Men and women in colorful wigs and giant shoes gathered at a Forest Park cemetery, Aug. 4, to perform clowning and acrobatic acts. Clowns from around the region celebrated the 14th International Clown Week at the most famous final resting place for circus artists: Showman’s Rest in Woodlawn Cemetery. Acrobats and jugglers performed in front of the section’s five elephant statues, each with trunks lowered, depicting mourning
Death and clowns: For some, perhaps, life’s two most frightening concepts.
The group comes to Forest Park every year to honor the victims of the June 22, 1918 Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train wreck near Ivanhoe, Ind.
That summer night, a circus train carrying 400 performers and roustabouts on the way to Hammond, made an emergency stop at 4 a.m. to cool down overheated machinery. Red lights were turned on to warn approaching trains. But the engineer of an empty troop train had fallen asleep. The troop train hit the circus train at full speed, the collision destroying three cars full of sleeping circus people. Others were trapped in the wreckage when a fire broke out. Eighty-six died, most of the bodies unrecognizable.
But the show must go on, and the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus missed just a single performance: in Hammond that day. Borrowing acts from Ringling Brothers and other circuses, they played the next night in Beloit, Wis.
Between 55 and 60 train crash victims are buried in Showman’s Rest. Many performers were known only by their nicknames, so headstones read “Baldy,” “Smiley” and “4 horse driver.” The 750-plot section had been purchased only months earlier by the Showman’s League of America.
At Saturday’s ceremony, a somber history of the train disaster was read, the Clown Prayer was recited and performers laid flowers at the feet of one of the elephants.
But being “outdoor amusement people,” no one could stay solemn for long.
Rubber noses and funny glasses were handed out to children. Clowns Cool Beanz and Jelly Beanz performed an act. The Vagabonds of Glenview’s Runaway Circus performed acrobatic tricks, rode unicycles, juggled blue and red pins and balanced cups on strings. Founder Sarah Koshelev is an alumna of Illinois State University’s Gamma Phi Circus School.
The memorial gathering is a labor of love, orchestrated primarily by Susan Hooper, or “Sweetie” the Clown. Hooper also attended Gamma Phi and is a member of the Triton Troupers at Triton College. She juggles, breathes fire, walks on stilts and performs on a mini-bike at birthday parties and special events. Although clowning is her avocation, not her career, she brings performers together as a “loving and festive remembrance of circus artists past.” The event takes three months to organize.
Woodlawn Manager Ty Woods, who billed himself “the only clown in a suit,” said he tries to bring people to the cemetery for reasons other than funerals. Woodlawn provided free hot dogs, beverages and chips for the event.
And what of “coulrophobia,” the fear of clowns? Clowns can be scary for some. John Wayne Gacy dressed as a clown at birthday parties and painted clown pictures in prison.
None of that bothered Brookfield resident Mark Seelentag, who attended the event for the thrill, wearing a top-hat and Marylyn Manson-esque makeup. His daughter, Harley, dressed as the Joker’s girlfriend Harlequin.
“When I heard about this, I thought, ‘Clowns in the cemetery? Yes!'” he said. On his T-shirt was an image of the fang-toothed Pennywise, the clown from the Stephen King movie It.
“Clowns entertain everyone,” Seelentag said. “They can be scary, sad or happy. Either way it keeps your heart pumping and it’s fun.”
Changes in clowning and circuses
Organizer Susan Hooper is a longtime fan of the “traditional American circus” and many of the clowns attending were dressed in the traditional garb, evoking the era of the most famous American clown, Emmett Kelly, and his character “Weary Willy.”
The American circus, long steeped in its traditions and unchanged since the turn of the century, has been forced to evolve, prodded by more splashy acts like Cirque du Soleil and Cirque de Shanghai, Hooper said.
As a clown nostalgic for the past, Hooper observes wistfully how American circuses grudgingly adapted.
“Cirque [du Soleil] came in and paved the way for changes in the circus with their music and presentation and the kind of acts they do,” Hooper said.
“The traditional American circus had to reinvent itself to keep up with the times. It used to be a five-ringed circus; now it’s a one-ring circus with elaborate themes and big production, props and lights.”
Noel Williams, a clown with the Runaway Circus, was trained in the Canadian Pochinko clowning tradition, which focuses on clowns with personalities.
She said the traditional American clown was meant to be seen “from the big top.”
“They wear exaggerated makeup and clothes because they were supposed to be seen from far away. When they’re up close, yes that can be a little scary.”
“There’s a place for every kind of clown,” said Williams, “service clowns, traditional circus clowns, European and Asian clowns, even birthday-party clowns. There’s a place for all of us.”
Though the Showman’s Rest celebration was inspired by a tragic event, the clowns left the crowd laughing.
“It is said that the heart of a clown is sad,” read one clown, “but that is because he leaves happiness wherever he goes and takes misery with him.”
“Outdoor amusement people are here to entertain and bring joy to others,” said Jean Brake of the Showman’s League’s Ladies’ Auxiliary. “We make people feel good.”