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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #398
Clown Day
David Gunn

The 1919 silent film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" recounts the story of a sideshow hypnotist who uses a somnambulist to commit murder. For years the screenplay was thought to have been pure fiction. But then a researcher from the University of Hummock-on-Smythe discovered that the events were real, and that the sideshow where the doctor worked was part of the infamous Cirrhosia Parrot Circus, which still plays the third tier itinerant carnival circuit today. From its inception in 1920, the Circus has billed itself as "the Weirdest licensed troupe of Entertainers in the Second World." There are few who would disagree. Nor could they argue that that weirdness is most conspicuous on January 19, le jour du clown, Clown Day.

Clown Day is the province of the new breed of clowns, coolly existential humor liaisons who rely more on horror and repugnance than on buffoonery to amuse. Roto the Clown, undisputed king of the Cirrhosia Parrot Circus' pool of jesters, is best known for reprising the scandalous act that originally attracted Caligari's filmmakers. He hypnotizes his audience en masse, then compels one or more persons to commit murder. Of course, Roto and his attorney always insist to the authorities that the killing is pure legerdemain, an act of intellectual deception. No one, however, has ever been able to explain why, after each performance, the audience is always shy one paying customer.

On Clown Day, Roto discards his typical sequined well driller's wardrobe and adopts a guise consistent with that of the original Dr. Caligari. A battered stovepipe hat sits atop a mop of garbled white hair, contrasting jet black eyes that are shrunk back nearly into their sockets. A sharply pointed nose descends past a disturbingly distorted mouth, the inspiration for the "Big Smacking Lips" animatronic sculpture at Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris. Everything below his neck is enveloped in a vague cloaklike garment that intermittently fades into and out of focus--though occasionally his long arms shoot out to execute fantastic acts of prestidigitation. And protruding from the bottom of the cloak is a pair of inflat-o-boots secured to his feet by a cat's cradle of interwoven filaments of gold. It is a foreboding sight, indeed.

Which is why Mother Bumpkins' 4th grade class quailed when Roto and the Circus suddenly appeared on a windswept moor outside of Basildon, east of London, on the morning of Clown Day, 2003. Mother Bumpkins had just concluded Music Hour--during which the class lustily sang cacophonous snippets of Mozart, Webern, Cage and Carl Stalling--when the west-facing windows darkened and a huge circus tent materialized not a dozen meters from the school. A brief birdy counterpoint to the pupils' caterwauling erupted from the 40 parrots of the Circus' All-Avian Orchestra, which had taken up temporary roost on the schoolhouse eaves. Then all was unsettlingly quiet--until they heard the muffled sound of footfalls slowly approaching the school, followed by a sharp rapping on the door. Already chilly inside the schoolroom, the temperature seemed to plummet a dozen degrees more. A child nearest the window looked out and whined. Mother Bumpkins shushed him and strode to the door. But they all gasped when she opened it and Roto the Clown stared at them with cold, murderous eyes. The next instant, though, he effected a demeanor of generosity, inviting the class to a free Clown Day performance. Mother Bumpkins' first response was to decline, firmly, but then she gazed into his eyes, those two deep pools of enigma, and thenceforth could only accept his offer. The children were harder to convince, but Roto carefully glared at each one, and ultimately there were no dissenters.

Mother Bumpkins and her class filed through the fluttering big top flap and took their seats high above the center ring. A noisome smell of sulfur pervaded the tent, but the visitors paid it no heed. A small ensemble of musicians in grotesque gargoyle costumes played an overture that mocked the pupils' renditions of Cage and Webern. Then Roto entered. He did not speak. He did not smile. He did not acknowledge the musicians or the audience. He simply stood in the middle of the circus ring as his cloak faded into and out of focus. But Mother Bumpkins and her class were aware of something else happening. Each was experiencing feelings of uncontrolled rage building up inside of him or herself. One boy shook with so much fury that his shoes vibrated right off of his feet. Then the lights were suddenly extinguished. People screamed--including the musicians in the band. The chorus of shrieks got louder, dreadful, chaotic. Then the lights abruptly came back on. A wave of euphoria instantly washed over Mother Bumpkins, and she burst into applause, as did her students. Then she led them back across the moor to the school to continue their lessons. Only later would she wonder why one of the students hadn't returned to class with the others. But she could live with the mystery, because it was a puzzling thought that arose only on le jour du clown.

Nearly every day of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar is a kind of Clown Day, given the potholes of sight gags that typically befall the radiophonic controls here in Studio A, so we'll try instead to steer this 398th episode on a smooth course of decorum and comportment, though you just never know what'll happen when you hand the microphone over to Kalvos.