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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Clowning around the world

World traveler and professional clown Jeanne MacConnell, also known as “Gigi,” has added a couple of new pins on the world map in her home.

In November, she was able to travel to Moscow, Russia, for one week and then to St. Petersburg for another week with doctor, clown and social activist Patch Adams.

Adams is the real doctor who was portrayed by Robin Williams in the 1998 film. He has devoted 30 years to changing America’s health care system, which he calls “expensive and elitist.” He founded the Gesundheit Institute in West Virginia where patient care includes laughter, joy and creativity.

“I went through the KMC Smile Squad Clown School in 1999,” MacConnell said of her career. “I’ve been an actor for 40 to 50 years.”

MacConnell attended the annual Clowns of America National/ International convention in Corpus Christi, Texas, last April. There she met Adams, who was appearing at the convention for the first time.

The “Healing Through Humor Tour to Russia” had already been planned and arrangements were made by a custom tour group, the MIR Corp. They told MacConnell the trip was full and put her on a waiting list with one other person ahead of her.

Adams makes this trip every year, but only 30 clowns can go. In September, MacConnell got the call that she had been chosen to be a member of the tour. Soon she was clowning in orphanages and hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Adams has been doing the tour for 20 years. He has taken the tour into Pakistan and Afghanistan, and plans to go to Iran. The Russian group went to hospitals or an orphanage in the mornings, then after lunch they went to another hospital. She said the average orphanage in Russia has 400-500 children.

“Because there is no training for the orphans, little education, basically they are locked up, the doors are locked in the orphanage, and they are not allowed to go outside unless they’re in some organized group in the yard,” MacConnell said. “There’s fence, wire all the way around these places. It’s really, really hard.”

All the clowns that went – 16 from the United States and 14 from other countries – paid their own way, “giving their hearts and souls to these children,” MacConnell said.

MacConnell said one man who went on the Russia tour had never been a clown before. He performed on stilts for the children. MacConnell has a variety of fun toys she used to communicate with the children, breaking down the language barrier.

They painted a mural at one of the hospitals, and visited with Maria’s Children, an “Arts Rehabilitation Center for Russian Orphans,” where Russian children learn to paint. The work of the children is then auctioned to raise money for the continuing art education of the children. All the clowns attended and supported the auction.

MacConnell and her husband, Barrie MacConnell, have appeared in many television commercials together, and Jeanne has been in several locally produced films, such as “Mozart and The Whale,” “The Basket” and “Dante’s Peak.”

While attending the University of Hawaii in 1964, she made her stage debut in “The Typist and the Tiger,” also starring a then-unknown Bette Midler. MacConnell was the tiger, and Midler was the typist.

“We knew – all of us – that Bette was one of those ones that was going to make it,” MacConnell said. She received her bachelor’s degree in theater from the University of Hawaii in 1966 after first attending the University of Washington.

MacConnell has done an extensive amount of theater, including playing Ouiser Boudreaux in “Steel Magnolias” in 1996. She was with the Red Hot Mamas for five years before moving into clowning.

Born in Bozeman, her desire to travel comes from her parents. Her mom was born in Arkansas, her dad was born in Kansas, and all four of their children were born in different states.

“I’m a bit of a wanderer,” MacConnell said. She spent much of her childhood on the Oregon coast.

After she graduated from college, MacConnell saw an application from the U.S. government for students to learn more about Vietnam. It was 1966, at the height of the war.

“They were looking for graduate students to send to Vietnam for a year to study their specialty,” MacConnell said. “Well, you saw what I graduated in – theater! I was there to study culture. But you know – the culture was north of the DMZ!” She was one of seven students who got to go.

She worked with a TV station in Vietnam, writing and acting. She took Chinese drama troupes into the Mekong Delta – never a safe place, according to Barrie. She met him, a sailor in the Navy, at a Christmas party in Saigon.

“The first time I saw her was at a Christmas party at the Armed Forces Radio Station,” Barrie said. “She literally was sitting on a table with a dozen guys around her, reigning supreme, and I spotted her.

“She’s had a wandering spirit all of her life,” he said. “And she never goes the same place the same way twice.”

Before she knew she was accepted for the Patch Adams tour, Jeanne MacConnell had already made plans last July to go to Africa in December. She had only 11 days after coming back from Russia to deploy on a tour of Zambia, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. She rode elephants, saw giraffes and leopards, and had high tea every day at 3 p.m.

Designed to be more of a leisure trip, she did end up clowning at Lizauli Village in Namibia.

Now back home, she is clowning every Tuesday with the KMC Smile Squad at either the hospital or various nursing or assisted living homes. She is in planning stages now to go with Caring Clowns International to Vietnam next year, returning to one of her old stomping grounds.