As a professional clown, all Beth Byrd-Lonski wants is to make people laugh. To bring silliness and joy to their lives.
So why is it that disaster seems to be following clowns around the nation? Last fall’s sensationalized scary clown sightings. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus spring closing. And now, the “It” remake, set to open Sept. 8 and featuring Stephen King’s killer clown, Pennywise.
“We need clowns as a community, as a society,” says Byrd-Lonski. “We need to be able to laugh at ourselves.”
Byrd-Lonski, 52, bursts with energy as she talks — her hands and eyes dart in controlled illustrative jabs that punctuate every sentence. She’s the artistic director of Byrd Productions Physical Theatre and teaches clown classes at the City in Motion School of Dance in midtown.
The cloud of bad news, mixed with deep personal loss, has driven Byrd-Lonski to try to reclaim clowning for herself and for Kansas City.
In 2014, Byrd-Lonski’s sister, Heidi, was murdered by her husband. The western-Nebraska man had told authorities that Heidi was accidentally crushed by a hay bale, and he tried to claim his wife’s life insurance. The autopsy showed she had actually died of blunt force trauma to the head and strangulation.
It took nearly six months before he was in police custody, and during that time Byrd-Lonski says she grew paranoid, constantly looking over her shoulder. She would drive past her Olathe home if she didn’t recognize the vehicle parked on the street out front.
“The service of a clown is to be there for others, to help through whatever they’re dealing with,” Byrd-Lonski says. “But when things aren’t good with yourself, you don’t have that to give.”
She makes her living by teaching clown classes and performing, so she had to keep previous commitments, but her heart wasn’t in it. She didn’t go out of her way to book gigs.
She attended the 62-year-old man’s sentencing in March. He received 20 to 60 years for murder in the second degree.
“When he pleaded guilty, the first thought I had was, ‘Oh I can be a clown again,’” Byrd-Lonski says. “I cried when I had that thought.”
Shortly after, she applied for a grant from this summer’s Art in the Loop Project, which brings local artists and musicians to City Market Park, streetcar stops and other public spaces.
Her performance art piece, “Silly Walkways,” prompted pedestrians to do their silliest walks while crossing the street at 10th and Baltimore, near the Kansas City Central Library. Inspired by Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” skit, Byrd-Lonski dressed as a crossing guard-inspired clown named Clarity Brown during her four summer performances.
“I said, that’s it, I am going to get out there and reclaim clowning, for myself, and for others,” Byrd-Lonski said.
She’s carrying on a long and proud history of clowns in this country.
“Being a clown was this exotic job; it was quite essentially American,” says David Carlyon, a former Ringling clown and the author of “The Education of a Circus Clown: Mentors, Audiences, Mistakes.” “Running away, the mobility, moving up, changing who they are — the circus embodied that American spirit more than anything.”
The circus clown tradition still exists, but it’s shrinking every year. Twins Kent and Kevin Mercer, 49, of Independence perform with small circuses. They’ve traveled from coast to coast, and even did a six-month stint with a circus in Taiwan. These small regional circuses are the last remnant of a once vibrant clown and circus community.
The Mercers have had to diversify their skills to book gigs and have transformed into a variety act performing at Renaissance fairs, corporate events and schools.
And they teach clown classes organized by Byrd-Lonski at City in Motion. For example, there’s an art to the classic pie-throwing gag. It has to be tossed at the right speed and at the right angle so it doesn’t spill out of the tin before smashing into the unlucky painted face.
“It’s too bad that the circus tradition in America is dying out,” says Kevin Mercer. “Part of it is the movies and negative connotations of clowns. Pop culture just views it differently now.”
The twins estimate about 50 clowns still perform in the Kansas City area. Many have ditched the white-face makeup and are adapting clowning into other creative outlets. (Though “Modern Family” star and Kansas City, Kan., native Eric Stonestreet still gets mileage resurrecting his traditional circus clown, Fizbo, which he created in high school.)
The biggest hit to clowning came in May when after 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus took its last bow as the Greatest Show on Earth.
At one time, everyone went to the circus when it was in town, Carlyon says. It brought people of every race and class together under the big tent. Carlyon says kids growing up now won’t think clowns: circus. They will think clowns: scary.
Kevin Mercer says Stephen King’s “It” is a great example of this culture shift. Pennywise is a demon who uses the kid-friendly clown to lure children to their demise. Scary movies and fake clown hoaxes hurt their business, and clients will cancel bookings as a result.
“There will always be a counterculture. Clowns won’t ever die,” Kent Mercer says. “It just might look different than it once did.”