My earliest memory is waking in the predawn of a midwinter morning to the sound of my father’s clown shoes treading the floorboards of the hallway outside my bedroom.
It was a sound I’d continue to hear through the years, and one that gave me great comfort. As much comfort as the summer rain when it danced the Charleston on the tin roof of our Illinois home on hot July nights.
I always smiled beneath my covers when I heard the sound of those clown shoes. As much as I wanted Dinky the Clown to eat his Pop Tart with me over breakfast, I knew he had a job to do, and that in a few hours he’d be titillating a gaggle of four year olds with his clever bag of tricks somewhere in the wilds of Illinois.
Even as a little kid, I could tell my father had talent. I knew several of his friends and colleagues in the profession – Lil’ Binky, Snips, Tatters – and though I enjoyed their acts, it was obvious my father operated on a different level.
Looking back, it seems his best years of performing were the mid to late ’80s, a period some historians now point to as the Golden Age of Clowning. Dinky was on fire creatively. Reaganomics proved beneficial to my father, as the tax cuts for the rich meant extravagant parties for the kindergarten set that moved among the leafy suburbs of Chicago’s North Shore. And Dinky the Clown was in high demand. The money flowed and my parents were living the high life: my father’s student loans from clown-college were finally paid off, 401Ks and Roth IRAs were established, real-estate investment deals made, the works. Nothing could stop him, it seemed.
My mother had worked as a clown — under the stage name Bits — during her college years. She understood it was a calling for my father. She also was aware of the sacrifices and long hours that were required to achieve a certain level artistic success, a certain level of clowndom, if you will. In fact, nothing turned her on more than seeing Dinky at the top of his game, making six balloon animals in less than sixty seconds at some skating rink on the outskirts of town at 10:30 on a Saturday morning amid middens of spilled popcorn.
But things changed — as things do — sometime around 1989. It was around this time that Dinky starred in a feature-length documentary called Clowning Around. The film traced the fortunes of a number of All-American clowns that had struggled early in their career and then found success by virtue of hard work and through the grace of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The film crew stayed out our house for a few weeks, shooting interviews with Dinky, as well as shooting B-roll and Schedule 1 narcotics.
Two years later the film debuted at Clowndance. It was clearly a hit job directed at Dinky, and it stung like a serpent’s tooth. In the film, my father said some things about a certain character known as Bozo the Clown. Dinky spoke the truth on camera because a true clown never lies. A clown may traffic in illusion, but his sleights of hand only serve to illuminate the greater truths of the world, the greater truths of men. In the film my father insinuated that the gentleman who played Bozo on one of the local stations in Detroit – one of four Bozos working in Motor City alone – had stolen much of his act from him when they were at clown-college together in the early ’70s in Southern California, including the move where Dinky tied a balloon animal behind his back.
When Dinky signed a contract with finger paint one wild, dazzling, drunken night, he released the filmmakers from any liability regarding what was said on camera. My father, as a result, was sued for defamation by some of the clowns he trashed in the film. The litigation dogged him for a decade.
Years later, my mother told me that the film essentially torpedoed my father’s career. It has never been proven in a court of law, but there is overwhelming evidence to suggest the Chicago crime families controlled the clown circuit of the Greater Midwest. The Mafia, who were long aligned with the confederation of midwestern Bozos, had put the word out, and Dinky was having trouble getting gigs. Occasionally he’d work a job where he opened for another clown at a magic shop, but it was small potatoes compared to what he was doing in his heyday.
By and by Dinky lost his confidence and got off his game. The money wasn’t coming in and the economy sank into a recession. Some of Dinky’s investment projects from the ’80s tanked as well, including the one involving “New Coke,” a product in which he’d invested millions. Dinky’s health also began to suffer. The clown shoes were causing blisters as well as chronic back pain. The doctors told him if he continued to “clown around” his condition would only get worse.
Through it all, he didn’t quit, at least during these years, as he felt that clowning was his calling. Ever since he was a kid, his father, a prominent heart surgeon in Aurora, told him he’d never make it as a clown. But Dinky was determined to get the last laugh.
Around this time things began to deteriorate at home. My parents fought all the time. And just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, Sparky the Clown showed up in our driveway with his old Winnebago from the ’60s. Sparky was trouble; even an eight year old could see it at the time. His act also stunk. His one original trick was reciting his ABCs in a rapid-fire fashion, mixing up the sequence of letters. Sparky had just gotten divorced and needed a place to park his motor home. Every night he’d stay up drinking with my father in the hot tub, talking about the old days at clown-college and reminiscing about being street clowns one summer in Mexico City.
Some nights Sparky would bring girl clowns over from the bars. One frigid night I woke up because of the noise and went outside and found Sparky bedecked with blood-red face paint meant to look like he’d been slashed. A female clown was in the hot tub with him, innocent of all clothing. Sparky asked if I wanted to see his new juggling routine and then proceeded to toy with the woman’s unmentionables. I was appalled, traumatized even. I ran back inside as fast as I could and went straight to my room, close to the point of vomiting.
I later learned from my mother that my father began experimenting with hallucinogens during the Sparky days. The experiments worked, in the short term. The creative juices began to flow once again and Dinky came up with a whole new routine. He was doing things clowns had never done before: laser-light shows, juggling on a skateboard, putting wigs and makeup on family pets. It was absolute magic, and the kids loved it.
By winter the following year his routine got progressively darker. Sparky had left a few months before to live with a woman in South America, and Dinky was saddened by his departure. My father had a bad trip during a 10 a.m. birthday party one day in Peoria, and from there it really went downhill. He eventually bottomed out and left Illinois without so much as a goodbye. He landed a job on a ranch mending fences about 60 miles south of Reno.
It’s now 2020, and I haven’t seen my father since the mid-’90s. He lives in Tokyo where he works as a clown who emcees at a karaoke bar. I follow his career through his Facebook fan page. It’s nice to see what he’s up to. I wish he still lived in Illinois but perhaps I want too much. He gave us everything he had during those magical years in the ’80s. What did we ever give him? …
… still, to this day, on random midwinter mornings, when I’m half asleep and tucked safely and securely beneath a down-feathered duvet in my high-rise Chicago apartment on Michigan Avenue, I can sometimes hear the phantom sound of those clown shoes, clickety-clacking down the hallway of my childhood, the hallway of my dreams …