Jacksonville clown group tries to rebuild its ranks at at clown school
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Jacksonville clown group tries to rebuild its ranks at at clown school

Aug 31, 2023

They may look untroubled, what with their red noses and rosy cheeks, their brightly colored hair and funny hats, their striped socks and floppy shoes. After all, there's nothing like putting on your clown outfit to give you an emotional lift.

But underneath all that, Jacksonville's clowns sense trouble — and they need your help, more than ever.

The pandemic hit them hard, leading to the cancellation of birthday parties as well as corporate events where clown sightings are common. In an especially painful move, local hospitals just couldn't allow clown visitors to see their young patients for a long while, and senior centers did the same thing.

So the demand for clowns dwindled to almost nothing. And what's a clown with no chance to clown around?

"It was brutal,” said "Shorty," also known as Sean Jennings and current president of Gator Clowns of Jacksonville Inc. "We weren't able to meet, we couldn't recruit, and since we weren't in public ..."

Shorty's wife, Carole "Sprinkles" Jennings, finished his sentence: "People forgot about us!"

A lot of clowns stopped clowning during the pandemic and haven't yet put back on their makeup and wigs.

Gator Clowns, a not-for-profit group, is believed to America's oldest active clown group (probably 50 years old, at least, says Shorty). But it's now down to about 20 dues-paying, background-checked members. Contrast that with the 120 members cited in a Times-Union story just 21 years ago.

That's a drastic change. And many of the clowns left are, well, getting up there in years, like husband-and-wife clowns Shorty, who's 71, and Sprinkles, who's 74. She chuckled: "And don't add a day to that!"

"If we don’t get young people in there, the profession will just disappear," Sprinkles said. "Everybody will age out, and they can’t do it anymore.”

So now Gator Clowns is eagerly seeking younger people (even down to school age) to join their colorful, if diminished, ranks, which leads us to Clown Academy 23, where you can learn all you need to know to become a clown.

Earlier this week, about a half-dozen people had signed up. More are needed.

Clown Academy begins Sept. 7 at Englewood Christian Church, 4316 S. Barnes Road, with a graduation on Oct. 4. (Check out the clowns' Facebook page, Gator Clowns of Jacksonville Inc., or website, gatorclowns.org, or call 833-487-2596. It's $125, which includes a year's membership.)

Clown Academy is customarily an annual event, but not since 2019. "For obvious reasons," Shorty said.

It's a chance for budding clowns to learn things such as the history of clowns (it's a rich one), costuming, makeup, face-painting, balloon sculpting and improv. Even the art of the unicycle, should you desire.

Professor Clown Sarah "Buttons" Page says there's a little clown in almost anyone, and you just need to look inside yourself to find out who it is.

She's 35, one of the younger Gator clowns, a mother of a new baby, and in her non-clown life she works for a homeowners' insurance company. "I read and do math all day," she said. Pretty much the opposite of clowning.

Looking for happiness, she found clowning, and Buttons, four years ago.

“I’ve always been kind of a goofy kid, growing up," she said. "I got older, got into my serious grown-up phase, chasing a career, doing all that stuff, and kind of let my inner child get hidden under life and all the things that happen, good and bad."

"I thought, wouldn't it be great if I could do something to bring a little joy and laughter to people when they’re in a slump?"

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Buttons is quite aware that some people are put off by clowns or afraid of them. That's OK, she said, “I have a motto: Always respect the nope.”

And when you can get a child, say, to go from fear to thinking you're pretty cool? That's priceless.

The performers talk of the joy they get when they transform from an ordinary person into a clown. Their voice changes. Their gait changes. Their mood changes. They are no longer just themselves: They are Shorty, or Sprinkles, or Buttons.

Clowning can, and should be silly. But there's much more to it than that, as seen under the section on "Values" at Gator Clowns' homepage: "We offer grace and kindness when and where it’s needed the most."

And isn't that what the world needs now?

“It seems that the world is a little ugly now," Sprinkles said with some sadness.

Shorty joined in with his thoughts: "If we don’t have comic relief, I just think the world will deteriorate so much faster, and somebody's got to go out and counter the hate. They have to go out and show love. I think that’s our calling.”

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