The popping noises and laughter drew people from nearby classrooms to stop and look at what was going on inside Room 141 of the Del Mar College Center for Economic Development.
What they saw was a class of clowns-to-be learning the art of balloon sculpture.
But what kind of person chooses to be a clown? A mother, her teenage daughter and niece trying to strengthen their connection signed up. A cancer patient enrolled to entertain others and better pass the time in hospital waiting rooms. A couple of Shriners aimed to brush up on their skills. Their ages ranged from 15 to late 60s.
Some were naturally shy. Some were class clowns long before they learned to put on the makeup. Most were amateurs with a curiosity about the craft.
But by the end of the five-week course, they shared a common bond. They each learned much more than just how to make people laugh. They learned about themselves and who they are behind the white makeup, multicolored costumes and wigs.
“All of you are in here for a different reason,” said instructor Danny “Lanky the Clown” Kollaja. “That’s what excites me.”
With no assigned seats on the first day, the continuing education students tried to choose chairs next to people they already knew. Some sat by the nearest person with a friendly face. Like any first day of school, no one knew what to expect.
A longtime clown school instructor, and a professional clown since the late 1970s, Lanky knew from experience the class would loosen up.
“We get a little friendly in this class; we get close and touchy feely,” Lanky said that first day. “As clowns, we’re here for other people, but we do not exist in a vacuum. Having other people who have a similar clown art interest to share and expand our knowledge is fantastic.”
Lanky wasn’t lying.
After learning how to properly apply face makeup, the basics of magic tricks, and how many twists it takes to make a dog out of a balloon (at least four), they became a class of cut-ups. They happily practiced perfecting their spit techniques. There was an incident with a bucket of confetti. A round of fake slaps quickly became a high stakes game. There were also heated debates about the use of glitter.
“Lanky says ‘Don’t use glitter’ but I use glitter,” Alan “Honey” Jones said with a tone of defiance. “I’ve been teaching newer clowns how to makeup for years.”
For group photos, instead of saying “cheese” they would all line up. They knew exactly what they say instead: “Pizza!”
They became more than classmates. They were clowns.
“Clowns are cartoons come to life,” Lanky said.
For some, being a clown is like a riding a (tiny) bicycle. Once you learn, you may fall off a time or two, but you never forget. That was the case for Denise Underwood, who had fond memories of dressing up as a clown with her sister and performing at craft fairs when they were kids.
“I feel like I’ve been a clown my whole life,” Underwood told the class the first day. She was situated in between her 15-year-old pig-tailed daughter, Katie, and her niece Christina Moreno, who was wearing a floral crown headband.
The Odem mother of two was informed matter-of-factly by Katie that she would be attending Clown School with the two teenage girls. Katie and Christina, also 15, knew another class member, Orlando “Valdino” Valdez, who owns the Magic Emporium inside the Corpus Christi Trade Center. He told the two Calallen High School freshmen about the course. It was fate.
“Ever since I was little, we would go to the Shriner circus, and the clowns are what I looked forward to the most. I thought, ‘I wanna do that,’” Katie said. “So when Valdino texted me, I said ‘Yes, I gotta do that,’ so I dragged these two with me.”
It’s not the first time the trio has bonded over shared interests. Whether it’s streetcar racing, shooting rifles or cheering on a family member on the swim team, they do it together.
Sticking together has helped them through tough times and grow as a family.
Christina, who was shy at first, initially joined the class because her cousin wanted her to. But by the end, the teenager had found and fully embraced her inner clown — “Mac.”
“I learned that being unserious is actually really serious,” Christina said before getting on stage.
Her final performance exam at Tuesday’s graduation ceremony involved a group skit called “Contagious.” As usual, she had Underwood and Katie by her side.
Christina lives with the Underwoods. That wasn’t always the case.
Before moving to Odem at the beginning of this school year, Christina moved several times in the Houston area and parts of the Valley. She’s still adjusting to living in the town of about 2,500 residents. She’s trying new things. For years she grew out her brunette locks until her hair flowed halfway down her back. But two days before high school started in August she opted to chop it off in favor of a pixie cut.
The family doesn’t dwell on the past. They play with their pets — a mouse and hedgehog — and the girls run around the house creating havoc. They find ways to make each other laugh.
“Do you know how hard it is to be serious in this house?” Underwood asked.
There’s also a lot of affection and some good natured pinches.
“We’re a huggy family. Christina didn’t grow up with all this constant hugs and ‘I love you’s,’” Underwood said.
