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In Florida, virtual clown dusts off his rubber chicken

After the coronavirus pandemic shut down live events, performer missed the crowds and the laugther.
Todd Zimmerman performs for 6-year-old Abby Rivera's virtual birthday party on Aug. 8.
Todd Zimmerman performs for 6-year-old Abby Rivera's virtual birthday party on Aug. 8. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Aug. 24, 2020

The clown pops into the Zoom party nose first, the big, red orb filling his screen. As he pulls back, the audience sees his plaid bow tie, his painted-on smile, his crazy orange hair.

Four of the girls seem surprised. Their eyes widen. They lean into the computer cameras — each in their own home.

The fifth girl stands up and waves. She’s been expecting this. “Hi! Wanna see how tall I am?” she asks the clown and her friends. “And look!” she cries, holding up her foot in a new ballet shoe. “See what my grandma got me?”

Abby Rivera had been planning her 6th birthday party since she turned 5. She wanted to have a circus in her yard in Davenport, with cotton candy and face-painting and a real clown. She wanted her best friends to come.

But she hadn’t seen them in five months, not since the coronavirus canceled kindergarten. And she couldn’t have a party in person.

So Abby’s mom found a clown who would entertain everyone from cyberspace — and his living room in Orlando.

“Hi! I’m Todd! Abby, you look so pretty!” the clown says on this Saturday morning in August. “I’m here to make sure you have a great birthday. Do you guys want to have some fun?”

The girls nod and start typing in the chat. “Hiiiii!” from Amelia, who is twirling in a too-big desk chair in front of a computer.

“hey” writes Calliope, who is curled on a couch with a laptop.

“Turn on your mics! I want to hear you!” says the clown. “I have to hear you!”

***

For the last six months, the world has been too silent, says Todd Zimmerman. No fairs. No shows. No parties.

Yet now, more than ever, he says, people need to laugh. “And I need to hear them laugh. I live for laughter.”

Zimmerman, 47, has been entertaining strangers since he was in a stroller, on stage with his community-theater-star mom. “I started out more of a prop than a performer,” he says. “But by the time I was 4, I was up there singing on my own.” Every summer, when the circus came to Michigan, his dad helped set up the big top, “so he’d get free tickets to take me to the show. I grew up feeling that love he had for the performers.”

He got into a clown college in Wisconsin, “The Harvard of Hilarity.” Learned about the history of clowning and costumes and make-up, how to walk on stilts, juggle bowling pins and wash pie out of your wig.

He met his wife, an acrobat, in the circus. Her family is from Hungary and has been performing in travelling shows for three generations. For seven years, Zimmerman and his wife worked for Ringling Brothers, criss-crossing the country in a 10-by-10-foot railroad car.

For a while, he was understudy for the ringmaster. “Did you know there have been fewer ringmasters than U.S. presidents?” he asks. “I got to sing in Madison Square Garden. I got to play P.T. Barnum for his 100th birthday and open the stock market.”

In 2004, Zimmerman and his wife decided to get off the road. “We wanted to know where the grocery store was,” he said. They landed in Orlando, where they kept doing advance work for Ringling Brothers, promoting the circus.

They were performing at the Monster Truck Jam at Raymond James Stadium in May 2017 when they got word that the circus was shutting down for good. “I cried in my clown make-up,” Zimmerman said.

Theme park shows kept them busy: Disney, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens. Plus stints on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Then the coronavirus closed everything, and Zimmerman — like countless other performers — lost his income and identity.

By June, he was tired of the quiet and missed putting on greasepaint. His rubber chicken was getting dusty. He talked to circus friends who also longed for laughter. So he started an online company, ZoomBallyhoo. For $85 a half-hour, you can hire one of seven clowns, three ringmasters or three magicians to entertain up to eight guests.

It’s not the same, of course, as clowning around in person. But Zimmerman still gets to turn into “the biggest Todd I can be.” And, hopefully, make 6-year-old girls giggle.

Zimmerman performs at his home in Orlando.
Zimmerman performs at his home in Orlando. [ Courtesy Todd Zimmerman ]

***

“Okay, we’re going to play some games today. Who wants to get up and run around?” the clown asks. Most of the girls nod, but no one says anything. “We’re going to have a scavenger hunt. Who wants to …”

Just then, a rubber chicken peeks in from the right side of the screen. It pecks the clown’s nose, then the camera. The girls lean in, not sure what is going on.

“Oh, Leonard!” says the clown, swatting the chicken. “This is my friend Leonard. He knows he’s not supposed to be here. Okay, whenever you see this guy, you just shout, ‘Leonard!’ and I’ll take care of him.”

He tells the girls to find an object in their homes: something blue that starts with the letter G. They scurry off. Abby comes back first, with blue surgical gloves. Caroline has a blue box from the game of Life. Amelia holds up a magnetic letter, from the fridge. “Oh my gosh! That’s crazy!” says the clown, as the chicken emerges from his hair.

“Leonard!” the girls shout in unison.

Zimmerman's sidekick makes an appearance.
Zimmerman's sidekick makes an appearance. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

They gather green things that start with the letter M and yellow objects that start with an A. A red C: Coke can, candle, cup. And purple I: ice pop, iPhone charger.

While they’re searching, parents keep peering into the screen, or walking past, making suggestions. Someone’s older sister looks into the camera. A cousin Zooms in from Miami.

Each time, as the girls show the clown what they have collected, the rubber chicken dives in. “Leonard!” they keep shouting, pointing. “He’s back!” Even after the fifth time, they play along.

The clown has them unscramble the letters to make a word, which the birthday girl guesses: MAGIC. “Would you like to see some magic?” he asks. They all cheer. “Oh, good. I’m glad you said that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know what to do next.”

Magic is, in many ways, easier to do online. The clown holds up “A Fun Magic Coloring Book,” which has only outlined pictures and has each girl “put those objects close to the camera so we can suck up all the colors.” Then he opens the book and, ta-da! The pictures are all brightly colored. “Now, wipe your screens clean, take back all the colors,” he says. They do. When he holds the book up this time, the pages are blank. “Who took all the lines out?” he asks, his oversized smile melting into a frown. “What did you do?”

The girls’ mouths drop. For a second, they stare at their screens in silence. Then Annabelle starts to giggle. Soon, they’re all laughing. Even the clown.

After a half-hour, he says, “Okay, we have to sing Happy Birthday!”

“Leonard!” the girls shout, as the chicken pecks his ear.

“Chickens can’t sing,” says the clown. “Can chickens sing?”

The girls nod. So the clown has them cluck like chickens and dance around their computers, flapping their arms.

“Okay, did you guys have fun?” he asks.

Four of them shout, “Yesss!”

Caroline has a question. “Scuse me!” she says, raising her hand. “Scuse me, Mr. Clown! Scuse me!”

“Yes?” says the clown, swatting the chicken yet again.

“If I have a Zoom party when it’s my birthday, can you come?”

Contact Lane DeGregory at ldegregory@tampabay.com. Follow @LaneDeGregory.

About this series

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Maria Carrillo at mcarrillo@tampabay.com or call (727) 892-2301.