In First Presbyterian Church of Englewood’s basement Sunday afternoon, five Coloradans dressed in wacky regalia and big, honkin’ shoes marched before their loved ones — and past a painting of the Last Supper — belting “Pomp and Circumstance” on kazoos.
An audience of family, friends and plainclothes clowns squinting to recognize each other without white-painted faces cheered on as the five men, women and teens each leveled up from layperson to professional goofball.
It was graduation day for the 2023 cohort of Colorado Clown Alley’s 10-week clown school. The newly-inducted jesters are now not only card-carrying members of a different variety of postsecondary institution, but rising masters of belly laughs, balloon animals and spreading joy in uncertain times.
The clown class of 2023 tickled Clown Alley president Isabel Nuanez as there were multiple young members, she said, inspiring hope for a rebound in the clown industry.
Whether people were compensating for the bleakness of the pandemic years or searching for a bit of childhood nostalgia, Nuanez said clowning is back — and the next generation of jokers has some big shoes to fill.
Turn that frown upside-down
Emily Cooper, 30, had a rough start to the day.
On graduation morning, she discovered her Denver garage had been broken into and her e-bike stolen. She felt discouraged — a feeling she knows has resonated with many in recent years.
“Things have been kind of bleak, so I just really wanted a way to uplift my loved ones in the community,” Cooper said of her decision to embrace clowning.
Tensions eased Sunday morning once Cooper started applying her white face makeup and her alter ego, Lollygag the Clown, appeared. Once Cooper glued on her rainbow eyelashes and red nose, she couldn’t wipe the smile off her face. (To be fair, it was painted on.)
Cooper’s mother, Becky, and brother, Chris, had flown in from Minnesota for the big day and watched with pride as Lollygag emerged before them at her dining room table.
Makeup applied. Red suspenders on. Blue shirt with clouds and rainbows buttoned. Blue hat donned.
Lollygag had arrived.
“This is really par for the course for Emily,” said Chris Cooper as he eyed the plastic bats, ghost-shaped string lights and moon phases decorating his sister’s home on a March morning closer to Easter than Halloween. “It makes me happy that she’s doing this because she’s such an empathetic person, and I think making people smile is healthy for her emotional state.”
When Emily Cooper decided to enroll in clown school this year, she was in need of a smile.
The insurance agent was laid off unexpectedly in January. Instead of foundering, Cooper wanted to have a little fun and refocus on her former passion for theater and entertainment, which she participated in during high school but hadn’t nurtured since then.
“I went from having conversations with people every single day where they would be crying on the phone about how they need this insurance but can’t afford it to getting to learn about how to make people laugh and smile and feel entertained or distracted from whatever stress or sadness they might be experiencing in their lives,” Cooper said. “That’s been huge for me.”
Cooper scoured the internet for clown schools and discovered Colorado Clown Alley, which has been teaching the fundamentals of clowning since 1970.
Most of all, Emily Cooper said clown school taught her how to develop her character, Lollygag, which she named by Googling the silliest words in the English language.
“This was really a blessing in disguise,” she said. “My friends think I’m making a joke when I say I have to get up for clown class tomorrow and I’m like, ‘No, really, I have clown class tomorrow.’ It’s been funny, and I’ve had so much support.”
Aside from her blue hair and a comically tiny hat, Nuanez — clown alias: DaffaDilly — blended into the graduation audience Sunday.
Nuanez filmed the skits the graduating class performed — charmingly corny sketches with physical comedy, props and wordplay — and laughed among the hardest in the crowd, hyping up her proteges on stage.
Isabel Nuanez, president of Colorado Clown Alley, second from left, gets her clowns to say a cheer before they hit the stage for their skit during the group’s graduation from Colorado Clown Alley on March 12, 2023 in Englewood. The clowns are from left to right: Sassy or Lainie Chmiel, Lollygag, or Emily Cooper, and Waldo or John Urscher, right, (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Nuanez, 67 years young, is the president of Clown Alley’s board of directors, making her the head jokester in charge. DaffaDilly has been clowning around for 15 years since Nuanez’s retirement from her state computer job and matriculation in Colorado Clown Alley.
At clown school, budding bozos learn how to apply makeup without looking scary, how to paint faces, how to perform skits and how to spot and stay clear of coulrophobes — people who fear clowns — among other talents, Nuanez said.
