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Wednesday, 23 April 2014 13:31

Mountain Merry Makers spread ‘a little touch of happiness’

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fr clowningBy Jake Flannick • Correspondent

If wardrobes are a form of self-expression, then Gloria Stockton has a whimsical flair.

She would say the opposite, of course. But the bright pink, polka dot smock, colorful high-top shoes and green-dyed hair in which she sometimes leaves her home in Sylva suggests otherwise.

 

The outfit is part of her routine of dressing up as a clown, a persona she has used in recent years to try to “bring a little touch of happiness” to places where such an emotional state might seem less obvious.

“The satisfaction is just seeing one person smile,” said Stockton, whose weekly visits to a couple of assisted living facilities in the area usually involve playing a keyboard and twirling a hula hoop in their common areas.

Stockton, 70, who is retired and spends these days working as a potter, is not the only one with such a commitment. 

She is part of a group of more than a dozen professional clowns across the region, mostly in and around Asheville and Hendersonville. The group, Mountain Merry Makers, has arranged appearances at gatherings big and small over the past year, from festivals and parades to birthday parties.

It is less of a troupe than an association, with some of its 16 members working on a freelance basis and none of them basing their livelihood on clowning.

Even so, members are instructed to project a sense of professionalism, even in their jest.

“If I look bad, so do the rest,” said Larry Boone, the president of the group.

Clowning has remained a source of income for Boone, 64, a retired mechanical designer who works part time for a transportation company in Hendersonville, where he has spent his entire life.

He charges $125 for each hour he spends at a birthday party. That is unless it comprises more than 16 children, after which he tends to charge more. 

The reason, he said, is the amount of time and money he has sunk into the activity. It can easily cost several hundred dollars for costumes, shoes, supplies and training.

At the same time, he described clowning as a “heart form,” involving long hours of preparation and, perhaps most important, an enduring level of candor.

The thought of working as such an entertainer emerged about nine years ago, after Boone completed a training session at a clown school in Taccoa, Ga., as part of a stint as an assistant to a professional clown. The role was mainly technical, helping with things like setting up sound systems for shows.

He later returned to the school, TNT University, learning the fundamentals, from applying makeup to conducting oneself in costume. He has since displayed what has remained his best-known skill — twisting balloons — at birthday parties, restaurants and parades.

While Boone has come to find fulfillment in trying to entertain children while in clown costume — scheduling visits to elementary schools and homes for birthday parties — and has also spent time doubling as a Santa Claus, he’s quick to dismiss any notion that such a role is an extension of his personality.

“I’m not naturally funny,” he said, describing himself as the “more quiet, serious type.”

Such traits are not apparent when talking with Betty Robbins, the vice president of the group, for whom clowning has remained a constant theme since the late 1980s.

That was when she started volunteering as a silent, white-faced clown as part of a church in Virginia she had long attended with her family.

At first, she balked at such an idea, which her children had embraced as teenagers. She was busy, working as a nurse at the time and later returning to college for a bachelor’s degree in gerontology.

But she has grown to use her role as a kind of ministry, seeking to spread a sense of whimsy not only among children, but among those entangled in the hardships of life.

“I’m a humor therapist,” Robbins, 67, said. “I do it for fun.”

Mountain Merry Makers formed about a year ago, when Robbins approached Boone about forming the group. The group has since organized introductory classes on clowning, seeking to encourage involvement among aspiring clowns, however few, in the western part of the state.

Beyond that, its members have sought to dispel any lingering misconceptions about clowns. 

They have “gotten some bad press” over the years, Robbins said, particularly given their depictions in movies over the years that perhaps have cultivated what she and others said is a level of ambivalence toward the entertainers.

The number of professional clowns across the country has decreased over the years, amid fading interest and older generations retiring from such roles. The World Clown Association, the largest trade group in the country for clowns, has lost about 1,000 members, declining from 3,500 to 2,500 over the past decade, according to The New York Daily News.

Still, some clowns remain. Among them are what are known as caring clowns, who schedule visits to hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

That is the role in which Stockton, the clown in Sylva, has sought to show compassion since she came to clowning after a visit with her older sister in an assisted living facility about four years ago. Her sister, who is receiving medical treatment, no longer displayed as much enthusiasm for seeing her visiting family members.

After spending much time considering how to lift her sister’s spirits, Stockton turned to the Georgia clown school, eventually completing training there. Shortly thereafter, she returned to her sister’s room, donning the costume for which Stockton now is best known: a Texas-style cowgirl, spurs and all.

It was a step that came as a surprise to her family members, including her husband and five adult children, given that she has long considered herself more reserved.

“I have no clue where this came from,” Stockton, who spent much of her life doing clerical work, said of the idea of clowning. “I’ve never been a funny person.”

At the same time, she added that she believes it “comes through an artistic spirit.”

Among the aspects of her role that she considers most gratifying is the chance to tickle her audience, many of whom go long periods without seeing their family.

“You have to learn about being a child again,” she said, referring not only to her own training as a clown, but to others whom she tries to entertain.

Beyond that, she sees it as a reminder that laughter knows no boundaries.

“Everyone has a sense of humor, packed away somewhere,” Stockton said.

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