Michiyo Suda holds in her hand the power to frighten or delight children. With one thin, long balloon, she can shape their first impressions toward clowns.
A sudden pop can send a startle through them.
But if after all her huffing and squeaking she can present them with a little swan or poodle, Suda, a first-year clown with Carolina Clowns, knows she will win them over to her side.
It’s a thin tightrope of a line, littered with eggshells, that clowns must walk, and it’s probably the one thing a clown takes seriously.
Suda, who lives in Highland Creek but grew up in Japan, has studied the craft of clowning for just under a year. Fellow entertainers with more experience told her right from the beginning that finding the right talent, then perfecting it, would endear her to the youngest and oldest of audiences.
Suda chose to make balloon animals – or maybe they chose her.
“I tried painting. I tried juggling. I couldn’t do it,” she said, “But I can do this.”
Dressed in a strawberry red wig and fluttering long eyelashes to match, her costume while performing as Berry, her clown persona, Suda pulled out a long white balloon and contorted it into a swan.
It’s a talent she has taken with her to nursing homes, festivals and anywhere else Carolina Clowns has been asked to show up.
The nonprofit charitable organization, now in its 55th year, has become the go-to source for those in need of red-nosed, rainbow-wigged entertainers. They’ve gone from seafood festivals to children’s hospitals and everywhere in between.
Seasoned clowns often take novices under their wings, said Cindy Duke, president of the organization.
“We work with the new clowns,” said Duke, who goes by Lollipop when performing. “We have balloon classes. We have face-painting classes.”
Beginner clowns start out as novices, then progress up the ladder to apprentice, regular, clown of excellence, superior and then top banana.
“Peanut Butter and Jelly trained me,” said Suda, referring to the two clowns who helped her learn how to make balloon animals.
As she dashed to her next gig in full costume across the campus of UNC Charlotte, Suda garnered plenty of attention from passersby at the bus stop.
Although college students aren’t their usual audience, she and Duke pulled out their tricks as guest speakers for UNCC’s Clowns in American Culture course.
A dozen students, some with beards, others with sleeves of tattoos, all tall, slouched in their chairs, waiting to be entertained.
As Suda twisted a long black balloon into a poodle and Duke caked makeup onto a volunteer, other students thumbed through the group’s yearbook portfolio, which spanned five decades.
Glossy photos with vividly colored clowns in the front eventually gave way to brittle, black-and-white newsprint photos in the back. Suda’s picture is the first in the album.
Near the end of the presentation, the balloon performer watched as a volunteer tugged and puffed on a long black balloon, the vein on his neck popping, his cheeks flushing.
“Be careful,” she said.
After several pinches and twists, he presented her with what looked like an old-fashioned link of sausages, then walked back to his desk with a smile.
Right then, Suda knew she had won another to her side.
“I take it as a challenge to win them over,” she said.