The Clown

HAHA in the New Canaan / Darien magazine

Dawn Palmer strides up to the podium in the lecture hall at Stamford Health System, her eighteen-inch-long, seven-inch-wide patent-leather clown shoes silent on the carpet. As she directs an impassioned speech about humor and healing to a new class of clowns, she waves her fingers over the touch-sensitive computer screen on the podium, unwittingly raising and lowering the volume of the microphone. Some more gesturing and now the movie screen goes up and down and the lights dim.

"I guess this training will have its ups and downs," says one audience member when the screen falls. And when the lights brighten, another mutters, "This class is a real turn on." But by far the most important concern amid this string of puns is "I wonder where she got those shoes"

It's the start of a new training session for the Stamford Health and Humor Associates - otherwise known as the HaHas - some three dozen clowns whose corps is one of a handful of all-volunteer hospital-clown groups in the United States. The HaHas recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, which was nine years more than people in the clowning business expected the troupe to last. Between the cost, the time commitment and the energy needed, clowning in a hospital is serious business.

Dawn Palmer of New Canaan can attest to that. Dawn, a former teacher and cardiac nurse, is president of the group; "Big Kahuna" is her official title. At the podium, once the laughs subside, she's talking about the rigors of the program. Facing more than thirty hours of training, new recruits learn things like "The Do's and Don'ts of the Hospital," "Hospital Protocol" in addition to "Introduction to Makeup," "Knowing When to Leave the Room" and "The Gentle Art of Clowning."

Drop a prop during your shtick and it falls to the floor? Slip it in your pocket, as the floor is one of the most germ-infested surfaces in the hospital. A patient reaches out to touch your hand? Be sure to wash 'in the hallway before you enter the next room so you don't transmit germs from one person to the next. Patient reaches for your bal- loon animal? Don't give it up, or at least give it to a visitor in the room instead. One HaHa learned the hard way when a patient with Alzheimer's took the balloon and promptly tried to eat it.

One by one the clowns-to-be stand and tell about how they ended up in the auditorium. A few graduated from the clowning course at Norwalk Community College. Others had loved ones in the hospital and saw the smiles the clowns brought to the patients' eyes. Most, like Rawle and Theodora "Doe" Deland of Darien, simply want to give something back to the community.

The Delands have lived in Darien for more than fifty years. Ever since Rawle retired twelve years ago from the executive recruiting firm his father founded in 1926 in New York City, he has spent his days, having fun and helping people in need. He and Roger Gilbert of Rowayton were talking about this one day at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. Gilbert is known around church circles as a respected marriage therapist. But his alter ego is Dr. Pockets, clown to the infirm. As he spoke with Rawle, Roger sensed a budding HaHa and encouraged the retiree to give clowning a try. When Rawle mentioned the idea to his wife, a realtor and broker at Kelly Associates, she decided to clown with him.

"I love the idea of being able to give back," Doe Deland declares at the training session. "I think laughter is wonderful medicine." This prompts Dawn to assure the new group, "You will never feel as rewarded as you will here"

Two hours earlier, Dawn, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, was in her kitchen supervising her seven-year-old granddaughter's drawing of the planets for homework, trying to figure out babysitting logistics and fighting a migraine. It wasn't until she climbed the stairs to the second floor that she began the slow transformation to Dr. Crockpot, nutritional advisor.

She sheds her watch and silver bangles over the sink and goes to work with a Q-tip, dipping it into one of a dozen jars of grease paint, glitter and adhesive in her clown-makeup box, painting white around her eyes, giving herself a white goatee, surrounding her eyes with blue liner. A good clown knows that makeup should exaggerate your facial structure, making your makeup as unique as your face. She wipes off a clean area around her mouth and exaggerates her bottom lip with red paint. There was a time when Dawn painted her whole face white before adding highlights. But whiteface can be startling to children, so like most of the HaHas, Dawn now goes for a milder look.

To apply powder, Dawn stands over the bathtub and holds her breath, patting her face with white talc balled up in a sock. A few strokes with a makeup brush, a few squirts of water from a pump spray bottle, some rouge to highlight the lines, now mascara and sparkles. She slips on her trifocals and checks the colors. More than half an hour elapses and Dawn is nearly set. Except for the nose. Every clown needs a red nose. She bypasses two plastic down noses encased in their own boxes and reaches for the red paint, which better suits the style of clown makeup she has applied.

