Three hours before showtime at the Kora Shrine Circus, there are many strange things to behold in this behind-the-scenes glimpse into the secret life of clowns.

There’s a man stripped down to his underwear slathering white paint on his shaved head. There’s a 68-year-old man solemnly brushing the hair of a bright yellow wig. There are perfectly ordinary men having heated debates about which is better at attaching a fake nose to a human face: glue or putty?

Everywhere you turn faces are being transformed, including mine. First the white paint went on and I felt nothing. Then a squinting man drew a red mouth onto my face while someone else worked on my eyebrows. Still nothing.

But when veteran clown Mike “Bow” Blais came at me with that nose in one hand, bottle of glue in the other, it happened. At 2:15 p.m. Friday, I became a by-god clown.

“When you start getting ready, you feel this aura,” said Lewiston’s Jay Poirier, better known as Lugnut the clown and my guide for this excursion. “Are you feeling it?”

As a matter of fact I was, but it wasn’t just the nose. There are also the iconic shoes on my feet – shoes that are amazingly comfortable and should be, considering they cost somebody $500.

“The rest of it doesn’t matter as much,” Mike “DewGee” Robitaille said. “If you have the nose and the shoes, you’re a clown.”

All right then, I’m a clown. The question, before I joined a dozen others in greeting the fast-growing crowds at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, was this: Is the experience going to be fun? Or horrifying?

KNOW WHEN TO WALK AWAY

The first person I met when I wheeled up to the Colisee was a clown named Happy. The second was Hugs. After that it was a blur of names and faces in transition. These were men of all ages, and of vastly different backgrounds, bound together by a common passion.

“I absolutely love being a clown,” Poirier said. “When I’m out there among the crowds, I’m not sure who I’m entertaining more, them or me.”

In a locker room at the far end of the Colisee, the scene is like any other where men gather for a common cause. There is razzing all over the place. There are hurled insults, prompt rebuttals and an endless stream of wisecracks.

“But we all share a common goal,” Lugnut/Poirier said. “It’s all about the kids.”

It’s a sentiment I’ll hear over and over as I’m being introduced to the clowns. It doesn’t matter if he’s a firefighter, a plumber, a biker or a politician. These are Shriners and every one of them got into clowning for that reason alone.

“That interaction with the kids,” said a clown named Bow Wow, who had a bone for a tie, “that’s what I like.”

The 68-year-old clown Hardley-D, who is also Fern Jolin, got into the clown business after visiting a children’s burn center in Boston.

“I saw all those kids,” said Jolin, of Auburn. “And I said, ‘Whoa.’ I’ll do anything I can to help them.'”

There aren’t many rules in clowning, but near the top of the list is knowing when the charms of the clown costume just aren’t working.

“If the kid is scared, you walk away,” said Hugs, known in the boring real world as Carl Hodges. “Even if their parents are trying to force them to interact with you, walk away. You don’t want to scare them. You don’t want to scar them for life.”

For what it’s worth, with his tie-dyed hair and giant glasses, Hugs doesn’t look very frightening. But there are plenty of people, not all children, who maintain a very real fear of clowns. This crew knows it, and they take pains to dispel those fears wherever they can.

They do goofy little dances to put the wary at ease. They’ll get down on one knee to appear less menacing and talk in ridiculous voices to coax giggles out of someone who might have been trembling a moment before. They twist balloons into animal shapes for kids who might not be able to afford more expensive souvenirs. When they pose for photos — and these requests are nonstop — they keep their hands high and visible at all times.

“Sometimes the kids will run right up to you, as excited as can be,” said Tom Hanson, a hobo clown with a sad face. “Sometimes they don’t want anything to do with you.”

These are all things I was told as Mike Blais was helping me into his costume, transforming me into the “Bow” character he has maintained for decades. It’s daunting and more than a little unnerving. I feel as though I have very big shoes to fill.

My fellow clowns understand. Their advice? Let the costume be your guide.

“Don’t worry,” advised Bow Wow, also known as Lorien Mathieu, of Greene. “Once you put on the makeup, you’re someone else.”

“The best part,” added Hugs, “is when you see someone you know. You’ll have a conversation with them and they still don’t know who you are.”

It’s true. It happened to me when I engaged in a conversation with a woman I’ve worked with for 20 years. As far as I know, she still doesn’t know who it was behind the red nose and paint.

“Once you’re in costume and you have the makeup on,” said Lugnut, “it doesn’t matter if it’s your friends or your family, they’re not going to recognize you.”

Marco Almodovar, the dapper, white-faced clown named Polo, said he was quite nervous his first time out. Then he ran for city council in Bangor and, what do you know? Compared to politics, clowning is quite simple.

“That really helped train me to be comfortable in public,” Polo said.

And with such advice in mind, I went to meet the throngs of people surging into the Colisee, soothed by the anonymity offered by the plastic nose, the bright-yellow wig and the monstrously huge feet.

HAND OVER THE RED NOSE, KID

I learned a few notable lessons during my short stint as “Bow.” More boys than girls are afraid of clowns. When it comes to interacting with kids, the high-five is your best friend; props are the second best.

Some people cope with their coulrophobia by refusing to look at you, no matter how you dance or how many absurd sounds you make. And the best lesson, the one promised my brothers in paint, is that the kids are the best part of the experience. Nothing else comes close.

One girl of maybe 3 clung to her mother’s leg in fright until she discovered that my hand would squeak if she slapped it hard enough. After that, she was all flying hands and wide smiles as she slapped my palm over and over, her fear of clowns behind her.

Tiny babies goggled up at us and produced toothless smiles. A few young boys requested, with the kind of shy admiring hope typically reserved for professional athletes, that I sign their programs. Parents watched with unmasked appreciation as the clowns brought their children from a place of wariness to a place of pure delight.

“This is what it’s all about,” Poirier said as the next family approached, with their grinning parents and uncertain children. Lugnut launched into his dialogue, honks from a pocketed horn punctuating every punchline and the children turned giddy with glee.

It’s a pretty good gig being a clown. When the audience was seated and the first show began, my stint was over. Back in the locker room, as the others grabbed quick meals and made costume adjustments, I peeled off my nose and felt real regret as I placed it back in its little box. When I unlaced the shoes and took them off my feet, I knew I was mortal again. Walking out of the Colisee, nobody paid me any attention and I had no props with which to engage them.

My life as “Bow” was done.

Oh, how I wish I’d kept the hand squeaker.

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The Kora Shrine Circus will be at the Colisee again Saturday for shows at 9:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Shows will also be presented in Augusta and Portland. Go to www.korashriners.org for more information.

Tickets are: adults, $10; children under 12, $5; reserved seating, $12. All proceeds benefit the Kora Shriners. The circus is one of the primary fundraisers for the Shriners Hospitals for Children, a health care system of 22 hospitals for children with orthopaedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lip and palate. Services are provided regardless of the patients’ ability to pay.


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