Minnesota’s Clown Town
Meet the Maple Lake clowns running Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp, one of the most respected clown schools in the world.
7:15 AM CDT on April 13, 2022
Never roll up to an interview in full clown makeup.
This is a faux pas most people can easily avoid, but it’s a crucial truth nugget if you are a clown like Leslie Ann Akin, a.k.a. Flower the Clown. She’s giving these important tips, appropriately out of costume, during a Zoom meeting of Mooseburger Clown Arts e-Alley, a monthly educational get-together for clowns all over the world.
Akin is the featured speaker at this month’s e-Alley, sharing her experience in restaurant clowning. Several dozen clowns of various backgrounds are tuned in, soaking up valuable knowledge from a clown who has performed everywhere imaginable, including the White House. The e-Alley has been a solid opportunity for clowns to sharpen their skills during the pandemic, but for those really interested in lacing up the oversized shoes, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to clown education (or edutainment, as they like to call it).
The real action takes place every July, about an hour west of the Twin Cities, in the quiet little town of Maple Lake. Tricia Manuel, whose clown alias is Pricilla Mooseburger, spends a week each summer with approximately 100 clowns (they cap the camp in order to offer the right amount of instructor attention), teaching everything from pie fighting techniques to advanced balloon animals as the creator and leader of Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp.
Since 1996, Manuel has taught more than 2,000 clowns from all over the world, including Mexico, Ireland, and the Middle East. While she’s known as sort of the godmother of clowning by her peers, Manuel is still a clown herself, first and foremost.
“Pricilla is who I am: Goofy, wacky, laughing too hard, and loving rubber chickens,” she says. “When you become a clown, it’s an extension of your personality and who you truly are.”
Clown College: The Most Literal Party School in the World
To the uninitiated, clowning may seem pretty self-explanatory: paint your face, show up, honk your nose, and call it a day, right? Well that kind of thinking is truly a joke.
In reality, clowning is an artform with a rich history dating back centuries. Manuel says that when she started in the 1980s, back in the days before the internet, clowns were held in high regard.
“Clowns were rockstars,” she says. “If you were a clown in a parade, everybody was screaming and hollering and wanting to take your picture.”
After spending three years traveling with the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, Manuel decided to come off the road and use her industry knowledge to help the next generation of performers.
“I always wanted to teach and share my love of clowning,” she says. “So I taught clown school in Wisconsin for seven years, and then me and my crazy friends started Mooseburger University.”
Mooseburger University initially began as a formal clown school in St. Cloud, and was intended to help educate clowns of all experience levels and interests, whether they were hoping to join a circus, entertain schoolkids and folks in nursing homes, or become a birthday party clown. After taking maternity time off in 1996, Manuel shifted the program into Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp that summer.
For the weeklong program, there's a $200 deposit, but the total cost depends on what classes and sessions you elect to take, transportation, and whether you sign up with a roomie (private rooms for this summer's session are already sold out!).
“We teach them what it’s all about, then we teach them the tools,” Manuel explains. “We talk about the history and what it means to really be a clown. Then we go through everything, from how to do makeup to magic, balloons, and storytelling. Everyone uses a different tool, and what we do is help figure out what you like to do best and teach you how to do it.”
But she’s not a one-clown show. To keep things running smoothly, Manuel stuffs a clown car’s worth of teachers into the weeklong event. One of those teachers is Christopher Hudert, who has been clowning since the ’70s.
“I went to clown college with Tricia, and then we toured together on the Ringling Brothers circus,” he recalls.
Hudert initially came on board with Mooseburger as a camper while also teaching.
“When I first started clowning, it was difficult to get into because it was a very guarded thing,” he explains. “A lot of clowns didn’t want to give away their trade secrets. Through things like clown college and this camp that Tricia has created, it has grown and transformed.”
This year, Hudert will be teaching a pro course in clown skills. Topics include mask work, juggling, and stilt walking.
