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updated: 3/25/2014 5:08 AM

World Clown Convention opens to suburban audience

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  • Video: Clown Transformation

  • Video: Just Clownin' Around

  • An assortment of clowns bring cheer to patients in the Arden Courts of Northbrook, shaking hands and doing a few skits.

       An assortment of clowns bring cheer to patients in the Arden Courts of Northbrook, shaking hands and doing a few skits.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • "We're not people," says Patti Ummel, putting on the final touches of Jazzi's physical persona. "We're clowns."

       "We're not people," says Patti Ummel, putting on the final touches of Jazzi's physical persona. "We're clowns."
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Schnitzle the clown entertains Tony Weller, as 20 clowns in town for the convention visit Alzheimer's patients Monday in the Arden Courts of Northbrook.

       Schnitzle the clown entertains Tony Weller, as 20 clowns in town for the convention visit Alzheimer's patients Monday in the Arden Courts of Northbrook.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Clowns visit patients Monday in the Arden Courts of Northbrook.

       Clowns visit patients Monday in the Arden Courts of Northbrook.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Patti Ummel prepares to transform into her alter ego, "Jazzi."

       Patti Ummel prepares to transform into her alter ego, "Jazzi."
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

As soon as she steps into the floppy shoes, this Bartlett mom is no longer Patti Ummel.

She's Jazzi.

When she's got a gig, Jazzi starts the show even before she gets there. Stopped at a red light, Jazzi makes faces at other drivers and puts on her goofy glasses, if she's not already wearing them.

Once Jazzi got pulled over for speeding, and she handed the cop Jazzi's fake driver's license.

Another time, she made a few balloon animals for the officer's kids. In both cases, no ticket.

"I think you can only get away with that if you're a clown," Ummel said.

No matter how brief the moment, Jazzi will try to make you laugh. And as a clown for 20-plus years, Jazzi, er, Ummel knows the difference between a great performer and a just-OK one: Always, always stay in character.

"We're not people," Ummel said. "We're clowns."

Starting today, Ummel and fellow Chicago area clowns will play host to the 2014 World Clown Association's annual convention.

After years of traveling around the world for these annual gatherings, the Chicago clown posse scored a major coup. They got this year's six-day convention to come to the Chicago area -- specifically the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Northbrook.

As many as 250 international clowns of all ages -- the oldest is in his 90s -- will gather this week for classes, browse vendors and network.

Given the location, most of the clowns here this week are American, but London, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Hong Kong and Malaysia are all represented.

Not a natural clown? There's still plenty to see -- you can check out some of the world's best contortionists and clown makeup artists in competitions open to the public. These are no vaudeville contests -- think high-tech sound effects and acrobatics, organizers say.

"People think if you put on a rubber nose and some floppy shoes, you're a clown," said Bob Neil of Des Plaines, the association's vice president. "It's a lot of work."

A returning top contender is Pleasure B, a Japanese troupe. Last year, one of their clowns blew up a giant balloon with a leaf blower, climbed inside and launched into back flips.

In scoring each act the judges will factor in the audience's reaction -- "A groan is as good as a laugh," said Neil, a retired Des Plaines police officer whose alter ego is "Kiwi" the clown.

"It's a great escape," Neil said. "People live vicariously through us. We do things that other people want to do but can't."

Against the backdrop of this year's convention is a noticeable drop in membership in professional clown associations, stirring fears of declining interest in the trade.

Today, the Merrillville, Ind.-based World Clown Association has roughly 2,700 members, down by about a thousand from their highest enrollment.

Ask organizers about a clown shortage, and those red noses start to wrinkle. There isn't a shortage, they say, but there is definitely less interest in joining trade organizations.

"One of the problems that we in clowning face is that people don't realize it's work," Neil said. Last year's meeting in Borneo drew only about 140 clowns.

The international conventions also face competition from local seminars run by vendors.

But the World Clown Association is seeing some growth in membership from Asia. Those clowns are perfectionists who rehearse for hours and hours, Neil said.

Online tutorials are no substitute for the camaraderie at the convention, Ummel said. Despite language barriers, clowns from around the globe will meet each night for jam sessions, where they will exchange ideas for costumes and, of course, punchlines.

"Everyone's willing to share and take you under their wing," Ummel said.

Her mission is to preserve a performance art.

"It's like a magician who doesn't pass on his tricks before he's in the grave," Ummel said. "You don't want it to die."

That means she sometimes has to fight the "creepy" factor some people associate with clowns thanks to horror flicks. She's created a 50-minute show called "Only a Clown Nose." Ummel starts the show dressed as herself, and gradually transforms into Jazzi, with pink-and-purple pigtails sprouting from her head.

"Then they get a chance to warm up to you," Ummel said.

As for the next generation of heavyweights, her three kids, Jennifer, 22, Patrick, 19, and Scott, 16, have all taken up clowning. Jennifer, or "Bubblegum," was one of the youngest inductees into the Midwest Clown Association's Hall of Fame. A family that clowns together, stays together, the proud mom explains.

The Lombard native got her start in a Harper College class on clowning in the early 1990s. She was a new stay-at-home mom after working a demanding job in marketing. Ummel thought the class would be a nice hobby and finally let her use the unicycling and juggling she learned in a Glenbard East High School course on circus stunts.

Her clowning took off faster than her pie throwing. Ummel had mentors, won competitions and founded her business, Jazzi Entertainment (She also does pirates, princesses and leprechauns).

But she says the real inspiration goes back to when she was 8 or 9. Ummel was sitting in the back seat of the family car when they pulled up next to a car driven by a clown. He waved and stayed in character -- and everybody laughed.

"I thought that was the coolest thing ever," she said.

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