The trio has plans to perform as a family unit they dubbed “Mac Ann Cheese,” which is a combination of their clown names. Underwood would like to relay the new clowning skills with her day job as a fitness instructor.
Since Underwood’s husband, Phil, is a part of the Al Amin Shrine, the family has volunteered at various events. Last year, Katie dressed up as the Easter Bunny for the annual Shriner Easter Party. The invitation-only event is for area children with disabilities and their families.
This year, the family brought their new clown skills to the party. Her outfit wasn’t serious — a yellow wig with bunny ears, overalls with a cotton tail and pink collared shirt — but her mission was.
“Everything we do here is for charity, so that’s even more of a reason to be a clown,” Underwood said.
Phil Underwood, Katie’s father and Christina’s uncle, said he loves that two-thirds of his family is making the clown transition.
“We’ve always done stuff together,” he said. “Even if I’m not really into it, I do it anyway because I know she’d do it for me.”
The girls and Underwood’s son, Cody, have been magicians’ assistants for Valdino and another fellow Clown School student Benjamin “Merlin” Woodard. The clowning knowledge will just add to it, Underwood said.
“(Clown School has been good) for us to be together. It is good quality time,” Underwood said. “We’re already silly on a regular basis. Maybe we make it a profession.”
Like most of the other students in the class the trio didn’t initially know much about the profession at all.
Lanky and some veteran clowns were there to offer guidance on the basics.
There are three types of clowns: white face, auguste and hobo/tramp or bag lady. Don’t mix them up, because there is a hierarchy.
A clown’s makeup is like the cover of a book, Lanky said.
“When they see you, that’s when they’re going to know, ‘Now that’s a clown!’” he said. “Explore your face. Find your clown character.”
Years ago, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus conducted a clown college. But since the program shuttered, prospective clowns must rely on the knowledge of veteran ones.
There’s no official certification or credential for professional clowns. The only way to prove legitimacy is experience and a demonstration of skills, whether it be balloon animals, magic tricks, juggling, miming or makeup and costume.
With the dwindling numbers in Corpus Christi’s clown alley, or club, the reintroduction of Del Mar’s Clown School could not have come at a better time, Lanky said.
It was the 13th Clown School and the first in 12 years.
“I’m glad we’re going to have a little more thriving funny bone in this community. It’s been missing for quite a while,” he said. “You don’t have to be an existing clown to be a member. You just have to promote the art of clowning through self or through individuals who have a strong interest.”
Most people wouldn’t look at Alan “Honey” Jones, a 54-year-old with a blue collar job, and think “There’s a clown!”
Jones has worked at Chemours in Ingleside for 30 years. The baldheaded burly grandfather, who sports a red weathered ball cap most days, likes to hunt and work on classic cars.
But then he puts on his clown face. His clown name is “Honey.”
“Normally, he’s quiet, but when he’s in clown makeup, he’s a different person,” said his wife, Vickie Jones.
“It’s a release,” Jones offered.
Jones has been a Shriner clown with the Al Amin Shrine for 22 years — long before he ever took the continuing education course in the 1990s. He said he returns to the class to brush up on his skills and meet new clowns.
Their only son, Aaron Jones, performed alongside his father for years as an adolescent. They had a running bit as “Honey and Bee” until the early 2000s when the boy’s interests changed to fixing up old cars, another one of his dad’s hobbies.
Now 27, Aaron Jones is a Port Aransas police officer, married and a father of two. He doesn’t currently have any interest in returning to the clowning world, but he has fond memories of circuses and working parties.
The elder Jones is one of 26 Shriner clowns in Corpus Christi. Each goes about three times a year to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Houston and Galveston.
“You see the kids at the hospital in a different way than others do,” Jones explained. “You get down on their level and relate to them. They just want someone to talk to and play with. We’re glad we’re helping them.”
Almost every temple, or Shrine, has a clown unit made up of men (and some of their wives) who have a passion for bringing joy to children, said Madison Rich, donor development assistant for Shriner Hospitals.
“It really takes a special kind of person with a great heart and a lot of energy to be a clown,” Rich said. “Many of the clowns will come in a group to the hospital and just go from room-to-room, department-to-department and do tricks and deliver gifts to the children.”
Jones wasn’t the only Shriner to further his education in Clown School. Billy “Bling-Bling” Bird has been a Shriner clown for seven years and attended the course.
With no biological children, Bird said he felt the children in the hospitals he entertains are like his own.
