A scary clown mask.

A scary clown mask is displayed at the Sun-Times tech desk during the Great Clown Panic of 2016. Hundreds of practitioners of this much-maligned profession and art are holding a convention in Northbrook in March.

Photo by Neil Steinberg

‘There are a lot of bad clowns out there’

The World Clown Association is coming to Northbrook in March.

Clowns don’t terrify me. Not the way they do others. But I understand the fear. Clowns have a way of popping out when you least expect them.

For instance. I had just begun to grind my way through The Economist’s special “The World Ahead 2022” issue, with articles like “Ensuring a fair future of work,” and “Calendar: Our selection of events around the world.”

The events of world importance move from France becoming head of the European Council in January, to Queen Elizabeth marking the 70th anniversary of her reign in February, when the winter Olympics also opened in Beijing.

Then bam, clowns, and close to home, too. This March: “Coultrophobics should avoid Northbrook, Illinois, as participants converge for the World Clown Association’s annual convention.” It was the first occurrence of note in North America.

Opinion bug


Did not see that coming. How is that happening in my own leafy suburban paradise?

“We’re looking forward to it; can hardly wait to get together,” said Leslie Ann Akin, marketing director of the World Clown Association, who estimated that up to 300 clowns will attend. “There are competitions, classes, all sorts of educational opportunities. Vendors— people coming that sell costuming, props, rubber noses, floppy shoes, baggy pants, all the things that clowns love.”

The public is welcome. How’d they settle on Northbrook?

“We had it there a couple of years ago,” Akin said. “They loved it and are thrilled to come back.”

In 2014, though it galls me to admit. Here Chicago politicians can’t have an impure thought without the Sun-Times watchdogs stopping whatever they’re doing and freezing, heads cocked, sniffing the air, sensing something afoot.

Meanwhile hundred of clowns can slip into my own backyard and hold a big party, and I don’t find out for years. Sorry, chief.

Talk about being terrified by clowns. You’ll notice the Economist squib, brief though it was, started mentioning “”Coultrophobia,” fear of clowns, a situation that torments those in the clown biz.

“It just breaks my heart,” Akin said.

A clown in an orange wig

Leslie Ann Akin, marketing director for the World Clown Association, which is holding its annual convention in Northbrook this March, in makeup as her Flower T. Clown character. While she hasn’t performed in 30 years, Akin, 70, says, “I’m still the clown.”

Provided photo

A Washington Post article about the 2018 convention has difficulty even summarizing the myriad ways our culture demonizes clowns:

“.... decades of portrayals of depressed, malevolent and downright crazed clowns in movies and on TV, not to mention in real life: Krusty on ‘The Simpsons,’ Zach Galifianakis on ‘Baskets,’ Twisty on ‘American Horror Story,’ the Great Clown Scare of 2016, Insane Clown Posse, Heath Ledger’s Joker, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, John Wayne Gacy.”

”When people say, ‘I’m afraid of clowns,’ I would say, ‘No, you’re not.’ I would not accept it,” Akin said. “You’ve seen terrible movies with actors. They’re actors, in some sort of makeup. Not clowns.”

Adam Gertsacov, 57, “boss clown” at Chicago’s Acme Clown Co., isn’t as quick to blame the media for the fear clowns inspire.

“I have a lot of thoughts about this,” said Gertsacov, who is also a puppeteer and master of ceremonies of a flea circus. “People are afraid of clowns because there are a lot of bad clowns out there and a lot of bad parents. A lot of guys are not paying attention to the audience. [They don’t tell themselves] ‘Oh look, the kid is kinda terrified of the strange, very loud guy wearing a lot of makeup.’

“As a clown, when I see this happening, I pay attention to the kid. I get more scared of the kid than the kid is of me. Usually, at the end of the day, I eventually win that kid over. It comes down to being sensitive to your audience.”

Tell me about it. That is why, as much as I’d like to devote the column to clowning between now and March 7, when the convention begins, I won’t.

I’ll certainly circle back when the clowns come to town. There’s something larger here.

“The clown is a lot about failure,” Gertsacov said. “Clowns are really about trying to solve problems using clown logic. There is no play in solving a problem. The play is in failing to solve a problem.

“One of my teachers used to say, ‘Figure out how to solve a problem and fail and continue to fail until the audience allows you to succeed.’ The audience will let you cheat if you’ve won them over, You can hit it once with a tiny hammer, but you’ve got to earn that.

“You have to try all these different clown ways, trying to figure out how to bring the audience along with you on your journey. How you’ve tried all these different things, and they finally allow you to succeed.”

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