Local residents delight in clowning around

PARKERSBURG – Clowns gladden hearts, raise spirits and bring laughter.

In the Mid-Ohio Valley, groups and individuals involved in clowning have come and gone over the years, entertaining at parties and events with their tricks, balloons and entertaining activities.

Among the local active clown groups is the Nemesis Temple Shrine Clown Unit in Parkersburg.

Gregory Dotson of Williamstown is the treasurer of the unit and is responsible for restoring the group to active status. He said the Clown Unit has been part of Nemesis Temple Shrine since it came to Parkersburg in the 1940s, with participation in the unit rising and falling over the years.

He is unsure how long it had been inactive, but Dotson and others restarted the unit in 2000 and it has been active since that time. There are 15 members in the Clown Unit for the Parkersburg Shrine.

The Clown Unit’s president also is among its newest members. Tom Wilson, of Petroleum, said he joined the unit about three years ago. He has been doing magic shows as a hobby for about 10 years and when he joined the Shriners, he thought the clown unit was a natural extension, incorporating both interests into his performances and making them more enjoyable for children and adults.

“I’ve always wanted to be able to help,” Wilson said.

Over the past few years, Wilson said he has participated in most of the clowning events the unit is involved in, from Shriner club activities to community events, parties, parades and other activities. The winter season is a slower time for the unit, but clown activities pick up in the spring, summer and fall, he said.

Wilson said his character is a hobo clown magician called “Jerry the Freeloader,” who does magic tricks and other activities.

“I’m a big fan of Red Skelton,” the classic comedian, he said of his inspiration for the character.

The Clown Unit is open to any Shriner. Dotson said they look for men who work well with children of all ages and have a positive or jovial temperament.

“Most of us have a real love for seeing kids light up, that’s what it’s all about. Our makeup may not be perfect like a Ringling Brothers clown, but the kids don’t really care. That’s all that matters to us, making the kids happy,” Dotson said.

The Clown Unit participates in activities with the Shriners, such as holiday parades, the Parkersburg Homecoming and festivals. During the first week of May, Shriners will hold screening clinics for children in Sistersville and Clarksburg and the Clown Unit will be present to help keep the children entertained, he said.

The unit’s members also work individually and as small groups with a variety of local organizations, civic groups, churches and others to provide clowns for events and activities. Dotson said interested people or organizations can contact the Nemesis Shrine to get in touch with Clown Unit members.

The unit meets on the second Wednesday of each month, working on business issues and scheduling appearances by members or groups of members. They also share tips on costumes, clown makeup, tricks and activities.

The unit’s members are responsible for creating and maintaining their own costumes and makeup, but the unit has some supplies like balloons and makeup to help, Dotson said.

“The only thing that we require is the patch, the Shriners patch, on your sleeve. That distinguishes you as a Shrine Clown. Other than that, it’s strictly up to each individual,” he said.

The largest group is white-face clowns, who cover their faces with clown makeup and then add colorful additions like the eyes, lips and cheeks. Some dress as hobo clowns, which generally doesn’t involve the full-face coverage, just makeup around the mouth and eyes along with hats and clothing in the hobo tradition.

Dotson said some do skits and tricks based on their characters and some do balloons and balloon animals. One of the current members has learned a variety of magic tricks which he incorporates in his act.

For his own character, which he has named Chuckles, Dotson said he uses the white-face clown makeup with a colorful wig and a colorful costume. Throughout the spring and summer, he shifts to a clown costume which is based on a baseball uniform.

Even in today’s world, with so many activity and entertainment options, Dotson said children still love clowns and that is the main reason he got involved and remains active in clown activities.

“It’s just a joy,” he said.

Dotson said it’s important for a clown to be watchful and careful around children, since some like clowns and others may be afraid of them. He watches for signs that a child may be shy or afraid and moves on to someone else. Other children will run up and hug clowns with no fear.

Dotson said he remembers one holiday event years ago where the clowns were brought in to serve as a warmup for the arrival of Santa Claus later in the evening. However, the children were so interested in the clowns, even after Santa arrived, the clowns were asked to leave.

“The kids wouldn’t even go to Santa Claus, they wanted to stay with the clowns,” he said.