Arrow-right Camera


It’s In Their Makeup Volunteers Get In Touch With Their Inner Clowns For Circus Show

Sat., March 9, 1996

Jim Welberry starts splitting his personality with a jar of Oil of Olay pulled from his tackle box. He slathers the moisturizer over his face.

Next to him, Al McKay is doing the same thing, starting the switch to one of his three personalities.

Jim Walster is a step behind. He gently dabs the sides of his slick, gray hair, then reaches into his tackle box for his cosmetics.

In about one hour, Welberry, McKay and Walster will vanish, replaced by Shrine Circus clowns Gizmo, Huggy and Jimbo.

They peer and squint into the wall-long makeup mirror of their tight, windowless dressing room in the Spokane Arena.

Welberry lifts an eyebrow and reaches for a Q-Tip.

McKay sweeps a flesh-colored paste around the side of his nose and across its bridge. Walster is now heavy into the Oil of Olay, creating the base for his layers of makeup.

As they work, other clowns already in costume drift in. The lights - bouncing off heads of orange and purple hair, and shirts and trousers of the brightest reds and sunniest yellows - hurt the eyes.

As the makeup piles on and their guy-on-the-street looks disappear, there’s a shift in the room.

Conversation picks up.

McKay, a crew-cut guy with the look of a weathered drill sergeant, starts talking about the history of clowning, the types of clowns.

“Now a tramp, that’s an unhappy clown,” he says. “He’s been forced into a situation he’s not happy about. A hobo, well, he’s doing what he wants to do so he’s happy.”

Welberry, a Valley, Wash., trucking company owner, jokes for the first, but not last, time about being the best-looking clown and how to find him once the big top goes up.

Yet there is no clowning around with the makeup for these modern court jesters.

“If you’re not going to put it on right, don’t put it on,” says Walster, a retired Moses Lake man who celebrates 30 years of clowning next month.

“I try to do it every time as best as I can, as if I’m going into competition,” offers McKay, a Moses Lake school bus driver who occasionally slips behind the wheel of his rig in costume.

The 22,000 Shriners in North America who perform as clowns are as varied as their faces. The person behind the makeup could be a retiree, an insurance agent, a truck driver, a doctor. Some perform full time, others squeeze shows and parades between other job demands.

As the transformation continues, makeup is troweled on with art brushes, fingers, pencils and cotton swabs.

The men are equipped for any emergency.

Four fake noses poke up from the bottom of Welberry’s tackle box. A side compartment is home to big black eyelashes, much larger than the ones Tammy Faye Bakker once fluttered.

“I go through 500 Q-Tips a month,” estimates Welberry, who performed about 150 times last year. That’s 6,000 Q-Tips a year.

“It takes me about 50 to put on a face,” offers Don Baumann, a Spokane insurance underwriter.

Baumann’s already dressed and residing in his personality as Czarnak the wizard.

His explanation of why he’s a clown is simple. “It takes me out into another world,” he says, adding he loves the reaction of spectators when he’s dressed.

That prompts a nodding of Day-Glo colored heads and a chorus of agreement.

Baumann smiles from beneath his bright purple hair while those harsh mirror lights flick off the sparkles that seam his makeup.

“There’s a lot of anticipation when it’s going on,” Baumann says of the makeup.

“Taking the stuff off is no fun,” he adds, explaining the wonderful illusion of make-believe disappears with the makeup.

For some, there is no line. The illusion carries over into the guy-on-the-street image.

“When you first start clowning, there are two people involved,” Welberry says. “You as a civilian and you as a clown.”

They merge the longer that “civilian” performs behind the makeup and in the costume, adds Welberry, who has eight other clown personalities in addition to Gizmo.

Welberry married a female clown, Gertie.

With this couple, clowning comes first.

On Thursday, Welberry and Ruth (her real name) celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary as he raced from a television station interview to makeup session to dress rehearsal.

“He does my makeup,” Ruth Welberry says as her husband finishes patting his face down with powder to let the makeup set.

Finishing his face first, Welberry tamps down a bright green wig. He continues a monologue about how spectators can find him - the best-looking clown - while Ruth pins a button on his bib and straightens his name tag.

“Dear, your name is too high on the left,” she says. “People will think they’re drunk when they look at your name.”

Walster adds the last lines to his face and stands up, complaining he’s not happy with it and wants more time. He pulls on his yellow wig and adjusts the bow-tie that completes his switch to Jimbo.

“You need a nose, Jim,” Welberry says. “You need a nose.”

Walster reaches up and touches skin. The painted-on twinkles around his eyes appear to twinkle more. “Humphh,” he chuckles and shuffles off in search of the glistening red nose.

Noses in place, name tags straight and buttons properly pinned, Gizmo, Huggy and Jimbo leave the room, their everyday personalities of Welberry, McKay and Walster now just memories.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos


Click here to comment on this story »