After Hours: Clowning around with Deborah Thode

Some people look forward to weekends so they can fish, go to movies, or just lay back. Deborah Thode, aheadline pix.small business coach and owner of Inside Out Solutions, Inc., looks forward to the weekend so she can clown around—literally.

“I become Knock Knock the Clown,” she confesses. “I let my alter ego take over and have a lot of fun doing it.” Her alter ego doesn’t look anything like the serious business coach it replaces. Knock Knock has curly green hair, wide white eyes, a big red smile, and a red ball nose.

Thode says her clown face and outfit have evolved over the years. “I started out as a white-faced clown with big rabbit buck teeth. Now I don’t paint my whole face, and my costume has changed a bit.” She chose her name—Knock Knock—because she loves to tell knock-knock jokes. “Today’s kids grow up too fast, and they don’t understand knock-knock jokes,” she laments. “I love to teach them and get them to laugh.”

Thode no whiteface.smallThode has clowned around since 1991, but clowning wasn’t something she set out to do. In fact, the idea had a grim beginning. “My dad was seriously ill, and I asked him what he wanted to do before he died. He told me. Then I asked my mom the same question, even though she was in good health. Very seriously—my mother was always serious— she said, ‘I want to become a clown.’ That shocked me, because I had never heard her say anything funny!

“A while after my dad passed away, mom told me she wanted to sign up for a community education clown class, but they needed five more students for the class to happen. She recruited four friends and Thode putting on whiteface.small‘shamed’ me into enrolling. I didn’t want to go. I had a stressful life and a difficult marriage, and I was working 50 hours a week. I was an unhappy person, and the last thing I wanted was to go to clown school.”

But Thode went, “kicking and dragging my feet.” The third week of class, Thode remembers, the group experimented with face painting. “My mother ‘volunteered’ me to be painted. The instructor painted a rabbit on my face, with big buck teeth.” When everyone burst out laughing, she looked in the mirror to see what was so funny. “It was like cracking the code. I looked at myself and started laughing harder than I could ever remember. It made me feel Thode in whiteface.smallgood, and I knew I was hooked. I was a clown.”

After the clown class ended, Thode and her mother felt a letdown, but it didn’t last long. The following week they discovered Gator Clowns was hosting a class of its own, and the pair enrolled for the six-week course. Thode has been a Gator Clown ever since.

“Gator Clowns is a not-for-profit organization that has two main goals: to preserve and promote the serious art of clowning, and to assist North Florida nonprofit, civic, and charitable organizations with their fund-raising events.” Anyone who has gone to the Jacksonville Car and Truck thode in whiteface profile.smallShow, the Scottish Highland Games, or some of the Daniel Foundation events has seen members of Gator Clowns entertaining the crowds, explains Thode.

Its annual six-week clown school is how the organization works on “preserving and promoting” the art of clowning. Tuition of about $100 includes the cost of makeup. “Wanna-be” clowns learn about the history and roots of clowning, how to apply makeup (the smile should not go beyond the corners of the eyes and only a few colors should be used or the face becomes scary), and humor.

Today, Thode only clowns with the Gator Clowns, but at one point she supplemented her income by clowning.clowns.small “Jacksonville has a lot of corporate clowns,” she says. “For some people, clowning is their livelihood. In 1997 when I was going through my divorce I started doing a lot of paid clowning. Unfortunately, clowning three parties each Saturday and two on Sunday for two years straight burned me out,” she says. Other things such as family life, working on her MBA, and assuming a new role as a vice president for Arnold Palmer Design Company, took priority over painting her face; clowning went on a back burner.

When Palmer’s golf design business moved from Ponte Vedra Beach to Orlando in 2006, Thode decided it was time to take her career in a new direction. She became a certified business and executive coach and opened Inside Out Solutions. “Clowning helped me, I think, especially when it came to making presentations. When you’ve dropped your pants [as a clown] in front of 200 people, it’s nothing to get up and talk in front of a roomful of executives.”

Since she joined Gator Clowns in 1992, Thode has been involved in a variety of leadership positions. The group asked her to take the helm (again) as president in 2009 to reinvigorate it—something she has done. Membership is up from just a few volunteers to more than 50. Her clowning know-how has not gone unrecognized: The local Shrine Temple, which has its own alley of clowns, hosted a national Shrine Clown Convention in 2009. She was asked to be one of the judges.

Why does Thode take so much time and trouble to clown around? She ticks off a number of reasons: friendship (“The people are great!”); laughter (“Clowning taught me how to laugh again”); family fun (“It’s brought me closer to my mom, my daughter, and my granddaughter”); and a deeper appreciation of life (“We are who we choose to be”).

Although she is stepping down from the Gator Clown presidential role in 2010, she is looking forward to another successful National Clown Day at Riverside Arts Market where about 40 Gator Clowns entertained the crowds last August. Look for the clown with the curly green hair. It will be Knock Knock, telling corny jokes and having the time of her life.

knock at hooked.small 


4 kinds of clowns

Although no two clowns ever look exactly alike, every clown fits into one of four basic types, explains Thode:

• White-face clowns. These are the ones, like Clarabell of Howdy Doody fame, whose faces are painted entirely white.

• Auguste clowns. These clowns have face paint, but their faces are not completely white; they are more flesh-toned. Most Ringley Bros. Circus clowns are auguste.

• Hobo or tramp clowns. Red Skelton is a classic example of a tramp clown.

• Character clowns. Whether white-faced or auguste, these clowns always act the part of a character, such as a firefighter or a Keystone Kop.



What’s an alley of clowns?

An alley is to clowns as a gaggle is to geese, explains Thode. The term came from the old days of tent circuses, which had a separate tents  for men and women. Clowns were not allowed in either tent because the talcum powder the clowns used got onto the shiny costumes of the others performers. So, the clowns were banished to the alley between the men’s and women’s tents. Thus evolved the term “alley of clowns.”

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