When Pam Chinnery looks for her inner self, she finds the inner clown.
Donning a red, curly wig, rosy cheeks and big, red nose, Chinnery transforms into Pammy the Clown, a 7-year-old cheerful and innocent girl.
Chinnery, one of the few professional clowns in the Augusta area, spent nine years developing her clown personality. She was lured to clowning after a stint helping a friend sell balloons at the 1983 St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
There, a little girl ran into Chinnery’s arms and gave her a big hug. She was hooked after seeing the girl’s smile.
Like many professional clowns, Chinnery attends clown school, where she learns from the best – former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus clowns. Chinnery is also a full-time art student and a part-time receptionist.
Classes at the annual Southeast Clown Association convention include juggling, balloon art, face-painting, pie-throwing and comedy. Chinnery and hundreds of other clowns learn to apply makeup, plan a children’s party and run a successful business.
Barney Bell – or Bell-E-Bob – also attended clown school. A biomedical equipment specialist for the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, Bell started clowning in 1984.
“The clown within you – you know it’s there but it’s hard to bring it out. With makeup on, the clown within takes over,” Bell said.
Bell can’t perform his clown act in street clothes. Dressing in full costume and applying makeup takes one to two hours. Bell’s character is an “auguste clown,” or a bumbling fool.
Bell and Chinnery are members of the GeorgiaLina Clown Alley, a nonprofit organization that donates time to charitable organizations such as children’s hospitals and festivals. The group of about 15 clowns, which meets monthly, abides by a code of ethics, The Clown Commandments. The commandments are the serious side of clowning and list rules such as never drink or smoke while in costume and remove makeup as soon as possible but never in front of children.
“I will remember that a good clown entertains others by making fun of himself or herself and not at the expense or embarrassment of others,” the code reads.
Chinnery and Bell said that one rule inspires most of their entertainment: A child should never be the brunt of a joke. Also, performances should end with a positive message.
Chinnery’s biggest regret clowning was when a magic trick involving the birthday child wearing a silly hat resulted in embarrassment for the child. The room laughed at a red-faced child, and Chinnery has not performed the trick since.
Pammy the Clown appears in about 100 events annually. The most difficult part of the profession: learning to walk and drive in her oversize, blue-and-white saddle shoes.
Earning the trust of children who might initially be scared of a clown face is another skill Bell learned over the years.
He maintains a distance and crouches to their eye level. Bell-E-Bob gives a little wave, and if the child responds, he eases forward. If not, he gives another wave and walks away.
“Most of the kids in the room are going to love clowns. But 15 percent, you have to earn their trust,” Bell said.
Chinnery knows to never enter a room with obnoxious sounds, such as a honking horn, that could intimidate a child. Many children need to warm up to a clown.
“There’s something about clowns that can reach any age, gender, social status; really just break through barriers because their total purpose is to make children happy and cheer them up,” Chinnery said.
Chinnery said she encounters more problems with adults than children. When a parent persistently urged a child to stomp on the clown’s foot, she pulled the parent aside for a reprimand about such behavior.
Comedic training comes in handy for the few moments when something goes wrong during a performance. To recover from a goof – such as the time Bell-E-Bob’s hat with a spinning propeller on top came tumbling off – Bell and other clowns turn to improvisation.
“Take the situation and turn it into something funny,” Bell said.