Dawn still owns the first red nose she ever put on. At the time, her stepson Glenn was a patient at Stamford Health System, battling pancreatic cancer. She was on her way to visit him and from out in the hallway she saw a pair of clowns in Glenn's room. Glenn was smiling. It was a magnificent sight amid all the pain. Dawn walked in and one of the clowns handed her a red foam nose. "Glenn said, 'Oh, don't give that to her. She'll wear it and drive my father crazy. Dawn recalls. "That night I wore it to dinner, and that's really how I became a clown."

The process actually took a bit longer. Less than a year later, again at the hospital, this time visiting her mother-in-law, she stopped in at the volunteer office and inquired about those clowns she had seen in the past. The staff told her to come back in two hours. Turns out the HaHas were interviewing. Six weeks of training later, Dr. Crockpot was doing her rounds.

Dawn recounts the story as she gets "into clown". Her energy level cranks up a notch with each layer of makeup she applies. When it's time to get dressed, she's fairly dancing around the rooms. She wraps her shoulder-length blond hair into two pigtails and ties them with hair ornaments of stars and beads she swiped from her granddaughter. Next she puts on the handmade knickers adorned with ants, vegetables and fruits, two different colored socks ("I have another pair just like these" she announces gaily as she puts on the red-striped sock, then the black one), a black and white-striped T-shirt and fruit-and-flower chef's hat. Then those shoes. She had them custom-made for $250

Like every HaHa, Dawn punctuates her outfit with a white hospital lab coat. Hers is bedecked with half a dozen lapel pins she bought at a clown convention. Dr. Crockpot rifles through dozens of props, puppets and gizmos in the closet, fills her pockets with peppermints, practices a few notes on the kazoo and sets out for the hospital. Her teal-colored Ford Ranger truck has a red clown nose strapped to the grill, but tonight she's taking the car.

"From this moment on I am in clown," Dawn says. That means no eating, no smoking and no cursing at rude drivers. In fact, every driver who notices Dr. Crockpot en route to the hospital offers a smile and a wave.

Many HaHas imagined they would spend most of their time entertaining children, but the reality is that they clown as much for visitors and staff as they do for patients. "The staff was reluctant at first to consider the program." reports Bonnie Jennings Steele, director of volunteer resources for Stamford Health System. "They had an image of the circus clown or die in-your-face birthday clown. But the HaHas are a very different breed. They let go of their ego and find a place within. Their clowning is intensely spiritual."

Bonnie started the program after a breast-cancer survivor, who'd been a patient at Memorial Sloane-Kettering Hospital, approached her and mentioned the clowns she had seen during her hospital stay. Turns out the clowns were paid employees of the Big Apple Circus' Clown Care Unit. Bonnie telephoned the Big Apple Circus and asked for advice on how she could set up a similar program in Stamford. Much to her surprise, the group invited her to New York, loaned her training materials and helped her develop an interview format and a curriculum. The paid clowns were supportive, but skeptical.

"They said that eventually we were going to have to use paid performers. That, in order to do the job in a consistent, professional way, it would never last with volunteers," recalls Bonnie, noting that each clown commits to two hospital sessions and one meeting each month.

Bonnie decided to train about half a dozen volunteers and to field test the program. With the support of that floor's nursing staff, the HaHas started on the oncology unit and grew from there. Today the group services churches and senior citizen groups in addition to all facets of the Stamford Health System.

The clowns adapt their shtick to the particular needs of the patients. In pediatrics, they "draw blood" with a red marker on a pad. In cardiac care, they bring in jumper cables or a deck of cards ("card"iology - get it?). Almost every clown has his or her own version of the chicken joke, hospital food being a safe topic to kid about. A rubber chicken tied to a blue strip of rope becomes chicken "cordon bleu." The same chicken wearing a cape is a "capon" The gags sound simple but, in fact, "There's a whole psychology to it," Bonnie reports. "On a simple level, it's a distraction. It allows patients to take a break from their pain. On a deeper level, it reminds them of happier times.

