We had a devil worshipper in the Ringling clown alley when I first started with them in the early 70’s. After all these years I see no need to give you his real name -- let’s call him Fred. He was from California, where strange cults are as common as sunburns. His blackened crooked teeth made those of a Ferengi look like Doris Day’s. He was cadaverously thin, and his white face glowed with an unhealthy brightness, like a willow-the-wisp deep in the swamp. I think he powdered down with cornmeal, not baby powder, to give his makeup a gritty, eldritch appearance.
No one in clown alley cared to socialize with him, or even have his trunk next to theirs. And he made no friends on the ‘Iron Lung’ train car by burning black candles late at night that were scented with asafoetida. Weird monotonous chants issued from his roomette at odd hours of the night, and sometimes there was a green glow around his closed door. As an avid reader of H.P. Lovecraft, it was my considered opinion that he was trying to summon Cthulhu to destroy the earth.
When I asked Tim Holst what he thought about this suspect creature he merely quoted Shakespeare at me: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Prince Paul dismissed him as “a guy that’s not playing with a full deck, that’s all.”
And when I shared my concerns with Swede Johnson, he joked “If anybody has got horns around here it’s you, Pinhead, and that other Mormon clown you hang around with!” (Swede was from Denmark, and, interestingly enough, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century it was a common folk myth in Scandinavia that the Mormons all had horns on their foreheads, because of the tall black hats the missionaries wore.)
Since nobody else seemed worried about being turned into a toad or otherwise cursed, I let the matter drop for most of the season. This was my first year on the road with Ringling -- and the fun I had making huge crowds laugh was all the magic I cared to practice.
But then the show began its tour of California -- where weird and disturbing things occurred. The Bulgarian acrobats and Hungarian teeterboard artists shunned their usual late night barbecues outside the train. They whispered furtively with each other about a malevolent ‘hexen’ who was turning the dark hours of the night into a horror with his ability to attract railyard rats and juggle them. During the full moon a flock of bats somehow got into the showgirls’ car -- the ensuing pandemonium could be heard miles away. And in clown alley pentagrams were chalked on everyone’s trunks by some surreptitious graffiti artist. Not once, but several times.
Several of the rowdier roustabouts had beaten up Fred one night in San Francisco -- and after that he became even darker and grimmer; murmuring to himself about pouring summary vengeance out upon all his enemies.
In clown alley our possessions began to disappear from right under our noses. Prince Paul’s copy of the New York Times, which he always put inside his trunk during the show, was not to be found after the first show -- no matter how much he cursed and poked around the innards. Mark Anthony’s set of electric carving knives, used to sculpt foam rubber props, simply disappeared one matinee while he went to the donniker -- one moment they were laid out on a folding table and the next they were nowhere to be found. I guarded my brand new Timex watch, for which I paid the hefty price of nine dollars, as if it were solid gold -- keeping it on my wrist even during clown gags. But after one particularly spirited slap boxing match during come in I looked down at my wrist in complete bafflement to discover it was no longer there.
Then all of our shoelaces from all of our clown shoes disappeared into thin air on opening night in Sacramento. We had to improvise with twine. We found our rubber chickens decapitated -- their headless carcasses strewn about the propboxes as if scattered by a cyclone.
Clown alley was cursed, or haunted. And the main suspect, in fact the only suspect, Fred.
Chico and Rubber Neck told Tim Holst that since he had been an Elder on his LDS mission to Sweden, he must know how to do an exorcism. They were completely serious. Holst waved his arms around for a minute, while shouting “Boogie! Boogie! Boogie!” Then he threw a hand full of baby powder up in the air and declared that the spirit haunting clown alley was appeased and would depart to the nearest Shrine circus. Neither Chico or Rubber Neck thought that was particularly funny.
“Don’t you Mormons take ghosts seriously?” asked Chico in an offended tone of voice.
“We don’t even take the Nicene Creed seriously!” Holst shot back. This went right over their heads, as it did mine at the time. (I’ve since boned up on theology and early Christianity, and can assure you that that was a pretty darn good comeback.)
Even though Holst, Prince, and Swede pooh-poohed the idea of witchcraft at work in clown alley, a posse of sorts formed around Hillbilly Butch -- a First of May from Arkansas, who said he was a lapsed Baptist preacher. He wasn’t much of a clown, preferring to sit on an elephant tub with his guitar, singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” He began stirring up the more credulous clowns with notions of a midnight raid on the infidel’s roomette to effect a suitable punishment -- such as burning at the stake. ,
“Tork, are you in or out on this?” Hillbilly Butch demanded of me, when the show hit Long Beach. I looked around for Holst, to get his advice. This caused Hillbilly Butch to sneer at me.
“Does that college boy do all your thinking for you? Can’t you make up your own mind, or are you just a brainwashed puppet?” he asked me critically. As a former Baptist minister, he had no love for committed Mormons like Tim Holst.
“I can do what I want!” I replied hotly. “I’ll be there when you go after him.”
I was a kid, just turned eighteen. Still hardwired to make hasty, stupid decisions. It was decided to meet that night at 11 pm to lower the boom on Fred. But when we got to his roomette, Fred wasn’t there. In fact, we never saw him again -- because that same night the police arrested him for dealing drugs to some of the roustabouts. That’s why some of them had beaten him up in the first place -- a drug deal gone wrong. I was secretly very glad that I had been robbed of my opportunity to commit mayhem. I knew it was wrong as soon as I said I’d go along with it, but didn’t have the guts to follow my better nature and back out. After that I avoided Hillbilly Butch, whose intolerance came to seem much more of a curse to me than anything Fred might have cooked up.
As soon as Fred was tossed in the hoosegow the ‘haunting’ of clown alley ceased. Was it just a coincidence -- or was it something more? I may never know -- but I wish I knew a spell right now to wash my laundry without losing any more buttons off my shirts.