- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

John Cowan is like thousands of kids who long to be clowns. At 69 he still wanted to be a clown, so he pinned a notice on the bulletin board at Riderwood Village hoping there were others like him.
His notice attracted 18 other residents at the active and independent living community in Silver Spring. Since last year the "Clown Group" he organized has met twice a month to cut up, laugh and don red, bulbous noses.
"It's just fun to laugh. I figure, if two of us laugh, it's good. Almost everyone here can't hear really well," said Mr. Cowan, a silver-haired comedian whose interest in clowning was piqued after he read Dr. Seuss' "You're Only Old Once."
"And, as you get older you lose certain skills. Lots of things happen in life, and a good number of us have ailments whether it's difficulty walking or hearing.Laughter is good because it feels good. You get better blood circulation, more air in the lungs, and you're face muscles don't get frozen in place," he said chuckling.
When he organized the group, Mr. Cowan never imagined clowns from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus would stop by to teach him and his friends the tricks of the trade. They heard about Mr. Cowan's group through Joyce Sampson, public relations coordinator at the Riderwood, who invited them to come out.
Yesterday, four clowns from the Greatest Show on Earth, dressed in full costume, made a special appearance. The clowns Grampa (a k a Alan Ware), Mitch Freddes, George Bumgardner and Richard Melendy charmed their audience for well over an hour.
Making others laugh is no easy feat there's a skit, character development, costume and makeup.
"The clowns are the most skilled people in the circus. We must know music, juggling and acrobatics. Basically, do a parody of all the acts in the show. Our training is extensive and it's hard," Mr. Freddes, 48, said.
The veteran clown with more than 20 years in the business of making people laugh did most of the talking while his buddies clowned around with residents, staffers and wide-eyed children.
"When we create a routine or gag, we tell a story. It has a beginning, a middle and the pay-off. One of the easiest ways to come up with gags is to look at your life and what you find humorous [about it]," Mr. Freddes said. "Really believe what is happening is really happening. Really live the part that's a major part of character development."
The crotchety old clown in the group, Mr. Ware, who is actually only 34, said he chose the character of "Grampa" because as a child he was scared to death of clowns.
"Normally, I don't break character, but because you guys have a passion for clowning, I will. Before I attended Clown College, I studied with [the renowned mime] Marcel Marceau," Mr. Ware said before removing a few of his [costume] garments and transforming himself into a completely different character with different, exaggerated body movement.
"Costumes are all a part of character development. In my day, I had to create my own. Nowadays, the show helps. I get recognized by my black-and-white check costume," Mr. Freddes said.
"I'm trying to create an old-timey look with the red tie, the nose, the face, but the rest is black and white like a black-and-white movie."
The clowns-in-training bombarded the Ringling Bros. clowns with questions ranging from where they received their training to who puts on their makeup for the circus.
"Only one person knows your face. We do it ourselves. We create our own faces. My face is a trademark," Mr. Ware said.
Makeup is not a mask, and it's not designed to be a mask, Mr. Freddes said. Rather than hide facial features, the clowns try to enhance them. He said he spent three to four years perfecting his makeup.
Wally Miller, a resident of Riderwood and a member of the "Clown Group," knows how painstaking a clown's makeup can be. Although she never considered herself to be a "professional" clown, she's cracked up a few folks in her day mainly nurses, she said.
Mrs. Miller, 80, took a class in clowning in 1974 and joined the District's Capital Clowns. During the Bicentennial, she marched in Georgetown and spent a day on the National Mall.
"I was supposed to do a show, but I was the last act and the stage collapsed. In order to make up for that, I did a show at a nursing home in Virginia. It was a complete disaster the microphone didn't work and the gags didn't work either. And, the people were deaf. So the only people who laughed were the nurses," Mrs. Miller said.
"Being a clown was hard work because it takes forever to put on your makeup and you're constantly trying to think of new things to do. So, after a year I let the younger people be the clowns."


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