The transformation from Frank Mitchell of Cottage Grove to Knufie of the St. Paul Clown Club takes about an hour, starting with precision application of face paint, followed by a colorful and comically oversized outfit, topped with a yellow bowler hat that's much too small.
The wacky ensemble, on top of a sunny disposition, belies a challenge that's anything but funny for Mitchell, 77, and other volunteer clowns around the metro area: They are getting old.
Young members are scarce and shrinking membership has meant the St. Paul troupe is doing fewer outings, including cutting back on their once-regular visits to nursing homes and hospitals.
"We only go when one of us is in there," joked Denise Chapeau, aka Sassie.
Blame scary clown movies, busy family schedules or lack of civic spirit. But clown clubs, like other classic community clubs such as the Lions or American Legion, wonder what the future holds as their enthusiastic members grow gray.
"As age creeps in, it gets a little more difficult to do the parades and stuff," Mitchell said. "The clubs are dwindling, which is kind of sad, I think. We're trying to attract younger people."
As the St. Paul Clown Club traversed the New Brighton Stockyard Days Parade route, taking turns hopping off a pickup truck decorated with balloon animals to entertain the crowds, there were waves and smiles aplenty.
"It's been a part of history," spectator Karen Carlson said. "Without them, it wouldn't be coming to a parade."
The clubs' origins are intertwined with the metro area's largest festivals. Both the St. Paul Clown Club and the Minneapolis Aqua Jesters were formed by community leaders to bring laughter and boost interest in the cities' marquee festivals -- the Winter Carnival and the Aquatennial -- after World War II. The Powder Puffs, a women's troupe, was formed later as a sister group to the then-all-male St. Paul club.
The clubs once counted 50 to 100 active members, a number that's now more like a couple dozen per troupe. They teach each other the tricks of the trade -- face painting, balloon animals and magic tricks -- and seek opportunities to cavort at hospitals, nursing homes and charity events and in shows at libraries or community centers.
"It's a good hobby, that's for sure," said Betty Cash, an early member of the Powder Puffs and now known nationally as a clown costume seamstress.
Her clients may skew older, she said, but people of all ages are still interested in making others laugh: "There's so many different kinds of clowns."
Hoping for boomers
Dan Butler, founder and executive director of Circus Juventas in St. Paul, agrees. He said that plenty of kids are enrolled in clowning classes at his circus school. Yet as circuses have evolved from three-ring, big-top spectacles to more sophisticated shows (think Cirque du Soleil), clowning has changed, as well.
"There's somewhat of a resurgence, but I would say it has a new contemporary flair to it," Butler said, explaining that it's less about red-nosed, Bozo-the-clown antics and more about developing a comedic character with other skills.
Nicole Anderson, who at 23 is one of the younger members of the Aqua Jesters, occasionally hears the fear line from her peers, but doesn't let it deter her. She's walks parades with her dad, Tom Anderson, 57, and grandpa, Ken Anderson, 91. "It is such a rewarding thing to do, seeing the smiles on everybody's faces," she said.
Tom said the recruiting challenges aren't unique to clown clubs, as people are generally busy.
"It's just like any other club out there, whether it's the Elks or Lions or anything like that. It's really tough to get younger [adults] into it," he said.
Still, clowns see hope for the future in retiring baby boomers who may have extra time and in people like Arenda Onsare, who paused to consider the St. Paul Clown Club after laughing at their antics with her niece at the New Brighton Parade.
"They just brighten the atmosphere. It's who you are at heart," said Onsare, who fondly recalled donning a clown costume to entertain kids when working at a restaurant years ago. "It seems like a blast."
Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056