One June day back in 1978, when I was ‘between engagements’ with the circus, I answered the phone and a young woman asked if I was the Tim Torkildson who was a Ringling Brothers clown. When I told her I was she asked me to clown at her upcoming wedding. I’d done birthday parties and schools and libraries and hospitals -- but no one had ever asked me to yuck it up at a wedding. Somewhat flustered, I quoted her an outrageous price for my clown services. She agreed immediately, got my address to mail the check, and gave me the time and place. And so I was suddenly in the wedding clown business.
The nuptials were held lakeside at Como Park in Saint Paul. It was a deep green summer day -- the kind of Minnesota summer day when you can almost make out pixies running through the luminous grass. Dozens of squirrels bounced around the wooded fields. The huge white reception canopy billowed in the spent-lilac scented breeze -- underneath it were many good things to eat and drink.
And I had no idea what in blazes I was going to do there as a clown.
I’d dragged along a footlocker full of clown props, including my musical saw and pencil balloons. But what is a wedding clown supposed to do, exactly? In my case, I did some standard meet and greet prior to the actual ceremony -- making balloon animals for the guests and taking pictures with the children.
The ceremony was conducted by a Unitarian minister, with soulful music provided by a Donovan wannabe on guitar. The bride and groom exchanged vows written by themselves. I made funny faces at the horde of babies being jiggled by their sweaty mothers -- inducing them to scream and whine (with fear or pleasure, I couldn’t tell.)
It was a very short ceremony, and I was contracted to provide entertainment for three solid hours. And I’d already cashed the bride’s check.The crowd began stuffing their faces at the buffet while looking to me for entertainment. I felt like a tummler at a Catskills resort. As noted elsewhere, I was committed to silent clowning -- so jokes and sing-a-longs were out of the question. I settled down with the older relatives first, the ones who kept asking if there was any soup. I played the Anniversary Waltz on my musical saw for them -- not once, but several times, since they immediately got misty-eyed and kept calling for encores.
Then I tried a bit I lifted from an old Olsen & Johnson movie. Using a cardboard tube mounted on a tripod, I started handing out string and positioning people all over the place with said string creating all sorts of spiderweb designs -- each time I gave someone a length of string I made sure they stood completely still while I squinted at them through the cardboard tube and made notations with an oversized pencil. I had a coach’s whistle dangling around my neck, so when someone would try to cross under one of my lines I’d whistle them away. The gag succeeded in confusing the milling guests completely -- after I got my lines up, people were cut off from the food and each other in a very gratifying and arbitrary pattern. Very few actually thought it was a joke. I overheard people telling each other “This must be to keep us in line for the wedding photographer.”
I cherish gags where the audience provides the comedy, not me. In this case, the few cognoscenti who ‘got’ what I was doing began helping me put up more string while laughing hysterically as the crowd became more and more roped in. Finally the wedding photographer, exasperated at the lengths of cheap string befouling everyone’s profile, commanded everyone to take it off so he could get some decent pictures.
And then the trouble started. The children, with a singular malevolent intent, decided to gang up on the clown. It is my belief that the little nippers had surreptitiously gotten into the champagne, inflaming their naturally adversarial bent.
Whatever the cause, after the string came down my ‘Clowny Sense’ began tingling. The kids were no longer in awe of me, nor did they want to be amused by me. They were coalescing into a lynch mob. Professional entertainers have a sixth sense that tells them when an audience has turned sour -- it’s a terrifying experience, like being caught in the path of a tornado. At this wedding the adults were ready to forget about me to concentrate on the bride and groom, while the kids were bored of the whole thing and wanted to throw wedding cake at the clown. Which they did. I ducked the first few pieces, and then cut and ran. I had on an expensive satin coat and vest which I had just bought at Teeners Theatrical Supply -- and I was darned if I was going to let those little pishers ruin it with pink icing and white cream filling.
In theory, clowns are never in control of anything -- that’s part of their humor and appeal. But the reality is that when clowns work solo they radiate a commanding aura that keeps the crowd attentive and in place. When that mood is punctured there’s no earthly way to regain it. So I ran a marathon the rest of that wretched afternoon avoiding those miniature savages until my three hours were up. Then I collected my props and foot locker and got out of there, panting, faster than you can say ‘cardiac arrest.’
Strangely enough, my performance was considered a howling success by the bride and groom, along with their family and friends -- a dozen offers to liven up a marital event came the following week. I politely turned them all down. I had snagged a gig at Paul Bunyan Land up in Brainerd for the rest of the summer. That beat the heck out of dodging lumps of frosting. Besides, I heard the walleye were really biting at Gull Lake.