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Charmed Life

Funny Business

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 1/28/2004

Some clowns get their start by running away with the circus. Some go to Clown College. But for Baltimore's Annie the Clown, aka Diana Fowlkes, prayer paved the way to greasepaint, oversized shoes, and the kiddie-entertainment circuit.

A decade ago, Fowlkes was working as a preschool teacher at First Apostolic Church on South Caroline Street, not far from the low-rise housing projects where she grew up.

"We were having a family festival," she recalls. "I wanted to have something to draw the children in from the community. I thought about it prayerfully. . . . The kids had to see that church folk can have a good time, or they wouldn't want to be around us. I said to the other teachers, 'Let's all dress up like clowns!' but no one else wanted to do it with me. They said, 'You do it. It sounds like something you would do.'"

Fowlkes chuckles at the memory. (In fact, half of her sentences end in chuckles.) In her youth, she says, she was "a hardheaded kid who did what she wanted to do. . . . I was very high-spirited. I had faith. I knew that I was going to make it. I was one of those determined little people. If you told me there was something I couldn't do . . . I would prove you wrong."

As she talks, Fowlkes bustles around her crowded living room in civilian dress, gearing up for an afternoon birthday party. While her nephew and apprentice, "Fabulous Nick" Hernandez Chavez Jr., loads the car, she inflates a stockpile of skinny balloons that will be twisted on the job. When that's done, she rubs white face paint into neat, kidney-shaped patches on her cheeks and brows. Blue eye shadow and bodacious false eyelashes complete a semitraditional auguste clown design, which leaves about half of her smooth, coffee-colored face exposed.

Fowlkes personally prefers the full white-face treatment, especially in cold weather. Her version of the total clown look (as shown in her publicity shots) features a hyper-curly smile and cheeks spangled with freckles and hearts, in addition to the eye shadow and lashes. Her nose is painted red; Fowlkes tried a rubber-bulb nose enhancement but says, "It was too much of a foreign object."

No matter what you do, Fowlkes admits, there will always be a few children who are frightened of a clown.

"After they see that you've attracted the other children, they stop being the onlooker and participate with everybody else," she says. Not surprisingly, clients with toddlers usually ask for the more natural auguste.

As for the costume itself, Fowlkes says, "I had a vision of how God wanted me to be this rag doll. . . . As a child I'd always loved Raggedy Ann."

As her character developed, Fowlkes created a couple of different outfits, but she stuck with a red-white-and-blue color scheme. For some events, she goes with a more casual silky red-and-blue shirt and pants; full regalia includes ruffled sleeves and bloomers, white gloves, striped socks, a massive wig of red yarn, sequined mobcap, and the de rigueur bulbous shoes.

Early in her career, Fowlkes found that all she needed to do to draw a crowd was sit on her front step practicing her balloon-sculpture skills. Soon she'd have a stoop full of kids sculpting along with her. The demand for her party services soon grew beyond her original vision. Her pastor encouraged her to pursue the "clown ministry." At first she resisted.

"I said, 'I'm not gonna be a clown!'" she remembers. One objection she had to the vocation: Wearing a clown wig would mean giving up big hairstyles. Eventually, though, she accepted clowning as "a calling--I'd found a way to use the gospel to bring the children of the inner city off the streets." At the time, she was a single mother, raising a son and daughter. Clowning helped her pay the bills, including college costs, for both of her now-grown children.

Three years ago, Fowlkes stopped teaching preschool and became a full-time performer. She paints faces, juggles, performs magic tricks, works puppets, does the soft shoe, and twists balloons. Some of her props include silk scarves, a parachute (kids play under it), a toilet plunger, a battered top hat, a coloring book with vanishing pictures, a jar of peanut butter (which also disappears), and an air horn that squeals the notes of "Happy Birthday to You."

"I'm always adding something each year," she says. "When you have annual customers, they don't want to see the same thing every time." With older kids she tells age-appropriate jokes. At her clients' requests, she can weave a Christian message or a "Say No to Drugs" theme into the performance--or just stick to clowning.

Since the beginning, she has also trained other clowns--some 300 in all, by her estimate--30 of whom joined her in last week's Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Parade. She runs a 12-week clowning course that covers the basics of makeup, party tricks, and people skills, as well as "the fine art of becoming independent as an entertainer." If a student displays "a passion for nurturing children," she doesn't charge for the lessons.

A big professional break for Annie the Clown is on the horizon: This coming March, when WMAR-TV resumes broadcast of its long-running Kinderman show (starring John Taylor), Fowlkes is set to join the cast as "the KinderKlown," along with a small troupe of her graduates.

At a preschool in a church on the far western edge of the city, uniformed children file shyly into the auditorium where Annie the Clown waits, air horn in hand. She hugs the birthday girl. A couple of children hang back.

"I'm a clown," she tells them, "but I'm also a mommy."

As the kids warm up to her, it becomes apparent that, regardless of face paint, Fowlkes is always in character. She is Annie, Annie is she. The same cooing voice rides like a roller coaster, smoothly slipping into laugher.

"It's something I live and breathe," she says.

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