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Astoria’s Cloaked Ambassadors – these clowns are serious

Astoria's Cloaked Ambassadors

IF YOU have lived in Astoria, you know the Astoria Clowns – a bunch of local guys who give up a lot of weekends with their families to promote their city, clad in full clown regalia. For well over 50 years, they’ve been traveling the length and breadth of Oregon and Washington, delighting crowds with their zany antics at parades—the Astoria Regatta, Portland Rose Festival, Seattle Seafair and Pendleton Roundup to name a few.

According to Larry Berg (aka Motormouth) no one is quite sure how the AC got started. One story is that some local merchants were planning to have a float in the 1955 Astoria Regatta parade. That didn’t pan out, so they settled for walking in the event dressed in clown suits that somebody had lying around. The rest, as they say, is history.

Berg, a former project manager for a construction company, has been 17 years an Astoria clown. “It’s for the kids, the older folks, the smiles,” he explains. “The AC is one of the area’s most diverse groups. Where else would you have a 21 year old and an 80 year old in the same club?” While it’s true that doctors, lawyers, construction workers, business owners and various other occupations and ages are represented in the AC, no women are allowed. A few females have been made “honorary clowns” but strictly on a temporary basis—coastal pianists, Colleen Simonson and acclaimed accompanist Betty Jane Phillips (who recently passed) both played the calliope at different times.

Astoria native Bill Landwehr (aka Stubby) has been a clown for about 15 years. “You do it for the fun of it,” he says. “You do it for the kids.” He claims there’s no special training involved, and newbes get help with their make-up and costumes from the veterans. Today, the AC has roughly 20 members and is actively recruiting new clowns. Becoming another potential Emmett Kelly in Astoria isn’t that easy, however. Someone has to sponsor you and the other members must vote you in. Like many civic groups, the AC has bylaws, a charter and members meet monthly.

Explains Landswehr, “Many (newcomers) think they’ll love being an Astoria clown. They’ll put in a year or two, make a few events and then bow out.” It is a huge commitment. This year, just appearing at Tacoma’s Daffodil Festival means doing four parades in one day, starting at 10:15 am and going until late in the day with no break! Tacoma, Puyallup, Sumner and Ortig Washington all have parades for the festival. The AC has a total of 20 parades on its schedule for the year.

The AC raises money for various good causes in the community. These include scholarship programs at all the high schools in Clatsop County; donations to the X-mas basket program every year, and playing in a Special Olympics Kids regional basketball tournament (where they always lose.) All AC money comes from a single event… the annual Crab Festival where the guys man a food booth serving up tasty crab and shrimp melts. The word is they make a bundle—enough to do good works AND take care of expenses like insurance, car repairs, etc. “Balloons are expensive,” complains Landwehr.

When it comes to the funny stuff, the AC come up with their own gags. “We don’t read books on it,” laughs Landwehr. Some guys are really inspired when it comes to this… like one-time clown Newt Smith. “He was a great clown… a short stocky guy with a real gift,” Landwehr remembers. Berg recalls an especially silly gag involving parade horses. While the parade’s going, a clown runs over with a can of shaving (or whipping) cream and puts a dollop on every horse dropping encountered; another clown then comes by and puts a cherry on top! Most often the members ride bikes in parades. Member Rod McCauley is a good mechanic and keeps the group’s unicycles, bikes that pull apart and bikes where the front wheel operates independently of the back wheel in good working order. He keeps clown cars running as well.

Callopie Hillsboro Clowns Hotel Elliot 1958
Astoria Clowns of the 1950s, photos courtesy of Jeff Daly


Jeff Daly
Clown after his father, Jeff Daly

HISTORICALLY, THE AC’s raison d’etre has been serving as Astoria boosters—as city ambassadors really —and they’ve been quite effective. Driving around the Northwest in an old repainted ambulance bearing the message “Let’s Build the Bridge,” the group was instrumental in garnering support for the building of the Astoria Megler Bridge. Naysayers called it “the bridge to nowhere,” but that didn’t bother these guys who, clearly, were men of vision – leaders in their community – clown suits notwithstanding.

Jeff Daly is the son of Jack Daly, a one-time Bumblebee cannery executive and one of the AC’s founding members. Son Daly is responsible for the colorful and affectionate AC exhibit on display in the old Lum’s Building at 16th and Exchange in Astoria. It’s a tribute to the AC and showcases a unique piece of the city’s history. He’s also decorated the street-level windows of The Elliott Hotel with photos and old signs, depicting a sort of “walk down merchant street in the 1960s.” “I wanted to do something with vacant spaces like this in the Bicentennial year… to make them something enticing to people instead of abandoned storefronts,” he explains.

