South Charlotte

Clowning a ‘noble purpose’ for many

Members of Carolina Clowns, a nonprofit organization, pose with founder Jack Pentes, center. Pentes, who died in February, was a well-known artist and longtime clown.
Members of Carolina Clowns, a nonprofit organization, pose with founder Jack Pentes, center. Pentes, who died in February, was a well-known artist and longtime clown. CAROLINA CLOWNS

Jack Pentes’ funeral was fitting for one of Charlotte’s first official clowns.

Pentes, a renowned artist and designer based in Charlotte, founded Carolina Clowns in 1957 after recruiting businessmen to entertain crowds as clowns during a parade.

Pentes died in early February.

“It was so upbeat,” Jay “Rascal” Alexander said of Pentes’ funeral. Alexander was one of 12 Carolina Clown members who attended in costume and helped seat guests. “I don’t think there was an empty seat in the church.”

According to Pentes’ wishes, all guests received a kazoo, and the service ended with a three-piece brass section belting out “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

While Pentes was not able to clown in the last years of his life, his legacy lives in the nonprofit Carolina Clowns. The group continues to perform every year at Festival in the Park – which Pentes helped found – and entertains weekly at hospitals.

Pentes began clowning before the Korean War, when he created his clown persona “BoBo” to entertain crowds at Central High School football games. He later clowned for hundreds of children in Korea during the war, and returned to Asia after the conflict to entertain at Japanese orphanages.

In 1957, Earl Crawford Sr. of Carrousel Parade asked Pentes to arrange for several clowns to take part in a parade in Charlotte. That group later formed Carolina Clowns.

In the ensuing decades, the group has grown to as many as 40 members. Clown makeup and costumes have grown more elaborate – it can take an hour to put on a clown face – and Carolina Clowns offers training for new clowns in patter, makeup and developing a character.

“Clowning has evolved into a huge industry,” said Bill “Ragus” Melson, 69. “Now, internationally, it’s beginning to decline.”

A U.S. clown shortage was reported in 2014, with national clown organizations reporting significant drops in membership, possibly due to the declining “coolness” of the profession.

Carolina Clowns is down to 19 members, 15 of which regularly clown. Some of the original members have died, and the majority remaining are senior citizens.

“We need new members, younger members, people who can help carry this tradition forward,” said Alexander, 70.

Clowning has an established tradition in Charlotte. Some became popular for their schtick, such as “Hypo,” who carried around an old-fashioned camera with self-developing pictures and took photographs of people during parades; each person then was shown a photo of a monkey with a banana.

Carolina Clowns once fixed a homemade dinner for the clowns of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when it was in town, and members have made appearances at festivals, events, schools, churches and nursing homes throughout the region for decades.

Alexander, Bill Melton and Lois “Bipps” Witham, 70, say clowning is a great way to relieve stress while having a good time. “Your troubles kind of go away when you put the makeup on,” Alexander said.

The clowns say they enjoy interacting with people, and they make the most of their time in costume by stopping at the bank or going through the McDonald’s drive-thru – an easy target because of the eatery’s ubiquitous mascot, Ronald McDonald, also a clown.

“I like watching people’s faces when they see us dressed up,” Witham said.

The clowns visit CMC Pineville every Thursday, where they interact with patients and people in the waiting room.

“We just try to take their mind off things,” Melton said.

He said he occasionally runs into a patient who can one-up him on jokes.

“I hate it when patients are funnier than me,” he said.

In all seriousness, however, clowning has a noble purpose, he said.

“Our prime directive is to make people laugh,” Melton said.

Marty Minchin is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Marty? Email her at martyminchin@gmail.com.

Learn more:

Carolina Clowns requires applicants to be at least 18 years old, pass a background check and have transportation.

For details and an application, visit www.carolinaclowns.org.

The nonprofit organization will have a Change to Clown Introductory Workshop on Aug. 1.

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