Gregory Bennett starts his Saturday by putting on his makeup. Not too much, of course. He doesn't want to change his looks, just enhance them.
Wearing a baggy, pink plaid suit with a white-lace collar, size 21 shoes, and a rainbow-colored wig, the weekday computer systems analyst is transformed to JellyBean, his clowning alter ego.
Bennett dresses a little funny, but he takes his five-year-old business College Clowns very seriously. When describing the venture he formed with a college friend, Bennett wields the marketing jargon of any businessman: on-the-job-training, test-marketing a new idea, sizing up the local competition.
In his sophomore year at the University of the District of Columbia, Bennett and fellow student Alfonzo Pittman discovered clowning as a way to earn extra money. "We sort of started clowning by mistake," he recalled. When they were asked to perform in a Special Olympics parade, Bennett said, "We were pretty happy-go-lucky, so we said 'sure, why not.' " That performance led to another when a woman at the parade asked them to perform at her daughter's birthday party.
"We went and didn't really know what we were doing, but just had fun," he said. After the first show, he and Pittman developed an act complete with magic tricks, animal balloons and a cake ceremony.
The new business sprung from parties as each party led to another.
Clowning proved profitable for the students from the beginning: In the first year, they made a healthy $12,000, enough to pay for books and to buy a car for Bennett. When Pittman left the business to pursue a career in teaching, Bennett stayed with the idea working weekends and some weekday afternoons. He estimates that his clownlighting now makes him about $20,000 a year. He performs every weekend and two or three evenings during the week.
"When I first started, I had the traditional white face and plaid jacket," he said. Then as he learned more about clowning and his audience, he changed his outfit and modified his makeup.
"I want the children to see that I'm a black clown. It defeats the purpose if I have a white face," Bennett said. "My children don't see clowns too often, so they get really excited and I look at myself as being a role model -- not that they will grow up to be clowns; I don't need the competition," he laughed. But he encourages young people in his audiences to start their own businesses.
Bennett, 24, is the son of an Air Force researcher whose position with the space program took the family to live in several American cities and Okinawa, Japan. He graduated from Ballou High School in Southeast Washington.
As a computer information major at UDC with classes in marketing, finance and statistics, Bennett was searching for ways to put his formal business training to use. Upon graduation, he took a job with TRW, a major communications and defense firm, where he is a computer troubleshooter and analyzes computer information systems. He is working on a TRW assignment at Andrews Air Force Base.
Although birthday parties are still the mainstay of Bennett's clown business, events come along occasionally to pose new challenges to his performance routine.
Bennett seemed particularly worried about an upcoming show at a nursing home, wondering how long magic tricks would hold the interest of the elderly audience.
"I think I'll learn some songs from their era and some gospel songs," he said.
Sure to draw a crowd when he's in clown costume, Bennett parlays the attention into publicity for his business, ceaselessly passing out business cards and fliers. "I expect to get all that attention," he said. "Everyone loves a clown. People come to us."
"I want to take it on full time," he says. "Take it to the top." Bennett has as a long-range goal to star in a local television show, "like the old "Bozo" show. But that's way off in the future," he said. "Way, way off."
For now, he takes it one show at a time.