That becomes clear when Dawn goes to work. HaHas clown in pairs, and today Dawn and Mary Lou Ward of Port Chester, New York, a.k.a. Dr. Sera Heartburn, are teaming up. They check in at the volunteer office, then head for the floors, stopping at the nurses' station before visiting rooms. Theoretically this stop is to determine whose room is off limits and who might need a visit. In fact, this is where the party starts. Dawn tosses peppermints to waiting hands and Mary Lou launches into "If you knew Suzy..." on the kazoo.

The patient in room twenty could use a visit, one of the nurses reports, and, in fact, when Mary Lou and Dawn approach, they hear crying. The HaHas always knock first and ask permission to enter. The door is open a crack and Dawn raps gently, then a bit harder. The elderly patient seems lost in despair, but when she spies her visitors, a light flickers in her eyes. "May I come in?" Dr. Crockpot whispers, and the woman nods yes.

Dr. Heartburn pulls out her kazoo for surprisingly soothing serenade and Dr. Crockpot takes out her Puste Fix Bubbles (which at six dollars for 1-3 Ounces are the best bubbles known to clowns). The good doctor blows the bubbles and the patient, who has stopped crying, reaches for them. "My grandchildren would love these, she murmurs, and takes hold of Dr. Crockpot's hand. After a bit, the clowns wish her well and tiptoe out. Dawn stops in the hallway to wash her hands. Then the duo continues to visit - Dr. Heartburn, a graduate of ventriloquist school, puffs out her puppet, Amazing Grace, for one patient, and works that kazoo for another.

Making this seamless transition from patient to patient requires a lot of knowledge about their characters. To help the new clowns develop this, during their training Mary Lou/Dr. Heartburn will hand out a three-page questionnaire, asking the novices to create a biography, not of themselves but of their clowns. She believes strongly that the better the HaHa knows his or her clown, the truer the clown becomes.

The Delands had a tough enough time just trying to come up with their clown names. (Rawle's clown is Dr. Nutcase and Doe's is Dr. Winnie, as Dr. Pooh sounded rather unseemly.) Now the pair will spend a week trying to fill in details such as the names of their clowns' parents, their friends, their hobbies and what makes them laugh.

For many of the rookies, this proves to be the most difficult part of training. "I think the biggest challenge is to get your act down and to be so comfortable with it that you can project it in an honest way. You've got to be a real clown, representing the clown's feelings" Rawle Deland says. Adds his wife, "Once you find out who you really are underneath, then you can project it better."

Mary Lou and Dawn certainly know who they are as they continue making their rounds. The pair walks by one room where a patient and two guests are focused on the TV. After some introductory banter, Dr. Crockpot elicits requests for a song and the group settles on "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," which Dr. Crockpot commences to sing as Dr. Heartburn blasts "When the Saints Go Marching In" on the kazoo. It's so corny that it's hysterical, and the good doctors hightail it out of there before the patient, in for a gastrointestinal problem, busts his stitches. In the next room, after an introductory pirouette, Dr. Crockpot asks the patient what she thinks of the hospital food, cueing Dr. Heartburn who's already reaching into her pocket for the chicken.

On the way to the emergency room, a maintenance man, lulled by the droning of the floor buffer, perks up when Dawn asks if he'd be kind enough to give her shoes a polish. And in the trauma room, a trio of doctors dons the foam rubber noses she doles out. "You can see the family resemblance," Dr. Heartburn reports, as the doctors laugh.

The intake nurse in the E.R. studies notes on a metal stand. She looks like a maitre d' at a snooty restaurant, and Dawn is prompted to ask if she is taking reservations. The nurse looks up and chuckles. In a chair in the waiting room, a patient gazes at the exchange, a smile working across her bruised and swollen face.

Their rounds complete, Doctors Crockpot and Heartburn head for the parking lot. As they reach their cars, Dawn pauses and looks briefly at Mary Lou. "We're here to give joy and, if not joy, just a moment to smile," she says. Her partner nods in agreement. And like the doctors, patients and visitors they touched during the course of the day, they both leave, smiling.