Kevin Riordan: For these clowns, professional development is laughable

sports white bunny ears during Laughter Yoga with wife Joanne (left) and Carol "Pearl" Brozosky of Richwood. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
sports white bunny ears during Laughter Yoga with wife Joanne (left) and Carol "Pearl" Brozosky of Richwood. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer (Mike Geden, 65, a part-time school bus driver from Maple Shade,)
Posted: April 05, 2012

Shobo, Shady, Polka, Dot, and the rest of Kapo's Gang begin their monthly meeting at a Cherry Hill church with a prayer.

Then the fun starts.

"Ho-ho, ha-ha-ha," the 20 or so professional clowns chant in a circle, practicing Laughter Yoga with a visiting instructor (and civilian), Melanie Galioto.

The mostly middle-aged men and women are not in costume or in character, but soon enough everybody is laughing spontaneously, including me.

Especially me.

"You're like a big cartoon character," observes Mark St. Marie, 50, a Philadelphia firefighter who lives in the city's Bridesburg section and performs as Buster T. Clown.

St. Marie is not referring to me, though people have said worse. He's talking about how a clown like Buster looks to the audiences of children who are his bread and butter.

"When I clown, I'm a goofball. But I let them warm up to me," he explains. "As they warm up, they start coming over. And it gets easier to interact on their level."

A clown typically makes $100 to $200 an hour mixing magic, balloons, and a timeless form of entertainment that requires more than a fright wig.

Particularly in the Philadelphia region, with its rich history of Mummery, audiences have certain expectations. Some people are afraid, perhaps thanks to Stephen King's It and other creepy pop-culture clowns.

Hence the club's regular presentations to help clowns sharpen their skills, says Bill Schober, 52, of Mickleton, who is president of Kapo's Gang.

The father of five, who works full-time in his family's wicker import business in Philadelphia, got hooked on Red Skelton as a youngster.

He's been clowning for about 30 years and performs under the name Shobo da Clown. His wife, Jill ("Sweetheart"), sometimes performs with him.

Like the other club members I meet, the Schobers have memorable voices, vivid smiles, and a lively presence, even without makeup and funny shoes. There's something distinctive about people who enjoy twisting balloons and painting faces - including their own, which can take a half-hour.

"I was kind of born this way. It just took me 28 years to start doing it professionally," chuckles Sandi Smith (Dot), 60, a bookkeeper from Mount Laurel. Her performing partner is Polka, a/k/a Mary Ann Becker of Cherry Hill.

The friends got into clowning nearly 30 years ago. They learned by doing, reading books, and from others in the business, such as the beloved John (Kapo) Kapral, who died in 1998.

"Kapo is in the Mummers' Hall of Fame," says Smith, noting that the club's members often perform at charity functions, like Kapo did.

Clowning springs from a deep source, explains Ron Mount, 61, a truck driver from Southampton, Burlington County. "You have a feeling inside. It's hard to describe. You relate to the people. You get them to forget their troubles."

His character, Shady, is a silent "hobo" clown. He endears himself to audiences through dignified, low-key mime. His favorite prop is a broom.

"There's a humbleness about it," Mount says.

Other clowns are more, shall we say, demonstrative - like Rainbow Man, whose offstage name is Mike Geden. The part-time school bus driver from Maple Shade, 65, sports a pair of fluffy white bunny ears during Laughter Yoga.

No worries.

"We use the sounds 'ha,' 'ho' and 'hee,' and when it's done in a group, it creates genuine laughter," explains Galioto, the yoga instructor, whose company is called Laugh Yourself Philly.

Galioto, of Philadelphia, often makes presentations at workplace wellness programs, and retirement communities.

Laughing releases endorphins, those welcome substances that cheer us up.

And laughter is "therapeutic," Galioto says,

Even for a bunch of clowns.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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