys in the area.
Members volunteer at festivals, parades and nursing homes.
"One thing I like, it's not committing to being at one place every Tuesday at 2 p.m.," says Hirst.
The clowns come to the hospitals armed with corny prop jokes. They'll whip out a box of tissues with a smiley face sticker covering the brand. These are magic clown tissues that dance, they tell the patients.
Exactly how do you make the tissues dance?
"You put a little boogie in it," says Janes.
The gags are a hit.
"They forget they have an IV hooked up and a catheter in them," Janes says. "All that they ask is what else is in your bag."
For the clowns, entertaining is a break from their own worries. Nothing takes your mind off rising gas prices and homeowners insurance rates like making a sick kid smile.
"You make people laugh, but they give you twice as much back," says Krewe member Ann Snodgrass, 64.
Making a funny
By the end of the class, students will have hung around the crew long enough to create their own jokes and props.
Stick a coil inside a bottle of Zephyrhills water and you have "spring water." A pill vial with a miniature backless chair inside is a "stool sample." A picture of a snowflake is actually Frosty the Snowman's elementary school photo.
"You're going to start looking at things through clown eyes," Janes tells me.
Several Krewe members were in costume during my crash course. Even in Hirst's air-conditioned dining room, they needed extra fans to keep cool under all the makeup.
I'm sweating it up in my blue wig and white gloves. I tell them I can see why they keep fanning themselves.
I try to form a C and a Y with my arms as I say it.
The joke's a total dud — but the crowd loves it.
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 521-6518.