“It’s what we live for. To travel and visit with kids and make them laugh,” Bird said. “To make somebody else smile is really fun.”
Earlier this month, Jones and Bird both competed in the Texas Shrine Clown Association Convention in Wichita Falls.
Bird placed second in the senior division for the makeup and costume category. Jones was named the second vice president of the association. He’ll assume presidential duties in 2019.
Jones plans to bring the clown convention to the Coastal Bend that year.
The course on becoming a clown covered a lot of ground but not everything. Some of the veterans shared some wisdom.
“Don’t ever belittle your audience,” Valdino the magician told the class. “Always pick up the mess, always police yourself. Don’t use alcohol-based markers on balloons.”
But he also talked about the life of a full-time performer with no other job.
“I don’t believe you should charge when you’re helping out the needy,” he said. “You should know that you can make more in tips than when you’re charging — like a mariachi.”
Also, keep your mouth shut.
“In the magic world, you never reveal the secret. That ruins the magic for a lot of people,” he said.
“Tell the class why you want to be a clown.”
Ethel Dulak waited patiently for her turn to speak. She already had her clown name — “Tillie Pepper” — picked out. It was a childhood nickname.
She signed up for Del Mar College’s Clown School on a whim. But she had more than one reason to be there. Part of her was surprised she actually did it.
“I have lung cancer, and I’m doing very well. I’m beating it,” Dulak said. “I wanted to go back to the others in the hospital who are struggling and bring cheer to them.”
After the 65-year-old’s diagnosis in December 2012, the upper lobe of Dulak’s left lung was removed. Almost exactly a year later, the cancer returned in the lower lobe which prompted her to start an oral chemotherapy treatment.
“When you’re looking (at people in the waiting room), you’re thinking what are they doing there? Why are they here? Are they receiving treatment that is helping them? You wonder about all their stories. There is a story behind every one of them,” she said. “My thought on the clowning is to be able to go in and break that monotony of those receiving chemo or those sitting in doctors and oncologists’ offices and just provide a reprieve from the humdrum of going.”
A NEW OUTLOOK
Dulak, along with 11 others in the class, saw the return of Clown School as an opportunity to free a part of themselves that’s been there all along: the inner cartoon character that has always peeked out from under the surface.
But the mother of two and grandmother of three has what she calls selfish reasons, too.
“It’s almost a selfish thing to do because it will keep me motivated, and keep me having more of a positive outlook,” Dulak said. “That is something we’re always seeking is to stay in that positive mode. I’m hoping that the clown visits will give me that peace, also, of getting out there with people.”
The Katy native has lived in Corpus Christi for decades. She’s worked in various places including at schools and in the hospitality industry. She’s also served as an administrative assistant and steward for the Diocese of Corpus Christi for seven years.
After her diagnosis, she decided it was time to retire to take care of herself. As her perspective changed, she realized her family, especially her grandchildren, are her first priority.
“I’ve worked all my life. I started when I was 13 years old,” Dulak said. “(I’ve) always been around a lot of people. One day, it’s just not there anymore. You need to prepare for that.”
Going through the five-week course has been therapeutic, she said.
Finding the right costume, working daily on her makeup technique and figuring out what to do with her hair has been fun homework.
“Lanky the Clown (the instructor) wants me to take my hair and spike it up,” she said with a laugh. “Hair has been one of those problems. I never did lose my hair. But all of a sudden, it changed from extremely straight hair. All of a sudden, all this curly hair came out ... What am I supposed to do with it?”
When she talks about her classmates, her face lights up. One of the more quiet students, she was content watching how each person attacks the art of clowning.
“Because everyone is there for a different reason, you pick up on different aspects on what they will be doing and what they see and how they see it,” she said. “I see the people growing into what they’re wanting to do. Some are right in there, some are sit back and watch type of people. I think they all have clown in them.”
Father Paul Hesse, a priest at St. Pius X Catholic Church, had no idea the longtime parishioner had dreams of becoming a clown. But he can see how she will make a good one.
“That’s been a part of her character is a want to give back and a want to return to God what she has been given,” Hesse said. “She feels called to bring light and joy into other peoples’ lives.”
Other than grandchildren, Brenna, Connor, Piper, and her two children and husband, Dulak relies on her faith to guide her through any complications.
That undeniable faith is something she wants to incorporate into her clown character.
“Building that relationship with somebody you may only see for five minutes of your life in that short time, you give them something to hold on to,” she said. “Doing it in a prayerful or faith-oriented method, there’s a calmness to it. When you leave, it’s a feeling inside. Sharing your faith in any way you can is what you’re supposed to be doing anyway.”
