Each year, clowns from around the world converge in one city for the World Clown Association convention.
This year, that city is Bloomington, Minnesota. Specifically, the Crowne Plaza Aire MSP Airport hotel.
Representing Mexico, England, Thailand, Ghana, and about 35 other countries, professional circus performers, hobby balloon animal sculptors, and red-nosed nursing home comedians will compete in feats of clown excellence for coveted medals of honor, and talk business strategy in a world that has become increasingly hostile to their kind.
The Twin Cities was chosen to host this year's convention, which runs March 12-16, partly because of all the usual things that attract conventions: a good airport, light rail, and the Mall of America, where the clowns plan to hold their “parade performance” pageant, followed by a performance from cream-of-the-crop Ringling Brothers veterans. (The theme of this year’s convention is “Ringling Remembered,” celebrating historic clowns who were a part of the recently closed Ringling Brothers circus.)
But it’s also because the Minneapolis and St. Paul area -- with its theater density, dinner shows, Mooseburger clown bootcamp, and Circus Juventas circus school for kids – is a “hotbed” of clowning, says Randy Christensen, a Mankato clown and former president of the World Clown Association.
“We get together to support each other, to learn new techniques, how can we better relate to our audiences, develop skills that help us connect,” Christensen says.
Those skills include how to make small talk while crafting a balloon giraffe, and helping wary kids relax. The convention will feature panels on the serious, business side of clowning, like bookings and marketing, purchasing liability insurance in a litigation-happy age, and overcoming a negative public image courtesy of Hollywood’s horror-clown genre, Juggalos, the Simpsons' chain-smoking Krusty the Clown, and the unfortunate internet phenomenon in 2016, when teens dressed as killer clowns and went around beating people up.
Other countries don’t have our same hang-ups, Christensen says.
“It's sad for me to see, because there's a child's playfulness that is a beautiful, innocent time of wonder. And in the United States, for some reason, the entertainment industry has decided to take that and twist it into something horrific and unsettling.
"We just want people to understand, when someone puts on a rubber Halloween mask, they're not a clown.”
Professional clowning is a performance art, Christensen says, and hobby clowning is often done as a public service.
Christensen got his start in the early 1980s, when a college friend talked him into donning a costume and volunteering at the Children’s Hospital on Chicago Avenue. Christensen didn’t want to do it; his friend promised it would just be once and he’d never ask again.
“And as I visited kids from room to room to room, I’ll tell you what, those kids just reached in and grabbed my heart. And I thought, wow, if I can step into the world of hurting kids and bring some smiles, and bring some joy, and bring some hope, how can I not do this?”