Hanging out with clowns in a cemetery during International Clown Week wasn't as terrifying as it sounds

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CHUCK WALLA
  • Chuck Walla

Chicago summer is an ephemeral SOB. If you want to make the most of it, you've gotta set some goals. Back in May I made a 2015 summer bucket list—or as I prefer to call it, a “sand bucket list" (if only to make an already obnoxious phrase even more obnoxious). 

Before I kicked the sand bucket I hoped to . . .

-attend my first Sox game (check)

-take a tennis lesson (check)

-ride the water taxi to Chinatown for dinner (check)

-go to the weird yoga center near my house (pending)

-visit a storied section of Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park and watch clowns lay flowers on the graves of dead clowns (check)

I crossed the last item off my list last Sunday during International Clown Week, which—just in case you haven't had a chance to observe it yet—continues through today. I know, I know. Does everything under the sun have to have a dedicated day/week/month of commemoration?! Tuesday was supposedly National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day and National Coast Guard Day. But at least Clown Week has some actual history behind it.

CHUCK WALLA
  • Chuck Walla

In 1971, President Nixon signed a proclamation designating the week of August 1-7 as a time for "the people of the United States to give heed to the contributions made by clowns." In his official statement he said, "Surely the laugh-makers are blessed. They heal the heart of the world." (Incidentally, he also called experts who tried to decipher the 18 missing minutes of Watergate tape "clowns," so not sure he was very sincere.)

Anyway, the event is basically a government-approved excuse to clown around and reread Stephen King's It and watch reruns of Bozo the Clown and maybe take up krumping. According to the official website—if you consider stuff written in comic sans "official"—National Clown Week grew into International Clown Week in 1991, but most people in the industry just call it Clown Week. Suffer from coulrophobia, fear of clowns? You might as well deem it your worst nightmare. 

As part of the annual Clown Week festivities, the Showmen's League of America, a 102-year-old fraternal organization headquartered in Chicago (fun trivia: its first president was William "Buffalo Bill" Cody), hosts a memorial gathering at Showmen's Rest. This 750-plot section of Woodlawn Cemetery—flanked by elephant statues, their trunks bowed in mourning—is the site of a mass grave where somewhere between 56 and 61 victims of the 1918 Hagenback-Wallace Circus train wreck were interred. It was one of the worst train wrecks in U.S. history. Four hundred performers and roustabouts were en route to Hammond, Indiana, to circus it up when their train had to come to a stop because some overheated machinery needed cooling. An empty troop train barreled toward them at full speed—the engineer had fallen asleep—and collided with the circus train. In total, 86 people were killed. 

The Showmen's League of America stepped up to provide a final resting place for the victims. Most grave markers read "Unknown Male," or "Unknown Female," followed by a number, because the majority of the bodies were never formally identified. Only a few are marked—with circusy names such as Baldy, "Smiley, and 4 Horse Driver. Other people in the circus industry are buried at Showmen's Rest, too. On the first Sunday in August, jugglers, fire performers, clowns, and more meet there to pay their respects. Spectators attend as well—some who seem to love clowns and some who are like WTF is up with all this? (I'm in the latter camp.)

Sunday's ceremony involved a historical recounting of the tragedy, a reading of the Clown's Prayer, and various performances. A procession of clowns in full costume and makeup—red noses, giant shoes, polka dots aplenty—laid artificial flowers at the base of an elephant statue to the tune of the John Tams and Linda Thompson recording "Somewhere the Sun Is Shining/Hold Back the Tide" before posing for a group photo. 

CHUCK WALLA
  • Chuck Walla

I met Heather, aka Too Sweet, and her 11-year-old daughter, Sabrina, aka Giggles, both members of the West Suburban Clown Club. Decked out in matching neon-pink wigs and multicolored dresses, the duo had come to the Showmen's Rest festivities for the first time with a goal "to mingle." 

"She's more than just a clown," Too Sweet said proudly of Giggles, explaining that her daughter practices several circus arts, including tight rope and lyra (aerial acrobatics on a hula hoop suspended from the ceiling).

"There's no harnesses or netting!" Giggles said. "You just have to train low to the ground." 

Following the ceremony, clowns and nonclowns alike wandered to a tented area in the corner of the cemetery to, yes, mingle over cotton candy, sno-cones, and hot dogs. Fire spinners performed, while thunder rumbled in the distance, and two clowns twisted balloon animals for a crowd of eager kids. 

An 84-year-old clown named Paddy (real name: Pat Dalton), dressed in red, white, and blue, told me she'd been at it for about 26 years. "I used to do lot of birthday parties, but there's not as much of a call for that anymore—or at least not much of a call for old clowns!" she said with a laugh. 

Clowns of all stripes were in attendance: your typical circus clowns, goth-looking clowns, a self-described "recovering Juggalo" who performs in various haunted houses around Chicago every fall, even a "Christian clown" named Caasi (Isaac spelled backwards) from Crystal Lake who acts out gospel stories. "I have drawings of the Laughing Jesus," Caasi said, grinning. "I mean, the guy partied. What was his first miracle? Water into wine!"

Rain began to fall on the clown parade, and the revelers—some with their makeup already streaked—dispersed to the cemetery parking lot. Paddy was headed to her car but turned back to say, as if in summary: "You know, I've never come across anything I've enjoyed more than being a clown. I've met a lot of nice people, and had a lot of good times.” I should hire Paddy for my next birthday party.

Visiting Showmen's Rest was definitely the strangest thing on my sand bucket list, but it's one of those offbeat Chicago destinations I'm glad exist. You can stop by anytime of year, not just during Clown Week, and walk among the gravestones of circus artists past and solemnly whisper the Clown's Prayer. Because WWLJD? (What Would Laughing Jesus Do?)


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