Becoming a ‘real’ clown

MARSHALL – For summer camp, Doug Bengtson of Wood Lake and Duane Blake of Tyler got to make balloon animals, learn some pointers on how to paint their face, a few new magic tricks and write some gags.

The two recently attended Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp in Buffalo, a six-day intensive training program designed to meet the needs of people who want to learn to be “real” clowns.

The camp was started 20 years ago by Tricia Manuel, aka Pricilla Mooseburger, who started her clowning career in the 1980s with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus and Disneyland.

Bengtson’s wife, Sharla, attended the camp a decade ago. The Bengtsons have been performing for quite a few years as Happy Face and Candy Kisses, the Lighter Side Clowns.

“She kept telling me I should do it,” Bengtson said. “Now that I’m retired, I can easily do it.”

Bengtson said he would watch the camp’s website and found out about a scholarship opportunity, the Ralph Pounder Memorial Scholarship, which is in memory of a former camper. He received a partial scholarship to attend the camp.

Blake is still relatively new to clowning, doing is first show in Minneota in 2011. He started out as Buster the Reading Clown and has since added magic. But before he made his foray into clowning, Blake said he met up with Manuel for advice.

“I went to her shop in Maple Lake, Minnesota,” Blake said. He said he talked to about starting out. “She was very encouraging and supportive.”

Blake wanted to be a clown magician, so Manuel had recommended looking up Fred Baisch in St. Paul.

“Fred is a master magician and performer,” Blake said.

Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus used to have clown college for 10 weeks, Blake said.

“This is a clown camp that’s filling the void,” Blake said.

On the first night, the staff members got into costume and did a skit, Blake said.

“That was exciting to see,” he said. “It established their credibility with us.”

“It made many of us confident in what we can do, with a little practice,” Bengtson said.

There were 30 instructors on staff at the camp, Blake said, and they were former touring clowns with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.

“All morning long there were classes, depending on what kind of clowning you want face painting, writing gags,” Blake said.

“It was an excellent camp, I never learned so much in my life,” Bengtson said.

There were classes on a variety of topics, the men said, like how to make props and

“It’s an opportunity for people like us to be trained by professional clowns,” Blake said.

The campers were also all assigned to do different skits at the end of the camp at the Civic Center in Buffalo, and the instructors directed them, Blake said. The show was an hour and a half and included the “firehouse” sketch with explosions, fire and sound effects.

“It’s all professionally done,” Blake said.

On his first day of camp, Bengtson said he took a class on how to write a gag, which quickly inspired him.

“I was ready to go home and put them to work,” Bengtson said.

Among the class offerings was one on clown movement, Bengtson said.

“It’s good in the aspect (that it) shows you haw to move and tell a story, use your hands,” Bengtson said.

Another class Bengtson took was balloon-making. Even though he already makes balloon animals as Happy Face, he said he wanted to learn some more balloon animals and tricks with balloons.

Bengtson also attended a class on face painting.

“It’s one of my shortfalls,” Bengtson said about face-painting. In the class, he said he learned what kind of paint works the best, what kinds of brushes are the best kind, etc.

While at the camp, Blake said he hoped to take a course from Baisch. He also brought along two of his homemade props, hoping to use them and get pointers on how to improve them. But an unexpected bonus, Blake said, was a magic jam that took place after 10 p.m. one night, where a magician demonstrated his props and Baisch performed various routines, breaking down the steps.

“I didn’t expect to see him perform at camp,” Blake said about Baisch. “That really impressed me.” Blake was also impressed being with the different instructors and how helpful they were in working with the campers.

“It opened up my eyes on what we could do different as clowns, my wife and I,” Bengtson said.

There was also a class on library and school shows.

“How to go into them, what to do, balance what they want with what you can do,” Bengtson said. There’s working with libraries, finding a message and then working on the show, he said. “The big thing is to create hope for the future for them (the kids).”

“Always be professional, that’s the thing they pushed the most,” Bengtson added. “And be flexible. I was very hungry to learn, and I was going to learn everything that was there.”

During the evenings, Blake said some of the instructors would do a presentation. One night, Josha Zehner, a Ringling Brothers clown for a couple of years and cast member for Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza show, talked about his career. Another night, Manuel demonstrated how to put on clown makeup, talked about her career and costume shop and travels as a clowning educator.

“It was interesting to hear about their experiences,” Blake said.

Blake said the camp draws people internationally. Some of the campers were from India, Scotland and Canada.

Bengtson said the instructors were “tremendously helpful,” taking the time to assist campers.

“It was very good, I would recommend it to anyone who was thinking about doing clowning,” Bengtson said.