I met Charles Hoffmaster at Monkey Town Brewery in Dayton, Tennessee. In retrospect, I guess a place with a name like that is as good a place as any to meet a clown. But Charles didn't strike me as a clown at first, just an affable guy with a big smile and a cool hat. He had been talking to some guys down the bar while I was working on writing my next podcast, and while their laughter made me smile, I was paying more attention to my work than to the people around me. His friends got up and left about the time that I was finished writing for the evening, and he came over and introduced himself. It was then that he told me he was a professional clown who worked for Hawthorne's Circus Bizarre Sideshow at the carnival that just pulled into town. The carnival was part of the annual Tennessee Strawberry Festival to be held in Dayton the following weekend. He said they had just arrived and set up their tent so he thought he'd go for a wander and see what was happening. As a traveler myself, his story certainly caught my attention.
Charles told me his stage name was Chuckles T. Clown. He said he took that name when he was 17 and saw a local news story about a clown called Chuckles who had been arrested for indecent exposure. Charles decided he wanted to take the name back and try and put clowns back in a positive light in his local community. When he was 25, Charles saw an old Mary Tyler Moore Show episode called Chuckles Bites the Dust. In this episode, Mary is attending a funeral for a clown called Chuckles, and every time the preacher mentions something in his eulogy about Chuckles or his clown friends, Mary can't help but laugh. The preacher finally asks her to stand up and tells her it's okay to laugh. He tells her that Chuckles had dedicated his entire life to making people laugh, that he hated sadness and would be happy to hear her laughing at his funeral. It was at this statement that Mary finally burst into tears. When Charles saw this episode, he really identified with it - not just the name, but the sentiment. From that day on, he really set out to bring as much joy and happiness into the world as he could.
Charles was born in here in the south, not too far away in South Carolina, but grew up in California. He now calls the Quad Cities home and has moved between Davenport, Iowa and Moline, Illinos - when he's not on the road that is. He recalled a time to me when he was a kid in school. He said he grossed out a girl in his class and realized what he wanted to do in life. I asked if he meant he wanted to gross people out to which he responded "no, it was her reaction. I brought out feelings and emotions from her and I loved that".
At 14, he went to a Clown School run by the local and well known Quad City Clown Troupe. This Troupe included some of the Ringling Brothers' clowns. Over the next six weeks, Charles learned the basics of costumes, makeup and performance. In the final week, they taught him balloon art and something in this really stuck with Charles. From that day on, Charles has worked tirelessly to master the art of balloon tying. "Give me enough time and the right balloons and I can make anything", he told me. He offered that challenge up on Facebook, and has gotten some really interesting challenges. I've seen pictures of his work, and it's pretty awesome.
Chuckles started working at birthday parties, weddings and fairs and realized how much he loved making people laugh. "I don't care if you're laughing with me or at me" he told me "just laugh. If you're laughing at me, believe me, I'll get over it".
He went to Black Hawk College to study broadcasting, but decided he didn't like working within other peoples' boundaries. He didn't want to be controlled. At some point he made the decision to start performing full time. He had business cards printed up and began promoting himself around the area. He would load up his pockets with balloons and crash festivals, where he would make whatever people wanted and usually ask only for tips. He told me people usually paid him what they thought his work was worth and it depended on how complicated a piece they wanted.
Charles also started working on becoming an escape artist. He had a straitjacket custom made for him (apparently only doctors can get medical-grade straitjackets) and began working on this skill. I saw the jacket he uses, and there are no tricks to it - it is a real escape when he gets out of it.
Between his work accepting balloon art challenges and his escapes, he says he really just wants to get people to think. He likes issuing challenges and he likes taking them on.
I asked Charles what he likes to do in his free time, when he's not clowning around. His hobbies are pretty normal, he said, he likes camping and fishing and watching movies. Sometimes it's nice to just relax after being the center of attention all day at work.
Charles got his current gig when he advertised on Facebook that he had some serious wanderlust and would love it if someone had a suggestion. Hawthorne himself, of Hawthorne's Circus Bizarre, asked him if he was serious. Charles got on a plane to Florida to prove how serious he was. He's been with the sideshow since.
Hawthorne's Circus Bizarre is "an extreme variety show featuring sideshow and circus arts". They are one of the few, if not the only sideshow travelling full time in a tent, just like their predecessors once did. When I asked what Chuckles thought when he met Hawthorne and his wife for the first time in Florida, he told me they were like the sideshow parents he never had. He has a lot of respect for Hawthorne, who has been running the show for over 12 years, and says he has learned a lot from him, especially when it comes to showmanship. I asked Charles if he considered his role in the show to be a clown, and he told me the best description he could come up with was a "performing idiot". This made us both laugh, and isn't that the point of it all? Then he said since he doesn't put on makeup for the sideshow, he's really not a clown. He goes as Chucky the Rubber-Boy during the sideshow act, and his big performance, which you really must see to believe, is putting himself through a tennis racket. It's awesome.
I went to see the show at the carnival while I was there. Really, how could I not? It's been a long time since I've been to a sideshow, and I can tell you it hasn't changed much. This one was a little different than the ones I remember as a kid, as there are no live animals running around anymore - something I and others always found a little inhumane and distasteful. But it was a classic sideshow with a museum of curiosities and a live performance. There was sword swallowing and fire breathing and yes, Chuckles did his famous straitjacket escape. If you've never seen a sideshow, I won't spoil it for you nor give away too many details. I will say that I walked out feeling exactly the same way I did walking out of the sideshow as a kid.
I asked Charles how he felt about the word "carny" and he did't flinch at it. He respected the history and language and culture of the carnival, and to him a carny was someone who had made this his or her profession and was probably good at what they did. He wasn't insulted by it at all.
When asked if he saw himself staying with the sideshow long-term, Charles said he had no intention of leaving anytime soon. Whatever happens with the show, though, Charles is set on continuing as a performer in the future.
"I'm not claustrophobic in that straitjacket" he said "but I would be claustrophobic in an office". That's a feeling I know well, Charles, and I couldn't agree with you more.
Hawthorne's Circus Bizarre is playing all weekend (5/11-5/13) at the Tennessee Strawberry Festival in Dayton, Tennessee. Go out and see Chuckles and challenge his balloon skills. They don't have their summer show schedule up yet, but when they do you can find it HERE.