Filling the Pews With Floppy Shoes

In an annual tradition, clowns gather at Holy Trinity Church in East London for a service honoring Joseph Grimaldi, a Briton who died in 1837 and is widely considered the father of modern clowning. The service also celebrates the human need to laugh.
In an annual tradition, clowns gather at Holy Trinity Church in East London for a service honoring Joseph Grimaldi, a Briton who died in 1837 and is widely considered the father of modern clowning. The service also celebrates the human need to laugh. (By Andrew Parsons -- Press Association Via Associated Press)
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By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 4, 2008

LONDON, Feb. 3 -- A clown on a unicycle, with a Bozo-orange wig and a beep-beep red nose, rolled down the center aisle of Holy Trinity Church just before a reading from the Gospel of Matthew.

In pews on both sides sat scores of giggling men and women wearing huge bow ties, lime and pink wigs, poofy checkered pants, floppy shoes and, of course, big red noses.

"As soon as you put your nose on, you are a different person," said David Vaughan, 59, an office administrator-turned-clown in a powder blue Keystone Kops outfit, who sat in the front row for the annual Anglican service celebrating clowns and their art.

The Sunday service pays homage to Joseph Grimaldi, a Briton who died in 1837 and is widely considered the father of modern clowning. But since it began in 1946, the service has become something more elemental -- colorful and fun as a gumball machine, a celebration of the human need to laugh and of the people devoted to nurturing that need.

"For the times when we have failed to see the joke, and lost our sense of humor and perspective," a priest prayed at the altar as the congregation, including a clown with a live giant white bunny on a leash, spilled onto the streets.

"Lord have mercy," responded the clowns in full "slap," as they call their costumes.

The kaleidoscopic light of the afternoon sun poured through a stained-glass window, dedicated to Grimaldi, featuring a huge smiling clown.

Clown Roly, wearing his clerical collar under a red and black plaid outfit, carried a pink feather duster, which he used like a conductor's wand as the organist played hymns and, naturally, "Send in the Clowns."

"All my clowning has some Christian story or punch line -- it's my way of being a priest," said Clown Roly, whose real name is Roly Bain. An ordained Anglican priest, Bain heads a group called the Holy Fools, which practices clowning as a way of spreading religious faith.

Many of the clowns said they were religious or, at least, spiritual people who use their art to fight pain with laughter. Many volunteer in hospitals, hospices and other places where people can perhaps use a chuckle.

"Clowning is about life -- it's laughter and tears," said Bain, who has smacked bishops in the face with custard pies. He said many clowns have been through their own hardships. Grimaldi himself lost his wife in childbirth.

"You have to be acquainted with grief to be a good clown -- you have to know the highs and lows," Bain said.


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