Several times a week, 74-year-old Bob Dillon dons bright red pants with checkered suspenders, a boldly striped shirt and a big red nose. His getup delights the patients at St. Mary's Hospital for Children in Bayside, Queens, where the retired fabric salesman has found his second calling as Otto the Clown; performing skits and magic tricks and making balloon animals for the young audiences there.
Dillon is one among older-but-ageless clowns who is a paid entertainer at parties and other events, and also volunteers his special skills. Dillon and other older clowns say it's a fun way to earn money, or give back, while making people laugh.
Ask Cheryl Schruefer of Hicksville, whose strength, flexibility and energy belie her age (which she doesn't want published). Schruefer has been a professional clown since 1984 and has performed on stilts in Times Square and in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. At private parties, she also entertains while riding her unicycle or miniature bike, and can juggle, too. Her work clothes are loud and her shoes are oversized, all adding to her Tiny the Clown persona. Clowning is a career she loves, but because the jobs aren't always steady, she supplements her income by working at a booking agency and teaching clowning classes and circus skills.
Blame it on the nose
Schruefer first became intrigued with clowning at a mime class and found her calling after taking a class on clowning. "When I put on that [red ball] nose, I knew," Schruefer says. "My inner self came out. I thought, 'This is great.' When I went to clown college, I found out who I was." She says she was shy as a child, even after taking acting classes, but with clowning, "I let myself let loose."
Schruefer has an associate degree in theater arts from Nassau Community College, and in 1984, she graduated from the three-month long Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Florida. Her costumes include a fluorescent purple outfit with extra long legs to cover her 4-foot stilts that add about 3 feet to her 5-foot tall frame; a neon pink wig, size 16 or so shoes and heavy-duty makeup -- not that she needs it, she says. "You don't always need your makeup to be a clown. Think of Carol Burnett." More recent examples, Schruefer notes, include Bill Irwin and David Shiner, clown-actors who star in an Off-Broadway show, "Old Hats."
Schruefer's success as Tiny the Clown can be measured by a marriage proposal from a smitten 9-year-old; global travel to China and beyond, and performing during an Orange Bowl halftime show. While some clowns just like to entertain and can afford to volunteer exclusively, she says, "some people need this as their living."
To make clowning a viable career, "you have to stand out. You have to up your game a little bit. You need to rehearse more and practice, and to have something a little more special," Schruefer says. She knows it can be done. Her son, Michael, who just moved from Hicksville to New Jersey, is a full-time clown who entertains at parties and corporate events.
Clowning also is a family affair for Carol Klein, aka MisMatch the Clown and her son, Garrett, who, as YooHoo the Clown, helps her entertain at parties.
Klein, 58, of Levittown, has been clowning since 1984. Her interest was sparked when she took her kids to see a show at her local library. "I loved the excitement of learning a whole new thing," she says. "I was very shy at one point, and this helped."
She studied, learning some trade tricks from a now-defunct clown group on Long Island. To keep current, she stays in touch with other clowns across the country by phone and computer, swapping hints and ordering props.
MisMatch performed at Nate Solomon-Kabelka's 1-year-old birthday party in February at a Greenlawn restaurant. "She was amazing," says Nate's mom, Paige Solomon, of Northport. "The kids were completely engaged. They loved the balloons that she made and were wearing them as hats."
Klein says she chose the name MisMatch because, "a clown's name is part of your heart. I'm so scattered, and I wanted to make people feel it's OK to be that way. Growing up and having a learning problem and wanting to get out of my shell got me started."
She doesn't like being the center of attention, Klein says, but her stage makeup works like magic, allowing her to hide behind it, and the costumes help transform her into an entertainer, she says. "It brings people to you."
Her repertoire includes magic tricks, balloon animals and skits. "I do it because I love it. Everything comes from the heart. It's become part of me over the years," Klein says. "I love birthday parties and making kids feel good. That's one of my biggest things, to put a smile on their faces."
Volunteering with vets
Klein also works full time as an aide at BOCES' Rosemary Kennedy School in Wantagh, and now she's also focusing on volunteer work with homeless veterans at the Northport VA Hospital through a group she started called "Our Heroes Night Out" (mismatchtheclown.com/
homeless_Veterans.html). Klein became involved after she was hired to do her clown act at a VA family event. "It opened a whole new door for me. I would never have met these guys otherwise," she says of the veterans. Now, she's searching for other entertainers to donate their talent.
Like Klein, Bob Dillon appreciates the gigs that pay, but he also finds joy in volunteering in full costume and makeup. He's a regular at St. Mary's birthdays-of- the-month party and works with kids who attend an on-site day care center. "They keep me in shape and on my toes as I get older," Dillon says of the youngsters.
"I feel like I'm banking something for upstairs, he says, motioning upward. "At my age, I feel you should do more of that." A resident of Franklin Square for 38 years, Dillon moved to Bellerose in 2005.
Clowns are magic with kids
At St. Mary's, Otto the Clown sets up his equipment as the kids settle in for the show. He's a familiar presence there, entertaining youngsters who have "medically complex" needs.
On a recent visit, Otto pulled out a pizza box from his clown trunk, but the box was empty. Otto asked, "Does anybody know any magic words?" Small hands shoot up as the kids shout, "I do, I do." And, to a chorus of "PURPLE PUPPY CHOW," Otto checks and voilà; there's a pizza inside. But wait! There's more in the trunk -- pretend popcorn, and scarves masquerading as snakes.
Jordon Bailey, 4, is particularly engaged, running around and helping Otto with props, while checking in periodically with his mom, Shana, 41, who is there for a midweek visit. Jordon gets to go home to Brooklyn on Sundays and is learning to breathe on his own, without the help of a tracheotomy tube.
Dillon particularly likes to play music to get everyone clapping or dancing. One young patient isn't mobile, so he puts the music player in her bed to make her feel included. The tunes are like a prescription, he says. "The music I play lightens everybody's day. The workers tell me they feel like they're at a wedding. And it lets me do something a little physical with them [the children], even if they're in a bed."
Jennifer Maharajh, a former spokeswoman at St. Mary's, says Otto the Clown has won hearts all over the hospital. "He really uplifts these kids and gives them the support they need. He makes them feel comfortable. He helps raise their self-esteem and shows them they can be who they want to be."
Dillon began donating his time at hospitals in the late 1980s after reading a Newsday article about how Shriners clown to raise funds to support Shriners Hospitals for Children. When he worked at the Bellevue Hospital clinic for children born with the HIV, "it gave me such an insight into the lives of these kids," he says. "One day, I made lots of balloon animals for a little girl, and she went off in her bed surrounded by these animals. The next time I came back, she was gone. I was so glad I made her all those balloons."
He welcomes his paying gigs for private parties, but volunteer work makes all the difference for him, he says. "There's nothing better."
Where are the clowns?
Clowns on Long Island can be hired through party booking and entertainment agencies, via a search on the Internet, or by referrals. Also, schools and libraries often keep lists of performers for summer and break programs.
Prices vary depending on the type of performance and length of time, but generally bookings start at $200.