ON A MISSION
Dulak tried to attend every class. She was disappointed she missed the class on juggling, a skill that would’ve served her well in hospital waiting rooms. Though she gave balloon sculpture a try, chemo treatments that affected her fingernails made the task too uncomfortable. She insisted on doing her performance exam alone out of fear an absence would derail a group skit.
A week before Del Mar’s first graduation ceremony for Clown School in 12 years, Dulak went to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for her two-month checkup.
The news wasn’t good: the cancer had spread to her right lung.
She pressed on but a health complication made it difficult for her to speak on the morning of graduation. She couldn’t attend.
But Lanky, the class instructor, did not forget to mention her in the ceremony. Dulak will also receive her certificate for the hard work she put in the course.
“She’s been really a trooper,” Lanky said.
Dulak has a mission and no prognosis will sway her plans.
“That’s why I really got involved in it. I want to go to Driscoll (Children’s Hospital), especially to the oncology floors,” she said. “Cancer doesn’t have an age limit unfortunately. It takes all from babies to elderly.”
One of her classmates, with whom she shared many a laugh (and eyebrow brush) , has no doubt that she will continue to inspire others.
“She will be a wonderful clown and will bring so much joy to cancer patients undergoing treatment,” Sharon “Shamo” Haynes.
Corpus Christi has its fair share of bragging rights as the birthplace of Whataburger, a hub for surf culture and an unrivaled love for Selena.
But did you know that the city also was where the first official Clown Alley was established in the state?
Before Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio, the Coastal Bend Clown Alley No. 23 was bringing smiles and laughs from South Texans.
And in its heyday during the 1980s and ‘90s, there were dozens of clowns to choose from for charity events, private parties and circuses. But that was then.
In the last few years, there has been a shortage of clowns in the area. Many of the veteran clowns have died and the ones left are attempting to fill the void.
But there is hope. More than a dozen people graduated from Del Mar College’s Clown School.
“Getting it back going has been exciting,” said Danny “Lanky the Clown” Kollaja, a veteran clown and president of the alley. “(The class) will bring more life into the clown community. It’s really desperately needed.”
Lanky began his career as a high school student at Gregory-Portland High School in the late 1970s. The theme of his school’s annual spring folly was a circus that year, he said.
“There were six of us clowns doing bits between the talent on stage,” Lanky said. “Someone asked if I wanted to be a clown, because I looked like a natural at it. What 17-year-old would be interested in something crazy like that?”
Since that fateful day, Lanky has performed in countless parades, private parties, area events, circuses and fairs. He’s traveled the world and learned the customs of each country’s version of a clown.
As a member of the International Coalition of Clowns, he has toured Russia, Guatemala, Afghanistan and Cambodia. In 1998, he also appeared as a clown in “Patch Adams,” a film starring Robin Williams.
“Clowns are the oldest profession in the world,” Lanky said, explaining that court jesters were precursors to the clown world. “Clowns are an exaggeration of life.”
With a new batch of clown graduates, Lanky has high hopes for the reinvigoration of the city’s clown club. More than money or fame, a sense of camaraderie helps drive the local performers to strive to be better.
“Now, it’s just two or three of us, so we’re busy and never cross paths,” he said. “What’s coming back into my routine is fellowship.”
Ben “Lucky” Abbott
Occupation: Party entertainer with Magic Emporium
Likes: Caps, black T-shirts, smiling
Billy “Bling Bling” Bird
Occupation: Manager at Martin Transport
Likes: Being a Shriner Clown with Al Amin Shrine
Sharon “Shamo” Haynes
Occupation: Retired from Corpus Christi Army Depot; works part-time in Central Jury Room at Nueces County Courthouse
Likes: Statement necklaces, makeup application, shopping for the perfect clown outfit, bright colors
Alan “Honey” Jones
Occupation: Planner at Chemours Ingleside Plant
Likes: Being a Shriner clown with Al Amin Shrine, working on cars, glitter
Christina “Mac” Moreno
Occupation: Freshman at Calallen High School
Likes: Brownies, pixie haircuts, magic, her cellphone
Denise “Ann” Underwood
Occupation: Fitness instructor in Odem
Likes: Exercise, making people laugh, volunteering with Al Amin Shrine, Pinterest”
Katie “Cheese” Underwood
Occupation: Freshman at Calallen High School
Likes: Art, history, magic and horror stories