“A big reason for doing it is to contribute and be fed by that continuing evolution,” he says. “It’s kind of regenerating. You get your clown batteries charged. It’s like farming. You plant the seeds, you see the seeds grown, you turn the ground over and you get excited about the new stuff popping up.”
The Curious Case of Creepy Clowns
Manuel is painfully aware that clowns aren’t always the most beloved characters.
“It’s been a struggle, especially over the past 10 years or so,” she admits. “When the scary clown thing really got going in 2016, it was a real gut-punch for us as an industry.”
Over the last few decades, clowns have had some bad PR. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy often performed at children’s hospitals and birthday parties as Pogo the Clown. There’s that one scene in Poltergeist that haunts many kids from the ’80s (you know which one I’m talking about). Tim Burton’s Batman featured creepy clowns in the Joker’s crew, as did the ‘90s animated series. And, of course, everyone’s favorite face painted clown rappers, the Insane Clown Posse, caused such a stir over the past 30 years that they were forced to contend with the FBI gang unit. But while Tim Curry creeped out plenty of people with his portrayal of Pennywise in the original It back in 1990, Manuel believes clowns really caught a bad rap when it became profitable for them to be scary.
“The It movie was always out there, but we just sort of laughed that off,” she says. “But when the big box stores started making scary clown masks and haunted houses latched on to the idea of scary clowns, then scary clowns were everywhere. It really flipped things on their head and took a beloved character and made it into something it isn’t.”
Oh, and don’t forget those insane clown sightings that were happening for a hot minute.
Manuel knew she needed to do something to change the narrative. The nonprofit arm of the Mooseburger Clown Arts, the Red Nose Readers, was created to not only counteract the negative stereotypes of clowns being spread by the Hollywood, Halloween stores, and big clown industry, but to help teach important messages.
“I knew that we had to get into the schools and teach kids that clowns aren’t scary,” Manuel emphatically explains. “Some kids don’t even know what it’s like for clowns not to be scary. So we go in and meet the kids, show them how we put on our makeup, and teach anti-bullying and literary messages. Most of us [clowns] were bullied as kids because we’re goofy.”
By spreading the message of clown positivity, Manuel hopes to continue to open the door, not only for fans but potential new clowns further down the line.
Clowning Into the Future
Jennifer Galvin has always dreamed of being a clown. The only problem? A case of debilitating social anxiety.
“My husband and I joined together back in 2017,” Galvin says. “I had a lot of fear going into it and almost backed out.”
Fortunately, her fears were short-lived. She hopped into the Clowning 101 course her first year, learning about makeup, costumes, and character development, and even catching her first pie to the face.
“It was such a welcoming group of people that liked to perform and spread joy,” she continues. “It was completely the opposite of my comfort zone, but I was encouraged and celebrated each step of the way.”
By the end of her first camp, Galvin (whose clown alias is Daisy Lu) found herself front and center during the All-Star Clown Show, a free performance featuring clown classmates that is open to the public.
This year, Galvin is back at Mooseburger to learn new makeup styles and gags that can be used in parades.
“The best part for me is the confidence I gained, and being able to be authentically myself in front of people I had just met,” she says.
This year, Tricia Manuel turns 60. She is still active in clownery, both with the camp as well as running her own costume shop in Maple Lake. While the pandemic forced the school to go virtual for a couple of years (hence the creation of the Mooseburger e-Alley), she hopes that this year will pick up where things left off.
“We closed the camp for two years and did a fully virtual clown school for three days with different courses and even a virtual pie fight,” she says. “But there’s no substitute for being together in person.”
Manuel says that to her, clowning is truly a selfless kind of giving. Yes, it’s physically demanding, emotionally exhausting, and can lead to the occasional juggling accident. But for Manuel and the thousands of clowns like her who have entertained audiences for generations, they get a lot more out than they put in.
“When you put on your clown makeup, you forget all of your troubles,” she says. “You forget about your bad back and your sore feet, and you get out there and make people laugh. You don’t have to be the best clown in the whole wide world; you just have to have the biggest heart and be willing to get out there.”
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