September 22, 2019
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Send in the clowns! Circus faves are more than just a squeaky nose

Community Author: Hank Garfield
Post Date:
Matthew Chabe | BDN
Matthew Chabe | BDN

BANGOR — Donald Young has been clowning around for more than three decades. One of approximately 30 clowns in the Bangor unit of the Anah Shrine Temple, he spends many weekends each year as Bo-Bo, with a big white smile outlined in red — from his chin almost to his eyeballs — painted on his face.

According to him, the character isn’t much of a stretch.

“I’m a happy-go-lucky person,” he says. “I’m never in a bad mood.  It bothers some people when you smile all day long, but not when you’re a clown.”

Now retired after 45 and a half years with Lane Construction in Ellsworth where he was a senior mechanical supervisor, Young plans to keep clowning as long as he can. “You could do it every weekend if you wanted to,” he says. “The clown unit is the busiest unit in the Temple. During the summer I’ll do a dozen to 15 parades. We’re busy for the circus, of course, and also during the holiday season.”

Each clown is responsible for his own make-up and costume. “It helps to have a wife who sews,” Young says.

The trick is not to let anyone see you sweat, he says. Maine has a wide range of seasonal temperatures. It can get hot under the clown makeup and costume, but at outdoor events like the Thanksgiving Day parade, it can get cold, too.

All the tomfoolery is for a good cause, of course. Shrine clowns raise money for the nationwide system of 22 hospitals dedicated to improving the lives of children by providing care, research, and teaching programs, focused on burns and orthopedic conditions.

An offshoot of the Masons, the Shrine—formally named The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine—was founded in New York in 1872. The Anah Shrine of Bangor has been around since 1921, according to Charles Pray, the recorder or general manager. The Anah Shrine has approximately 2,700 members. Members of the Shrine must be Masons first. A few of them will become clowns.

“We’ll get a clown or two out of each new group,” Young says. “Some stay, some don’t. Everyone sees how much fun we have, but it’s a time commitment, too.”

In addition to the circus (which takes place on consecutive weekends in Bangor and in Presque Isle) Bangor’s Shrine clowns attend parades and events all over the eastern half of the state.  “After you do a few of these events, kids start to look for you every year,” Young says. “They’ll come up to you and ask you to do this or that magic trick they remember.”

He’s got an array of gadgets, including a pouch that appears to turn a $1 bill into a fistful of dollars. Like any good magician, he doesn’t reveal the secrets of his tricks.

The circus is a busy three-day weekend. “You put your makeup on in the morning, and you take it off at night,” Young says. It takes him about an hour to get completely into character, including costume and make-up. For less experienced clowns, the process can take closer to two hours.

Like all local Shrine clowns, Young is a member of the Northeast Clown Institute. Though Young is an old hand, he and his fellow clowns periodically take classes at the Institute’s Clown College in Massachusetts, to keep their skills up. Clown College conducts classes and competitions in skills like balloon technique, skits, and make-up. “The make-up competition is like a beauty contest,” Young says. “Are your lines straight? Is your make-up blended? Is your bowtie done right? What about your shoelaces? It can be some pretty elaborate criticism from the judges.”

But though Bo-Bo presents a perpetually happy face to the world, the man beneath the makeup understands that clowns can be scary, especially to small children. What do you do then?

“Nothing,” he says. “You back off. You let them come to you, if they’re going to. You can see from a hundred feet away if a kid’s going to be scared of you. Ninety-nine percent of them aren’t going to be. A lot of times they’ll warm up. But you can’t approach them; you have to let them approach you.”

One trick is to get down on their level. Clowns spend a lot of time crouching, or simply sitting or kneeling on the floor, reducing the height difference between themselves and their young audiences.

But clowning isn’t all about the kids. “We do a lot of work with the elderly,” Young says. “A kid’s attention span is about half an hour, tops. But many of the elderly people we see are lonely and love the attention. We bring smiles to their faces. We do makeup seminars and other things. When we have blood pressure screenings here at the temple, there will usually be a couple of clowns on hand.”

The 2018 Anah Shrine Circus is in Bangor April 27-29 at the Cross Insurance Center and in Presque Isle May 3-5 at the Forum.