February 29, 2012 - Steve Gotham is a clown.
Gotham, “Stevo the Clown.” (click for larger version)
And that's no joke.
"I just always wanted to be a clown my whole life," said Gotham, 58, a Hadley Township resident. "When everything turns bad, laughter makes people feel better. It releases endorphins—you can't experience pain when you're laughing."
In the 1970s, Gotham attended Florida State University, which just happens to include the Ringling Brothers College.
"I was going to be a junior at Florida State and had to pick a major. I told my dad I wanted to be a clown. You just can't print what he really said," laughed Gotham. "Basically he told me, 'You can't make any money at being a clown.' But that's what I wanted to do."
Gotham earned a degree in hotel and restaurant administration for economic reasons.
"I got a job with Days Inn of America—but that was just not for me," he said. "I returned to Michigan, married my high school sweetheart, and joined my father's car dealership. When I turned 50 and our children were out of the house, I told my wife, 'I want to be a clown.' She said the same thing my dad did, 'You can't make any money at it.'"
After work he practiced his clown skills and began to perfect his craft.
"I didn't do a very good job of clowning at first. I didn't have the skills...but I really liked it."
Then one day Gotham spotted a Shrine emblem on a customer's car. "I asked him, 'How do you become a Shriner?' Now eight years have gone by—I still love it."
Gotham, a member of the Moslem Shrine Clowns, is known as "Stevo the Clown." He attends most of the Shrine clown outings throughout the year as the head of the Shrine Clown Unit, known nationwide as one of the larger and more accomplished clowns in Shrine Circus history.
"We are in parades riding mini bikes, we perform in the Shriner Circus and at child care outings," he said. "We have a connection with children doctors just don't have—we touch the hearts of the children."
As head of the 42 Shrine clowns, Gotham organizes Shrine clown outings, trains new clowns in the finer points of making someone laugh or the mechanics of making a balloon figure, and manages the creative team that develops each year's circus skit.
"I'm not a birthday party kind of clown—you'll never see me there," he said. "But if your kid has cancer, I'm there in a minute. Real clowns, clown from the heart. That's what it's all about. Clowns can help provide a therapeutic touch to a child's care, and in the case of a terminally ill child, a sense of warmth and comfort. When someone is laughing, or smiling, for that instant they're not feeling pain."
"I hear from people in hospitals, 'God bless you for what you do.' As a car salesman I never hear that. Clowns need to establish a character—some clowns are smart, dumb, sad, happy, rascals—I'm a clown that knows everything," laughs Gotham. "The other clowns remind me I don't know everything—I'm self absorbed. They like to see me get tripped up."
In the Shrine clown development class, Stevo talks about this legacy, helping each clown find their own persona. Indeed, they each have their own look and namesake. The new clowns learn about technique and a little about the psychology of clowning. Clowns can make people laugh and cry.
Gotham said it takes about 40 minutes to apply the grease paint on his face to became Stevo the Clown.
"It's extremely rewarding being a Shriner clown—I guess if you can't be smart at least be pleasant," laughed Gotham.