"Like this," Jellybean said as he stepped off the table and fell face down on the floor. Jellybean, a clown, was teaching another would-be clown how to fall.
At the Jolly Jesters clown club, anyone can learn how to fall or how to juggle, dress and act like a clown. If you listen closely, you can even learn how to think like a clown. The Jesters are a group of about 25 professional, amateur and beginning clowns who meet to discuss their art, new techniques and old lore. But to these devotees, clowning is more than big shoes and bulbous noses.
Founded two years ago at the Bethesda Library, the club meets on the first Monday of every month. The meetings are open to anyone who seeks the company, amusement or lessons offered by clowns. Some of the professionals work at parties, corporate picnics, openings and other pickup jobs, including circus assignments.
"We are here to promote clowning," said Limabean, sometimes known as Tom Lima, 26, a District resident and charter member of the Jesters. "This is a way to help local clowns better their act. We discuss what's out there for clowns. We deal in the subtleties and the finer points of clowning."
The finer points include dealing with children, designing quality costumes, puppeteering and a special session on "balloonology." At a recent session on makeup, several Jesters spread their wares across two tables: mirrors, towels, oil, pencils, brushes of all shapes and sizes and assorted tidbits that color a clown. The pros attacked their faces with a flurry of powder and paint, and the newer members took careful note and asked questions.
"Find out where your face is," Limabean advised. "Do what you can to accentuate the regularly grotesque features of your mouth."
"Let's talk about noses," Jellybean said. Jellybean is Fred Forrest, 57, a former entertainer who is now an upholsterer. Forrest began in vaudeville when he was five, danced his way through the burlesque era, served as the bottom man in a troupe of tumblers and now shares his carnival knowledge with the Jesters.
Even before he puts makeup on, Jellybean's face is a menagerie of exaggerated twists and lines that ease his transition from Bozo smile to Sad-Sack frown. Jellybean's arms flail and his hair stands on end. He sweats and he laughs while he shows his enraptured audience how to entertain.
"The world is different when I'm a clown," Jellybean said, "It doesn't seem like such an angry place. People come up and say hello. We don't normally do that to each other. I've got this mask to express the child within, and I can make others smile."
Some of the beginners said they hoped to be able to walk in neighborhood parades and perform at parties. Others said they liked dressing up and acting like clowns but did not yet have the courage to perform in public.
But to Bethesda Library patrons who pass by when the Jesters are in session, smiles come easily. The clowns are squeezed into a small classroom that blossoms in colors and wigs, horns, balloons and laughter. Children cling closely to their guardians' sides in the doorway, momentarily distracted from books.
Within minutes, the children find themselves transported to birthday-party heaven, where the clowns outnumber the kids.
Daffydill, WrongWay and Rusty traded secrets on how to get the makeup to hold. Daffydill demonstrated by furiously shaking a sock full of powder above her face. Some of the powder drifted over WrongWay's color kit; a social blunder in clown alleys.
The meeting had begun in an orderly enough fashion, with everyone in street clothes. Business was briefly discussed: Who would be able to attend the opening of the Post Office Pavilion, and who was going to make it to Poolesville's annual fire house fair? Self-congratulations were sounded for winning a trophy and $50 at the Gaithersburg Labor Day Parade. Upcoming workshops, shows and classes were discussed, and then the meeting splintered into carnival anarchy as groups huddled to share ideas and compliments.
Younger Jesters tugged on baggy pants, and two adults squared off, red nose to red nose, to consider the merits of thread versus spirit gum in attaching the beaks.
It quickly became difficult to distinquish between children and the adults in this room full of fun. The Jolly Jesters are just a small part of the clown network in this area.
"We're not the kind of club that gets invited to the White House," Lima said, comparing the Jesters with more polished and professional groups around town. "We're more into the personal part of it. The undertone here is to promote the art of clowning, rather than professional clowning.
"Remember," he added, "there is no such thing as a second-class clown."