The following appeared in The Pitt News, August 2000.
This photograph was not taken at the Clown Hall of Fame,
but a month after the events chronicled here: The clown was Bob,
my South Oakland landlord, who appeared in our kitchen one day
to talk about cabinets. He was apparently a Shriner who dressed
as a clown to entertain children. For a full minute, I had literally
no idea who he was. Then we took this picture.
We were sitting in my living room when my friend Brad told me that there’s a Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee.
“Really?” I said. “You wanna go?”
“Hell, yeah!” Brad replied.
What, did we really need a reason? We had a car, a destination , six bottles of Pepsi and our buddy Fred—maybe even $250 combined. Plus we had a plan: drive down Friday afternoon, arrive Saturday morning, sleep till 9 a.m., and visit the Clown Hall of Fame. Sunday we’d drive back. Simple.
First order of business: pick up a waitress at Eat ‘n Park. This wasn’t in the original itinerary, but it seemed like a good idea to Fred and me at three in the morning on the Wednesday prior. Melanie (not her real name) was friendly, courteous, and bored with her job.
“I’m bored with my job,” she told us, pouring coffee.
When she returned from folding napkins, I said, “So this is the weirdest question you’ll get all year, I’m sure. My friend here is a film student and I’m a writer. We’re planning to visit the Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee. You wanna come?”
Melanie laughed hysterically. She said some snob had invited her to fly to Australia a week before, and she had turned him down. No go. We were heartbroken.
We picked up Brad at his office and burned rubber, storming down the Interstate at 85 mph. “CLOWN HALL OF FAME!” we screamed at passing rigs, at people on the small town sidewalks, at each other. We took photos of cloudbursts. We stretched in front of gas stations. We read Hunter S. Thompson travelogues aloud and got wacky ideas. We decided that youth rocks.
Fred discovered somewhere in Ohio that he wanted a cowboy hat and some quality cheese. Brad wanted a Milwaukee brew that matched Iron City (his regular). I wanted a red clown nose—to earn smiles and awe the grandkids and make them ask, Pops, where’d you get that? Then I could tell the story of my spontaneous beatnik odyssey—how Gary, Indiana, smells like manure, how we reveled in the Chicago skyline at midnight, how Brad got a room for one and Fred and I snuck in and snoozed on the floor.
Milwaukee is a damn fine city. Stands of trees and rows of bushes supplement every crystal-clear skyscraper and stone-framed canal. At the breakfast joint the old proprietress giggled and gave us directions for a half hour. She directed us to every tourist spot in Milwaukee, insisting that we visit the House of Rocks.
“Actually,” said Brad proudly, “we’re visiting the Clown Hall of Fame.”
“Where?” the woman asked, giggling.
Brad was so shocked that his mouth hung open. Where, indeed! Brad had performed standup at the FunnyBone Comedy Club. He’d studied Seinfeld and Carlin and made people laugh at amateur nights from Pittsburgh to San Francisco. Brad takes humor seriously. And clowns aren’t just wigs and big pants; they are Humor Incarnate, the pinnacle of fun-makers. Sure, Pennsylvanians hadn’t heard of the Hall of Fame, but this was Milwaukee! We imagined the Hall as a pearly palace, flanked by marble statues of Binky and Ronald. Didn’t everyone know about it?
The Hall, we discovered, is tucked into the corner of a big empty antechamber in the basement of a downtown shopping mall. The whole thing doesn’t cover half an acre. But the curators use the space economically: They house photos, prints, original paintings, mannequins donning clown get-up, the whole big-shoed shebang. And we were in heaven.
Our tour guide was informative. A tall woman with a thick Midwestern accent, she talked about the three types of clowns in mild detail. The white-faced clown represents the circus and plays with the kids. The plain-faced clown is all slapstick; white face always shafts plain face. The character clown (or hobo) usually wears rags and grainier makeup. Hobos are often tragic and sad-looking.
“But a clown’s purpose is always to bring laughter and happiness into the world,” our guide said.
Right on, I thought.
Then we watched a clown demonstration: Her name was Melody, and she was terrible. Her act was to play Fisher Price instruments badly and then apologize.
“No, I don’t think I can play the harmonica, doncha know it. Let’s try a drum…”
After bad notes and 26 galling alphabet jokes, Melody released us and we scurried over to the souvenir shop.
The sign hit us like a circus elephant. After the demonstration, the Clown Hall of Fame was closed till Sunday at 2 p.m., when we were scheduled to be cruising past Columbus, back home.
After the clowns, nothing mattered. The silent shock outside the mall, the CD shop that only sold R&B, the Bastille Days street festival, shooting pool next to a window that overlooked the river—all of it paled before the half-enjoyed eminence of the Clown Hall of Fame.
Two stouts helped Fred and Brad cope with the clown tragedy. On our way back, Fred found a $5 cowboy hat at a truck stop in Indiana. It clashed brutally with his token Hawaiian T-shirt.
“You look like a clown,” we said, giving him a thumb’s up.
Alas, I never found my nose.
As we edged toward the Ohio border, we started talking about jobs. “Last summer, I applied at Toys ‘R’ Us,” Fred remarked. “They didn’t say I was hired till the semester started.”
“I haven’t been to a Toys ‘R’ Us in years,” I said.
“Whaaat?” Fred shrieked. “Well, we have to go. Right now. Let’s pull over at this Texaco and ask for direction.”
Two hours later we stepped through automatic doors and felt the cool air-conditioned breeze of a rural Toys ‘R’ Us. We flew through the aisles, past GI Joe dolls, video games, Star Wars figures, ranks of tricycles, drawing sets, plastic backpacks, the touchstones of our childhoods. We passed around a beach ball, compared X-Men rumors, played a 3-D Spiderman game until our thumbs felt sore, laughing hard.
Still laughing, as we stepped into the car. Still laughing, as pulled into Pittsburgh, just a few hours before dawn. Laughing that night, laughing still.