A couple of clowns
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
“A clown is like aspirin, only he works twice as fast!”
– Groucho Marx
After spending a few minutes with Richard and Sally Simoneaux, you come away with the feeling that New Orleans’ only husband-and-wife clown team has front-row viewing seats on the human condition.
Richard is a retired auto technician, whose “real” job is as a security guard. But for the past 20 years or so, he and the missus slap on the grease paint, jump into the baggy pants and stick on the bulbous noses. They can be found at kids parties, grand openings, ribbon cuttings, church fairs and parish festivals around the metro area just about any weekend of the year.
“We love this more than anything in the world,” Richard says. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than be a clown. Whenever we go out, generally I do a magic show and ‘do balloons,’ you know, twisting them into just about anything you can imagine. Sally does face painting. We both get a real hoot out of it.”
Then again, there are the gigs that go into the Simoneauxs’ diary jotted down for later publication as The Clown Couples Memoirs or Clown Parties We’ll Never Forget.
“We did a party for kids in the Garden District one time, I’ll never forget,” Richard says. “A mansion right off St. Charles Avenue. This house had to go over a million [dollars]. Anyway you sliced it, this was big bucks. It was fabulous! I asked the birthday mom if the birthday dad was there. She immediately said, ‘No!’ I knew I had asked a heated question. She then proceeded to tell me the rest of the story. She says, ‘I’m not married! And, I don’t plan on getting married! I did research on the men I know and picked the one with the qualities I wanted to father my children.’ She had a boy and a girl. She told me she made an agreement with this guy to be a sperm donor. He agreed, and she was artificially inseminated. Then she proceeds to tell me she’s a man-hater, but that she wasn’t a lesbian. I only knew this woman for a few minutes and she’s telling me all this. I’m standing their thinking, ‘Lady, T.M.I.,’ but she’s rattling on. I guess the kids had a good time … at the party, at least. I gave that one my all.”
Richard says he and Sally can usually tell what kind of party it’s going to be as soon as they pull up to the house (i.e. if there’s a keg of beer out in the yard or a table full of high-powered booze in the house, this place is going to be like a traveling theater troupe’s middle-of-the-winter stop in Anchorage).
“I can look at something like this and tell, these people aren’t having this party for their kids,” Richard says. “They just want us there as baby-sitters while they get boozed up. This is really an adult party with a kid’s party as cover. I hate those. I feel so bad for the kids at these type of things.
“Then I get to parties where I pull up and people are outside smokin’ them little left-handed cigarettes, if you know what I mean. You know, Mary-Joowana! No way! I’m outta there! I just keep on rollin’ and never look back! I don’t need that.”
Sally says over the last few years, even clowns have had to learn about political correctness. All the grease paint in the world can’t cover up a conversational bunker buster once it’s been dropped. “Ya gotta watch what ya say … and how you say it.”
Even out of costume, the two work off each other. Richard picks up on his wife’s opening line: “One time, I knock on the door and the birthday mom and dad answered … only thing is, at some point during the party, I used the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife.’ Well, the man brought me aside and tells me, ‘That’s not my wife. This is the result of an affair she and I had.’ Richard apologized and realized, “Honey, we ain’t in Kansas no more! The terrain done changed!”
When America’s clown couple does a gig at a church fair or a parish festival, they charge $1 per balloon and $1 for each face painting. Then they usually have an even split of the proceeds with the organization hiring them. For private parties in homes, they charge a flat hourly fee and throw in the balloons and face paint for free.
“You’d be amazed at how many churches will agree to that and then say, ‘That’s good, then you can donate the money you make back to us.’ We can’t do that. Won’t do that. What they don’t understand is that we’re not doing this just to kill time. We’re professional clowns and this is a business.
We usually work the parades along St. Charles Avenue and on Veterans [Boulevard in Metairie] during Mardi Gras. During that time, I work just for tips. And usually if I do a balloon for a child who’s waiting for the parade, the parent will give me a dollar. I sort of get the impression sometimes, however, that some people want me to beg them for a tip. Well, I just walk off then. I’m not a beggar … like I said, I’m a professional clown. And this is for the kids. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
Although you’ll never find Simoneaux & Simoneaux, Professional Clowns listed in the Fortune 500 list, Mr. and Mrs. Clown are as happy today as they were when Richard agreed to dress up like a clown for the first time to help out a friend with a kid-oriented restaurant in Kenner 20 years ago.
“He fell in love with it right from the beginning,” Sally says. “He really got into it and it’s been a natural progression. His enthusiasm for this great! He did everything at the restaurant.”
Again, like a good clown, Richard picks up his cue: “I climbed in the treehouse in the restaurant. I jumped into all those plastic balls. I blew up balloons. We’d work and my friend would give us a meal for our efforts. Well, sometimes the kids would let the balloons go and they’d float up to the ceiling, and during the night the balloons would deflate and come down setting off the motion detector alarms. One of those times, my friend went into the restaurant at 2:30 a.m. armed with a .45 and realized how damned foolish he must have looked aiming a .45 at a bunch of deflated balloons. I had a new job: Popping all the balloons that floated up to the ceiling.”
Sally is eager to show a visitor around the Simoneauxs’ house in Harvey. She’s particularly proud of the family “clown room,” the one decorated to the hilt with clown masks, clown dolls, tacky clown paintings on velvet, ceramic clowns, papier mâché clowns … “You can see where our interests lie,” she says.
Richard sits back in a chair in the kitchen and he begins telling well-worn “clown war stories” as he’s done for countless friends over the years. He tells of performing at a bachelor party at the Wyndham Hotel and closing out the evening, “as probably the only guy in a clown suit ever to have a good lookin’ woman do a lap dance for him.” He tells of being booked year after year at the Washington Parish Festival and one of the “big perks” there: “a parking pass. And that’s big when you figure there are 250,000 people at that fair over the weekend and we’ve got our own parking spot.” He lets out a corny joke he admits he uses from time to time and gives credit where credit is due: “Dick Van Dyke said, ‘I once knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith.’ His friend says, ‘Oh yeah, what was the name of his other leg?’”
Although Sally has heard that line countless times, like a good clown wife she bursts into laughter.
Richard lets on to how you don’t just slap on a red nose and go out there and tell jokes, regardless of the audience. He tells of the “Clown School” in Florida, where the tuition is high and clown wannabes go through an “intense” 12-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week schooling.
“I’ve never gone there,” Richard says. “I learned on the job.”
Then he gets real technical and reminds you that it isn’t just a red bulbous nose that makes a clown.
“There are really three types of clowns,” Richard says.” First, you have white face clowns. Their paint their whole face white and then they put color over the white. Next is the hobo clown. They wear beat up all tuxedos, with a great big bow tie. Then you have the august clown whose costume is mix and match: polka dots, one shirt one color and pants another color. The august clown uses makeup, but they leave the face showing behind the makeup. That’s what Sally and I are, august clowns. The other type of clown is the rodeo clown. But they’re very specialized. They are limited to coveralls and work only the rodeos.”
But shoptalk must eventually end, even for clowns. There is grease paint to order from the catalog. Medically approved balloons to be perused. A return call to be made to a man who wants a clown at his child’s party on St. Charles Avenue…
“Unh, make that clowns,” Richard says. “We come as a pair. Neither one of us works alone. They don’t call us Mr. and Mrs. Clown for nothin’!”
After all, the family that clowns together, stays together.