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Mar 18, 2014

Clowning around knows no age limit.

Clowning around knows no age limit. Both young and old enjoy a bit of silliness now and then and, really, who ever gave much thought to the age of a clown?

Harry McCullagh, 79, of Stickney, has been performing as “Max” the clown for 44 years now and has a youthful attitude when it comes to clowning.

“I’m not old,” he says. “I feel like I’m 40 years old. I think I’m having fun all of the time. I don’t say ‘Oh, it’s a lot of work being a clown.’ I can leave my clown makeup on for 10 hours a day and it wouldn’t bother me.”

Underneath the makeup and hilarity are seniors who thoroughly enjoy the art of clowning and want to keep it alive for generations.

Brookfield resident Lynda Miller, 74, created the La Grange-based West Suburban Clown Club in 1984. Miller, who goes by her clown persona “Toot-Toot,” taught a clown class at Lyons Township High School in La Grange for 12 years. In her class, students wanted to know how to get together and explore clowning, so Miller formed the group.

The group has about 40 members who come from Oak Lawn, Berwyn, Cicero, Willowbrook and Hinsdale. Some of the membership comes from Triton College’s Triton Troupers Circus, a River Grove-based nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving circus arts.

While the group attracts all ages, between 10 and 15 members are seniors, Miller explains.

“You’re never too old to learn new tricks,” Miller says with a laugh. “We have fun.

People can’t sit in front of a computer and say that they have nothing to do. Get out there and do it. Find line dancing or clowning or something to do. The do-nothing days are over.”

Meeting the second Monday of the month at the La Grange-based Meadowbrook Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation facility, members develop friendships and learn about costuming, face painting, balloon art and juggling.

The group shares its talents including a recent appearance at a busy ice cream social at Mayslake Village in Oak Brook. Mayslake is a nonprofit corporation that provides affordable housing for low-to moderate-income seniors.

Reminiscent of an old-fashioned circus atmosphere, clowns “Toot-Toot” and “Max” worked the room creating balloon art, engaging in light conversation, and encouraging the residents and visiting families to do a chicken dance.

Still clowning after all these years

McCullagh, a nine-year club member, remembers when he first donned a clown costume 44 years ago to celebrate the anniversary of a friend’s bakery. He has never looked back.

“Once I have my costume on, I like to kid around with people,” he says. “If you’re a woman, I’ll give you a boy’s name like Pete or Charlie. With the boys, I do the opposite. I say ‘Hi Sally’ or ‘Hi Rosemary.’ The name of the game is to make someone laugh.”

McCullagh, who sometimes performs on stilts, learned about the club through his participation with Triton College’s Triton Troupers Circus. Recently, he performed a high-wire act in the circus.

Colette Hoover of Orland Park has been a member for 10 years. Clowning for her is a way to be an active volunteer. As the clown “Oopsie Daisy,” she devotes her time to visiting the sick at St. James Hospitals in Olympia Fields and Chicago Heights.

Hoover, 70, went into clowning when she couldn’t find many volunteer opportunities after retirement. Her work background was in marriage and family therapy, pastoral care and owning a consulting firm with her husband.

She saw an article about a family of clowns, and contacted one of the article’s sources who recommended training. Hoover visited seminars and also attended the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse’s now defunct Clown Camp summer program.

Being part of a local club has given her the chance to meet others and share tips.

“We learn from each other and it’s a nice fellowship group,” she says.

Whether it’s visiting residents at Mayslake or going to St. James Hospital, Hoover adds a splash of “color” to a patient’s day.

“The hospital is so bland and doesn’t have a lot of color,” she says. “We come in with our colorful costumes and our faces in makeup and it just brings a big smile to the patients. “They so often say, ‘You made my day or you brighten my day.'”

Look good, do good

Miller says many of the older members of the club have been clowning for 10 to 15 years.

“They still do it. A lot of them get paid. They also do ‘walkarounds’ where we do little skits, make balloons and face painting at various places like Mayslake,” Miller explains.

Besides visiting Mayslake, club members volunteer their time to appear at a women’s shelter and for Meadowbrook Manor’s summer block party. Every Christmas, some perform in skits and bring goody bags to youngsters living at the Illinois Masonic Children’s Home in La Grange.

Haley Burress, the director of life enrichment at Mayslake Village, appreciates and anticipates the clowns’ visit for the ice cream social, something they have been doing for the last two years.

“They have been a staple of that annual event so much so that folks usually ask about the clowns as soon as they find out the date,” she says. “The clowns entertain our crowd, which is more than 350 residents and family members. The clowns really make the event extra special for the residents and the grandchildren who join us.”

For information about the club, call 708-442-5161.

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