TAMPA — The century-old black-and-white advertisement looks like a poster for a modern-day horror movie.
Set against the backdrop of the shadows of two girls at play, a white-faced clown with a painted-on giant smile looks to be laughing maniacally. Above him, like a threat, it reads, “Cho-Cho is coming, children.”
“It’s absolutely terrifying,” said Rex Gordon, Cho-Cho the Health Clown’s unofficial Tampa historian, while trying to catch his breath between laughs.
He just wanted to sell milk and discuss the importance of regular bowel movements.
Cho-Cho was once among the nation’s most popular clowns, crisscrossing the country, including multiple annual stops in Tampa, to promote good health and hygiene to children.
He was a symbol of joy — that’s what the advertisement is selling.
Today, he symbolizes a new type of clown.
“They can be scary,” Gordon said. “You look at pictures of him now and you’d think kids would be screaming.”
It’s the makeup
Cho-Cho’s antics made him a wealthy man.
“He was making more than $50,000 a year,” Gordon said, “and that was 100 years ago.”
Today, that would be equivalent to nearly $900,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s online inflation calculator. Maybe he couldn’t make that much as a traveling health clown in modern times, but he could certainly find work in Tampa.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay might have hired him for its annual Halloween event, Howl-O-Scream. This year it features scary clowns in the D.H. Baggum’s Circus of Fear haunted house.
“It’s definitely a lot harder to scare people,” said Brad Tucker, creative lead for Howl-O-Scream. “But clowns still get a lot of people.”
“The makeup,” he said.
Clowns didn’t always wear such outlandish face paint, nor was it designed to be enjoyed up close.
“As the circus grew and went from one ring to two rings to three, the audience got further back,” said Greg Desanto, executive director of the Wisconsin-based International Clown Hall of Fame. “So, in order to be seen and differentiated, clowns started exaggerating their makeup and wigs and wearing the big shoes associated with iconic clowns.”
While it might look fine from afar, Tucker said, “as soon as they come in your face, it can be intense.”
Anthony Pernicka, co-founder of the St. Petersburg-based iHorror.com, which has more than 4 million Facebook followers, said those exaggerated facial expressions are “unnatural and innately scary to most of us.” It makes it look as though the person underneath “has lost grasp on reality.”
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But Cho-Cho wore makeup, Gordon pointed out, and “kids loved him.”
Who is Cho-Cho?
Gordon learned about Cho-Cho the Health Clown while combing through online news archives. He started sharing Cho-Cho articles on Facebook pages that promote Tampa history.
“There is this fascination with him because the stories say he was so kind,” Gordon said, “and the pictures are so creepy.”
Cho-Cho, created by and an acronym for the Children’s Health Organization, was promoted as a former star for the Barnum & Bailey Circus who decided that his true calling was as a health clown. He came to Tampa a few times a year from 1920 through 1940, but never shared his real name. It was not until after he died in 1943 that Cho-Cho was identified as Conrad John Denrici of Palmyra, New Jersey.
Cho-Cho was typically brought here by a local health organization to visit area schools, where he used clown antics rather than lectures to promote health and hygiene.
“The health clown turned several somersaults, cracked jokes and made faces to start the laughter,” the Tampa Tribune reported in 1924. “After five or ten minutes, he started talking about teeth.”
He preached for kids to follow eight key rules that included drinking milk, taking baths at least once a week and having a bowel movement every morning.
Seems reasonable. How could anyone be afraid of such a man?
“I guess he can blame me,” Stephen Chiodo said.
The advent of scary clowns
Fear of clowns is legitimate, said Adam Borland, a clinical psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic. He’s not sure how long people have harbored such a phobia, but thinks modern movies on the topic have helped it grow.
Such paranoia is typically born from a traumatic childhood experience with a clown, Borland said. “I worked with a patient who remembered going to a circus at a young age. She was overwhelmed by the lights, the music, the number of people, it was just too much stimulation. And then ... a clown came up and was right in her face. ... It was the absolute tipping point.”
A similar experience kick-started scary clowns in movies.
As a kid attending the circus at Madison Square Garden, Chiodo was frightened by a clown in the arena’s hallway.
“He was doing all this funny stuff,” said Chiodo, now a film professor at the California Institute of the Arts. “But he was big and in my personal space and made me nervous.”
Two decades later, while working on concepts for his first feature film, he wondered what would scare him the most.
“I imagined driving up a lonely mountain road and a car is blinking its headlights behind me,” Chiodo said. “And, as it passes me, I look over, and it’s a clown driver.”
That fantasy morphed into his 1988 horror-comedy “Killer Klowns From Outer Space,” about aliens who look like clowns and harvest small-town residents for blood, encasing them in cotton candy cocoons.
“That’s probably the first major clown movie worth noting,” Pernicka said.
As an expert on the topic, how would Chiodo rate Cho-Cho’s scariness?
“Definitely wary,” he said. “I’d want to stay away.”
Two years after “Killer Klowns From Outer Space” was released, ABC premiered the miniseries based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel “It” about an evil entity that, in the shape of a clown named Pennywise, terrorized children.
And “that is when scary clowns got big,” Chiodo said, turning the memory of someone like Cho-Cho from fun to feared.
Cho-Cho might have played a role in the modern fear, too. He claimed to be timeless and that he’d spent thousands of years studying children, a boast that is eerily similar to Pennywise.
How Tampa turned on Cho-Cho
In a move that wouldn’t be popular today, according to news archives, Cho-Cho once asked Tampa kids to remove pickles from their Cuban sandwiches because “sour cucumbers” were not good for “youthful stomachs.”
But the children back then didn’t argue. They agreed to forgo the “delectable dill” for the clown they loved.
Tampa was among Cho-Cho’s favorite places, he told the press, which is why he invested in real estate throughout the area and visited more often than other cities. In 1921, Cho-Cho even gave his Oldsmar property to a homeless family.
Cho-Cho would likely be “devastated” to learn that area residents have played roles in the narrative of clowns being scary, Gordon said.
Pernicka’s iHorror.com promotes movies featuring killer clowns.
Tampa writer Joe Davison’s “100 Tears” movie about Gurdy the serial killer clown is considered one of the goriest of the cinematic takes on the topic.
And actor Daniel Roebuck, who splits time between Tampa and Los Angeles, has been in two Rob Zombie movies about killer clown Captain Spaulding.
We showed Pernicka, Davison and Roebuck the Cho-Cho advertisement announcing that he was coming for the children.
“Is he going to murder those girls?” Davison said. “That’s like a nightmare.”
Pernicka said Cho-Cho reminds him of the sadistic Art the Clown from the “Terrifier” film franchise, which is about a clown who tortures women on Halloween night.
And Roebuck, who broke into show business as a 12-year-old friendly vampire circus clown, simply called Cho-Cho “terrifying” before pivoting. “You know,” he said, “I bet in person he was probably the most joyful, silly clown.”
That’s exactly how Cho-Cho would want to be remembered, Gordon said. “He was a health clown. ... Honor him by drinking milk.”