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Clownin’ around together

Doug Bengston aka Happy Face the Clown, and wife Sharla, aka Candy Kisses, have been clowning around for years and intend to keep doing so as long as possible. The clowning couple lives in Wood Lake, Minn. and have brought smiles to people of all ages throughout southwestern Minnesota, Nebraska, Arizona, Nevada, Illinois and Iowa. They are the founders of the Lighter Side Clown Club.

“When the club was going strong we had up to 14 members, but they have dropped off, gone on to other things or are just unable to do it anymore, so now my wife and I are the club but would welcome any newcomers that want to join in on the fun,” said Doug. They are also members of COAI–Clowns of America International.

“It all started around 35 years ago when my oldest daughter wanted to be in a parade,”

said Doug. “She was into baton twirling and wanted to do it in the parade. She was only 2 years old, and I was concerned she wouldn’t be able to walk through the whole parade route and knew one of us should be close by her. I figured she would get tired at some point and I would need to carry her. I figured it would be more fun for both of us if I dressed for it and walked with her and that was the beginning. I put on some goofy clothes and walked my first parade and never looked back. I guess you could say it was my first gig. I enjoyed it so much. That first year we did three parades around here. The number soon climbed to 10 and now we do 30 parades a year,” he said.

Parades are their biggest entertainment gig, but the couple also has been a regular at Holmberg Orchard for the past 15 years. They make appearances as Ole and Lena and do birthday parties and other special occasions. Doug has appeared as Santa, Johnny Appleseed and has a tramp costume he uses when attending rail road museum events.

Ten years ago, Sharla attended the Mooseburger Clown Camp/School, which is now located in Buffalo. The camp is run by Priscilla Mooseburger, who had appeared with the Ringling Brothers circus prior to opening the camp. Mooseburger has a clown shop in Maple Plain and carries costumes, makeup and props for sale or rent. Doug also attended the camp more recently, and the couple also attend theater classes at Southwest Minnesota State University to help them become more versatile and branch out, as well as classes at the many clown conventions they have attended.

“We have changed our look over the years and use less face paints now than we did in the beginning. The paint is hot and in the summer has a tendency to run when you get hot. A clown group called God’s Goofers made an appearance at the Methodist church several years ago, and we cornered them with them questions afterwards, and they told us to powder our makeup after we get our face paint on and that makes a big difference.

“Many clowns paint their face and try different looks and then pick a name. I knew I wanted to be Happy Face, so I picked my name first and then did a look to go with it. Both Sharla and I have gotten away from the heavy paint that covers the entire face, we now go with what is called a light August or regular August, which still has detail but not the white background,” said Doug.

“In 2000, we went to a convention in Las Vegas at Circus Circus and had the chance to perform on stage, and it was so much fun. If I could have a dream gig it would be to have an extended act in Vegas, that would be fabulous fun. I have stardust in my eyes. It is so much fun wherever we perform, just to see the smiles on faces of all ages and hear the laughter. I have noticed when times are tougher around all of us the audience doesn’t respond as enthusiastically as when times are good, but anytime you can bring a smile it is a good feeling. We went to a nursing home in Westbrook one time, and we were just walking through, and there was an old man sitting in his wheelchair, his head kind of bowed down like you will see sometimes, but as we walked by he looked up, and a big smile came across his face. Later, a nurse told us that it was the first time she had ever seen him smile. That kind of feeling is why we do it,” said Doug. “Once in awhile you will come across someone who doesn’t like clowns. Like the one time I was walking in a parade and a small boy was sitting in his little lawn chair watching, but as I got closer and he spotted me, he picked up his little chair and turned it around and sat back down with his back to me, I just let things like that pass. I am a clown not a psychologist, I can’t fix their fear. Sometimes though older children will make a move like they want to get past that feeling, and I will just give them a one-armed small hug.”

“When we do a routine like Ole and Lena we have a number of jokes we use, and while we are up there, I will be thinking of a joke I need to share and just like that, my wife will give me an opening  that leads right to that joke. She just knows. She is amazing that way. I always enjoy our drive home after a performance, and we talk about how it went and how much fun it was seeing the audience respond to different things. There is an afterglow.

“If I was to have a dream gig, I think it would be to perform on stage to a large audience of people who wish to become clowns too. I just want to spread smiles and happiness. There are so many things that can make people sad. We need more laughter and joyfulness in the world,” said Sharla.

“We have met so many great people while clowning, made friends with regulars from parades, and we look for them during parades. There are just so many nice people out there. So many great little kids but wonderful teenage kids, too. They are really super, but we just never hear about the good ones, and there are so many good teens out there.

“Clowning is really a family thing for us. Our two daughters, grandkids and son-in-laws do it, and they all have their costumes and sometimes appear with us. They make appearances around the Two Harbors area and Minneapolis,” said Doug.

“In the summer, if we want time to go see our kids, we have to get it on the calendar, or we just don’t get to go. Our summer calendar is packed with dates for parades, every weekend, with 98 percent being repeat appearances. I carry an old chamber pot with Tootsie Rolls in it. Some kids don’t really know what it is, but some guess and aren’t too sure they want candy out of an old pot. One kid threw his back in. I suppose we go through 100 bags of Tootsie Rolls a summer,” said Doug. They consider the possibility of someday going to Arizona for a month or so and doing some Ole and Lena appearances there, but for now, they just enjoy the slower pace of the winter months.

The team’s time and talent has been recognized by PBS with a special broadcast, and Doug received the 25 Years of Laughter Award from Calliope magazine.

They have made many of their own props over the years and have learned that simpler is better. They have also changed their costumes from time to time. They do have the customary clown shoes, but they are very hard and not a good fit for walking in parades.

“When we are asked to perform somewhere we usually stop in a local café for a meal and people love seeing clowns in a place like that. Someone will start talking with us, and we will start sharing jokes, and pretty soon, everybody is laughing. One time this happened, and there was an older man setting a couple booths down from us with his back to us, but when he got up to leave, he stopped by a table and laid a five dollar bill down and said he had been listening to our jokes, and it was worth every penny.  It is also fun to see people’s faces when a couple of clowns pull up beside them at a stoplight, like they can hardly believe their eyes.” said Doug.

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