In nearly every window of what was once an auto showroom, passersby can ogle vintage clown memorabilia. There’s old home movie footage of the clowns being played on stacked-up TVs, baggy clown suits in eye-popping colors hanging from clothesline, fading photos (one shows Bing Crosby hitting a golf bowl from a tee that’s been placed in the mouth of one especially intrepid clown), documents and newspaper clippings, one particular pair of over-sized clown shoes intrigues. You can piece together the Astoria clown history in an afternoon visit through Daly’s creative installation.

Almost a native Astorian (he was one year old when his family moved here), Daly’s a veritable storehouse of anecdotes about the AC. He’s particularly admiring of their accomplishments on the area’s behalf during the time his father was a clown. “Here was this unbelievable group of guys that came together to support the city and the idea of the bridge. They were really thinking of the future and were very open ended in their view of things… thinking 20 years ahead of their time,” he marvels. “They were civic leaders, highly instrumental to the organization of the city, the government of the city, the business of the city, thus able to anonymously promote the city and make things happen.”

Back then the AC was a totally anonymous entity; less so these days. As a kid, Daly adored the mystery of it all. “A boy or girl might know that their dad was a clown but the identity of the other clowns was never revealed,” he says. Apparently, this was also the case when they were on the road. “They’d do a parade and then get invited to a dignitaries’ ‘do’ at night. Twelve guys would show up in snappy red blazers and ties… no clowns in sight. Talk about making stuff happen. They’d be talking to governors and heads of state. Wow!”

Daly has a special reason for his fascination with and affection for the AC. This reason has received a lot of news coverage in the past… by CBS Sunday Morning, The Oregonian and The Daily Astorian, among others. To quickly recap, his was the perfect fifties Astoria family…Dad, Mom, Jeff and Molly, the little sister he adored. That all changed when Molly, at age three, was institutionalized at the Fairview Hospital and Training Center in Salem. At his mom’s insistence, the girl was never mentioned… ostensibly forgotten. Soon after, the Dalys had another child – a healthy boy. Molly became an even more distant memory.

Jeff Daly never forgot about her though. After his parents’ death, he tracked her down, with the help of his wife Cindy; and brother and sister were reunited after decades apart. As a filmmaker and freelance cameraman, Daly deftly documents this alternately chilling (old footage from Fairview is pretty hard to watch) and moving story in a film he subsequently made entitled, “Where’s Molly?” It’s guaranteed not to leave a dry eye in the house and is beautifully done. Work is currently under way for a book and a screen play version.

Father Jack’s story, though, is equally moving. A bit of a straight arrow, Jack Daly appeared to go along with his wife’s rules against even mentioning Molly. Nevertheless, he frequently made the long drive from Astoria to Salem to visit his daughter. And when staff at Fairview asked him not to visit anymore because his visits upset the girl, he came up with a way to see her anonymously… as one of a troupe of traveling clowns!


ClownCoulrophobia

THERE’S ALSO a dark side to clowns and clowning in our culture. Some people actually have an irrational fear of clowns, a condition known as “coulrophobia.” One explanation for this is that clown costumes exaggerate facial features and body parts such as hands, feet and noses, which can be seen as monstrous or deformed. Popular culture has certainly played on this notion. There’s the Joker in the Batman stories, the evil clown in the Stephen King novel, It, or how about the 1988 movie Killer Klowns from Outer Space?

The act of disguising oneself and the anonymity that affords could be another source of unease when it comes to clowns. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 movie, The Greatest Show on Earth, actor Jimmy Stewart plays a circus clown who never removes his makeup. It turns out his character had been a doctor who euthanized his wife and was wanted for murder. In the real world, serial killer John Wayne Gacy dressed as a clown to lure and disarm his victims, thus earning the nickname “Killer Klown.”

Even if you aren’t threatened by clowns, there is something about dressing up as one… people behave differently. Daly witnessed this when he persuaded a couple he knew to dress up as clowns and sit outside the building housing his AC exhibit one day. “Have fun but don’t get us into trouble,” he told them. The next thing he knows, the man—a total introvert who reportedly went about with eyes down, rarely speaking above a murmur—is out in the middle of the street striking ridiculous poses and making flowery gestures designed to stop and direct traffic so that a little old lady can cross the street. He then takes her arm and escorts her to the opposite curb with impressive aplomb.