Clowning to Raise Money in Iowa

When the Adel Fire Department wanted a thermal imaging camera - a machine that can detect human bodies trapped inside smoke-filled buildings - the volunteer firefighters had to host their own fundraisers to come up with the $13,000 to pay for it.

A thermal imager can tell firefighters when there's fire still smoldering deep inside walls, even after they think they've got it all extinguished.

Most fire departments don't have budgets for special equipment like that. In fact, out of Iowa's 875 fire departments, 825 of them are staffed entirely by volunteers.

As far as Marion Valero-Lehman can tell, the Adel Fire Department is relatively lucky: It may have to raise money for special tools, but in some communities, volunteer firefighters don't even have the basic equipment they need to protect themselves when they enter burning buildings.

Firefighters need a way to raise money, and Lehman has an idea: They can make their money by performing as clowns.

Now, don't laugh.

On second thought, laugh if you want to.

In some states, such as Colorado, Texas and California, fire clowns do a decent business by hiring themselves out as entertainment, performing sketches and making balloon animals.

"It's an alternative form of fundraising," Lehman says. Clowning is a way to bring in crowds, and it's also an opportunity to get safety messages across - especially to little kids.

During emergencies, kids tend to think of firefighters as scary monsters when they see big men in heavy gear coming out of fires and walking toward them.

Firefighters need a way to combat that image so children will trust them in emergencies, Lehman figures. And firefighters are also always looking for new ways to get across safety messages, such as how to touch a door to check for heat.

"Little kids don't think like everybody else," she says. In a world where Santa Claus and the Fairy Godmother are reality, maybe it makes good sense to get your safety advice from a clown.

Fire clowns can come up with all sorts of safety skits, turning concepts like Stop, Drop and Roll into games that kids might just remember in a pinch.

"It's kind of a proactive thing," says Lehman, a captain on the Adel Fire Department. "You don't know how many lives you save." Send in the clowns

Lehman's fascination with clowns began when she was a kid growing up in New York.

"I was lucky because my dad was a cop, and he knew all these security people," she says. That meant tickets to Madison Square Garden, seeing the Ringling Brothers Circus in the days of pre-circus freak shows, with sword swallowers and bearded ladies.

Lehman remembers being mesmerized by Emmett Kelly, creator of the famous tramp clown Weary Willy, who could warm up the crowd of 20,000 people all by himself.

He would use nothing more than pie tins to get the different sides of the audience to clap, competing to see which side could make the greatest noise.

"He had the power to command an audience without saying a word," Lehman says. She watched one man using the power of love to focus a crowd of 20,000, making people forget themselves for that instant. "If you looked, everybody was smiling."

At the end of his act, Kelly would sweep the spotlight into a tiny pile on the ground, pick it up with a dustpan, and put it into his pocket.

And that's when the circus officially began.

Who could top drama like that?

"I wanted to be in the circus, but my dad was a cop, so, like, no way," Lehman remembers.

Instead, she grew up, went to college, got degrees in agriculture and animal science (living in New York, of all places), then came to the Midwest to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But Lehman never quite got over that early fascination with clowns. And she never really had to.

In 1985, the Panther Creek Church of the Brethren invited members of other Dallas County churches to attend a weekend course taught by a student of the well-known Floyd Schaffer, a great in clown ministry. That was all Lehman needed to realize this was something she could do.

Soon, she was joining magic club Justo Hijo, and Clown Alley No. 189, the Korn Patch Klowns. She attended as many clown camps and conferences as she could. And she was fascinated.

"Clowning is like music and art," Lehman says. "It transcends the spoken language."

She discovered she could captivate crowds without saying a word.

She created her clown persona with the name "Mari-Gold," the nickname her dad gave her. She also created the name "Tip-Top" for her son Travis, then 3 years old, who started out performing kiddie magic beside his mom.

Through the years, Mari-Gold and Tip-Top performed together in grease and rags, often using real goldfish, chicks, guinea pigs and rabbits to liven up their shows.

Travis is now attending Northwest Missouri State, no longer clowning, but he's a public-speaking whiz after all those years of working the crowds.

A common bond

Lehman joined the Adel Fire Department in 1999.

It wasn't long before she figured out that she could combine firefighting with clowning, just like fire clowns in other areas.

Her fire clown name, JetSiphonM, refers to a piece of rural fire equipment; she reworked some old bunker pants and had a fire helmet painted with flames.

She lives with a young border collie, Sazul, who she's teaching to Stop, Drop and Roll. When he's ready for his public, she plans to attach flames to his collar with Velcro. "It'll be kickin,'" she promises.

In 2003, Lehman became the first person to teach clowning for firefighters in the state of Iowa. She teaches through the Iowa Department of Public Safety's Fire Service Training Bureau.

This September, she'll also begin to teach clowning at the fire school at Kirkwood Community College.

In her classes, Lehman teaches firefighters how to develop skits, create their clown personalities, and play with all the fun costumes she lets them experiment with. At the state fire marshal's winter school last month, "I got the students crazy. They really got worked up."

Which, in the clown world, is a good thing.

The way Lehman sees it, all the first responders to emergencies - firefighters, cops, EMTs - are people who could use some clowning in their lives.

When people call for emergency help, it's because their homes are on fire, their arms are tangled in combines. Or it's something worse than that maybe.

"When they call us, it's because it's the worst day in their life," Lehman says. "We're there, and we see the worst."

It's even harder for the 76 percent of firefighters across the country who are volunteers, people who interrupt their jobs and their private lives to answer calls. "Who gets up at 3 o'clock in the morning to go kneel in a ditch with a drunk who just killed an 18-year-old kid?"

Lehman sees fire clowning as a way to relieve stress while helping people bond.

"There's a lot to say for humor," she says. Lately she's been reading the theories of clowning physician Dr. Hunter "Patch" Adams, learning about the physiological benefits of laughter.

Clowning is "positive energy," Lehman says. "It's a blast. Everybody's very positive on it. The people that you meet are the best."

That, and they just like it.

As Patch Adams once said, "Everyone who goes to a job he doesn't like is a lot weirder than I am."

Between working at Access Systems in Adel and fighting fires, Lehman would already be busy.

With clowning and teaching, too, her life is just nuts. She just doesn't have time off.

"Yeah, but that's what I do," she says. "I love it."