Clowning around


Learning the basics of applying clown make-up, Sunnyside Church of God youth group member Joey Rodriguez gets a little help from Tom Dekker. Rodriguez is one of several Lower Valley teens learning about clowning from Arlo "Waldo" Waggoner, who has also been teaching students at Grandview High School.

In the 1960s the secrets of clowning were kept close to a clown's heart.

An amateur clown in the early 1970s, Sunnyside resident Arlo (Waldo) Waggoner couldn't find anyone who would help him hone his basic clowning skills.

"Back in the early 60s you couldn't get the old clowns to talk to you," said Waggoner, who was known to many people as Waldo the clown that taught fire safety to thousands of Lower Valley children before he retired from the Sunnyside Fire Department in 2001.

Attending a circus at the Expo Center in Portland when his two sons were young, Waggoner approached one of the clowns at the circus and identified himself as an amateur clown, asking a few questions.

"I was afraid to let little kids hug me because when they rubbed against me I'd lose half my face," Waggoner said.

"He said, you powder don't you?" said Waggoner. "I said no, and he threw his head back and laughed and said he'd be out after the show to talk to me."

That day Waggoner learned the basic techniques professional clowns use to apply make-up (they don't make large smiley faces that engulf the top lip), and tricks of the trade when it come to bringing out the vivid colors and getting them to stay put without running.

Now, 30 years later, Waggoner is taking his skills and teaching a new generation of clowns.

"Clowns are all shapes, sizes and colors," said Waggoner. "They're a rainbow of funny faces."

This winter he started teaching a clowning class for the students of Grandview High School Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) club advisor Joyce Johnson.

"It's an after-school group, so they're there because they want to be, not because they have to be," said Waggoner.

Johnson contacted Waggoner about teaching the students clowning lessons earlier this year. She said about three years ago she took a clowning class at St. Elizabeth's clowning association.

A clown emergency was called and Johnson and her fellow clown students drove through the streets of Yakima to Eschbach Park, painted with brightly colored makeup.

"We helped a company out," she recalled. The clowns they had hired didn't show up.

Johnson and her fellow clowns spent the day bringing joy to young children and remembering that day, Johnson contacted Waggoner, who has been known in the Lower Valley as the fire safety clown.

Johnson approached Waggoner in January about teaching some of her students clowning.

The students have taken Waggoner's leadership and found their niche in clowning.

Henry Trevino is one of the students in the class and has taken an interest in stilt walking.

"He found a pair of sheet rock stilts at a thrift store and started learning on them," said Waggoner. "They must have been too heavy because he made another pair in wood shop."

Waggoner said the teen has gotten pretty good at walking on stilts and can even run on them.

"Stilt walkers aren't common. I never learned to walk on stilts," he said. "I tried when I was a kid. I finally learned to juggle."

Another two of Waggoner's students have mastered balloon twisting, making animals, and all of the students are interested in face painting.

Over the weeks, Waggoner has taught the students the basics of make-up, balloons, skits, juggling and costumes, and some of the students are talking about attending the Pacific Northwest Clown Conference this fall. They are also planning to attend a one-day class in May that Waggoner is teaching through Yakima Valley Community College on how to use the clown image to teach fire safety.

"It boggles my mind that high school aged kids have such an interest," said Waggoner.

But the students at Grandview High School aren't the only ones learning clowning from Waggoner. The youths at his church, the Sunnyside Church of God, are also learning skills from Waggoner.

He said the church youths have an interest in helping with children's events, skits in church and special projects in the community.

Waggoner said what tickled him about teaching the kids from his church's youth group is that once they had the make-up on, they relaxed into clowning.

"Every time one of them would put on a different hat or wig, they'd run over to the mirror to look at themselves," said Waggoner.

In both of his classes, Waggoner has taught students, " don't have to have expensive stuff to start with. Start small and work up."

It's common for a clown to change his or her face several times before finding one that fits the personality they have created.

And, he said, the personalities of the clowns are sometimes the exact opposite of the person playing the clown.

Waggoner said when helping with the Wenatchee Youth Circus one year he met this shy little boy who was a clown in the circus. Once he had his make-up on he was a bubbly, out-going clown, but when the make-up was off he was shy again.

For years Waggoner was a white faced clown, which is a common make-up style that paints the entire face white before adding colors to make up the facial features.

"Then I learned I was too much of a roustabout to be a white faced clown, so I went to an Auguste (a style that uses white and colored make-up as well as skin tones)," said Waggoner.

Traditionally, white faced clowns are reserved and are the instigators of antics in clown skits. Auguste clowns follow through with the antics, such as a pie in the face, and the tramp or character clown is usually the clown that is the victim, said Waggoner.

Although Waggoner doesn't have any specific memories of clowns as a child, he does remember entertainment at Dairy Days, an event held in his hometown in Iowa. The community brings in slapstick and skit performers, which he still remembers fondly. It's that type of humor that Waggoner uses in his skits for groups and when teaching fire safety.

He also has a few slight of hand illusions and gags that he uses and has taught to his clowning students.

"Little kids are so gullible," said Waggoner.

Johnson said that the skills the students are learning can go beyond community service into a part-time job.

In larger cities clowns can earn up to $65 per hour at birthday parties and other events.

"That's not bad for a college job," Johnson said.

The sky is really the limit on the types of events, skits and clown personalities.

"The only limitation is your imagination," said Waggoner.

"Clowning is coming back," he added.

With lulls in interest, Waggoner said clowning almost died out, but, he said, he has done his best to keep the interest alive.

Over the years the attitude of secrecy in clowning has relaxed.

Now there are annual clown conferences held both regionally, nationally and internationally.

The conferences have seminars on costuming, skits, make-up and birthday parties, helping clowns develop their skills.


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