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tears for his clowns

A gloomy cloud of homelessness looms over 30,000 clowns. A massive orange, yellow and red clown diaspora could be choking on dust on U.S. 27 by New Year's Day.

All are wooden, ceramic, crystal, cloth and plastic inhabitants of Clown Rushmore, one man's 40-year, bittersweet obsession, which he calls "the World's Largest Clown Collection to the Best of Our Knowledge."

Collector Jack Klein is turning 78. Clown Rushmore is tumbling down around him. He has put about 900 of his best clowns up for auction today through Sunday. The 29,000 leftovers will be sold a week later. The auctioneer calls it "the G-D-est thing I've ever seen in my life."

This after Disney World and Ringling Circus rejected Klein's pleas for adoption.

Take them, he begged. Take the puppet clowns, papier-mache clowns, rodeo clowns, clowns on trapezes, clowns in hot air balloons, Cabbage Patch clowns, clock clowns, jack-in-the-box clowns, cookie jar clowns, piggy bank clowns, drummer clowns, music box clowns.

Take the old 45 rpm Judy Collins record, Send in the Clowns (Klein's 14,336th purchase).

But all that the "big shots" wanted were the Bozos and Ronald McDonalds.

* * *

About 40 years ago, Jack Klein was a married father of two who ran a Volkswagen dealership in upstate New York and happened to be obsessive. He never could throw anything away. At one point he had 400 pairs of shoes, though he wore only sneakers.

But Klein had no clowns in his closet until he wandered into a Gimbel's store in Manhattan. He spotted a portrait of French mime Marcel Marceau. Paid $300 for it.

Life as Jack Klein knew it had ceased to exist.

He dismisses all psychological theories, but dig not so deep into his childhood and you'll find a Clown Club. That was the name of the dance club in the basement of his father's New Jersey bar. Comedian George Burns hung out there. Klein was 9 years old.

Something clicked after he bought the Marcel Marceau portrait. He began to notice clown stuff. He liked the colors, the infinite variety. He rarely saw two that were alike.

He began buying, clown by clown.

At first he kept track of how many and how much. "I numbered them all in a book. When I reached 10,000 clowns, I had spent $900,000. After that, I stopped counting."

At one point, the rough estimate was 60,000. That was after he bought out the Emmett Kelly clown factory. Jay Leno had him on his Tonight Show last year. Leno's joke: "What kind of bozo collects 60,000 clowns?"

His wife, Sarah, said approximately the same thing just about every one of the 60,000 times he reached for his wallet:

"You don't need it."

Surprise delivery

He'd find them in toy stores, in antique shops, in garage sales. He kept them in warehouses in New Jersey. At one point, he was renting six warehouses. He didn't tell Sarah how many.

They moved to Hollywood, Fla., in 1967 at the behest of the heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano, a family friend then living in Fort Lauderdale. Marciano had talked about starting a business partnership.

Two years later Marciano died in an Iowa plane crash.

Klein sold real estate, turned down one of the first Toyota franchises to his lasting regret, sold used cars, and stumbled into a lawn irrigation business he would run for 30 years.

All the while, he gathered clowns. In 1974, he and Sarah took a three-month, cross country road trip, during which Klein heard those familiar words - "You don't need it" - from the Gulf Stream waters to the redwood forests.

Sarah says, "All we did on our trips was look for boxes, tape and UPS."

Sarah didn't know how far her husband had gone until Klein brought the whole kit and caboodle to Florida.

It arrived in 8,000 boxes.

Big plans, little return

Klein had found a warehouse on U.S. 27 in Lake Hamilton, just a few miles from Winter Haven. This would be Clown Rushmore.

He had pursued more spectacular venues. "I wasted four years on Las Vegas, waiting for a hotel to be built." He also tried to raise $4-million to open a clown emporium in Times Square, across from the Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. The financing never materialized.

By then, U.S. 27 didn't look so bad.

Klein stood next to the highway with a clicker and made a traffic count. The traffic never stopped. But he didn't take into account the speed of those cars and trucks passing by, hellbent on getting someplace else. He would later learn that slowing down for the hard right turn into Clown Rushmore was best not attempted without lots of life insurance.

Various ideas to improve business, including starting a restaurant, never took off, so there he languished.

"If I could have made $500 a day, I'd have been fine," he says. "A neighborhood candy store does that much."

Emmett Kelly Jr., son of the great Ringling clown legend Emmett Kelly, came to stay with Klein for three months. While he was there, people flocked to Clown Rushmore for autographed Emmett Kelly art, and Klein did a year's worth of business.

But Kelly eventually went back to his home in Tombstone, Ariz., where at 82 he now lies stricken with pneumonia. He's too sick even to come to the auction.

A few mementos

All must go. Klein has lost his lease and must clear out by the end of December. Disney, Cypress Gardens, Ringling Circus headquarters in Sarasota have all taken a pass - except for expressing interest in the Bozos and Ronald McDonalds. (Some last-minute talks are under way with Cypress Gardens for at least a piece of the collection.) Actor Diane Keaton, collector and author of Clown Paintings, didn't respond to e-mails from the auctioneer.

Kincaid Auction is handling the sale of nearly everything. Klein will keep his Emmett Kelly figurines. "We couldn't let some of those things he paid thousands for go for 50 bucks," Sarah says. He's also keeping his Marcel Marceau portrait, and his vintage museum jukebox. Even as he takes a last look, he has Paul Anka's Put Your Head on My Shoulder wailing away.

Auction manager John Harris, who's in his 40s, says the coming of a more cynical, wary generation was probably the undoing of Clown Rushmore.

"Jack's clowns are the Red Skeltons, the Emmett Kellys, the Ringling clowns. The clowns people my age remember are like Stephen King's It." (That clown lurked in sewers and preyed on children.)

Klein barely listens. What rot. What nonsense.

"What's not funny about clowns?"

John Barry can be reached at (727) 448-7108 or jbarry@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

Auction alley

The Clown Rushmore auction will be held at the Best Western Hotel and Conference Center, 9331 Adamo Drive (State Road 60), Tampa, at 4 p.m. today, 10 a.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. Items will be previewed two hours before bidding each day. A second auction will be held at the Clown Museum, 29600 U.S. 27, Lake Hamilton, at 10 a.m. Dec. 9 and 1 p.m. Dec. 10.

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