In addition to the annual clown school, Clown Alley hosts monthly meetings at which local clowns congregate to swap ideas and teach talents.
Each year, clown school alums pack the graduation sans costumes to show their support for the new class without stealing their thunder.
Barbara Kaare-Lopez, 71, introduced herself to the graduation audience as Nurse Patch-It, figuring she wouldn’t be recognized outside of her clown persona.
Kaare-Lopez graduated from Clown Alley in 2000. It was anger that led her to the school, she said.
“I was a cancer survivor, and I was very angry that I couldn’t have kids,” Kaare-Lopez said. “I thought, ‘What can I do with all this anger?’”
Kaare-Lopez chose laughter.
For more than a decade, Nurse Patch-It has cheered up patients at Swedish Medical Center. Her husband, Bernie Lopez, is also a clown by the name of Dimples.
Before the graduation ceremony began, Nurse Patch-It embraced Woopsie the Clown, who was going incognito as 69-year-old Nancy Haberkorn.
Haberkorn had a childhood dream of becoming a clown but didn’t pursue it until 2003, when her mother had cancer and was in respite care.
“I needed some joy,” Haberkorn said. “Plus, laughter is the best medicine for everything. My mom would put on my nose and wig, and we’d laugh and laugh.”
In 2009, Haberkorn had a stroke and was a patient at Swedish, where she now gives back clowning for patients.
“If I’m going to have another stroke, what’s a better place to be?” Haberkorn said with a laugh.
“It’s just magic”
The church basement buzzed Sunday as attendees caught up and families prepped their cameras — until a hush settled across the room.
Enter the clowns.
A series of silly sketches followed, including one that involved pulling a rubber chicken out of a hat. Soon, the five graduates were marching to the beat of their own kazoos to receive their official certificates. Two other graduates were out of town and couldn’t make the ceremony, and another person who started this year’s program became a clown school dropout after an ill-fated makeup allergy.
Braeden Schilling-Smith, 17, debuted his alter ego, Mr. Fancy Pants, on Sunday.
“I’m addicted to this,” Schilling-Smith said. “Getting ready and putting on my makeup and transforming from this awkward, gay teenager to someone who makes everybody happy — it’s just magic.”
Emily Cooper, aka Lollygag, held out her clown diploma in elation as her mom, brother and boyfriend cheered from the audience. As a graduation present, Lollygag received a new pair of multi-colored patchwork clown shoes.
“It was a huge adrenaline rush to perform,” Cooper said after the ceremony. “Hopefully, this is the start of more clowning in the future.”
Realistically, Cooper said she’s working on finding a full-time job, but would love to keep clowning on the side until she builds up enough momentum to drop her day job and become a bonafide, full-time clown.
Nuanez is thrilled by the energy she’s seen from this graduating class, who she excitedly pointed out had a number of young aspiring clowns.
When Nuanez graduated clown school in 2008, she said there were 150 Colorado Clown Alley members. Now, she said membership has dwindled to about 30 to 40 clowns.
Emily Cooper, aka Lollygag the clown, far right, celebrates her graduation with the other clowns graduating from Colorado Clown Alley on March 12, 2023, in Englewood. The clowns are from left to right: Knick Knack aka Kay Begley, with back to camera, Mr. Fancy Pants aka Braeden Schilling-Smith, Waldo, aka John Urschel, Sassy, aka Lainie Chmiel, and Cooper. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
The pandemic hit clowning hard, Nuanez said, with canceled birthday parties and benefits. But Nuanez said Colorado Clown Alley is ready to get back out there and spread some cheer at charity events and other festivities.
“I love to interact with children, but I do love to interact with adults that have that inner child, as well,” Nuanez said.
Nuanez has always loved clowns. The Harvey Park resident said she remembers giggling at the clowns at the original Elitch Gardens as a girl and has always admired their ability to put a smile on people’s faces.
“They just uplift the spirit, and that’s what I wanted to do,” Nuanez said. “I wanted to make people feel the way I feel when I see a clown.”
Nuanez feels most beautiful, most herself when she’s putting on her clown makeup.
“There are times when I put on my makeup and I honestly think I look prettier,” Nuanez said. “We’re all bubbly. We have fun. It’s just joy. You forget your troubles, and we believe that laughter is the best medicine.”
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