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Send in the ( Hospital ) Clowns!

For the first time in 35 years, the Big Apple Circus will not be performing at Lincoln Center for the holidays. The circus canceled its upcoming season in July and filed for bankruptcy three weeks ago. Since then, the circus has said it wants to keep its Clown Care program going. The outreach program has clowns dress up as doctors to do rounds in pediatric wards of hospitals. Now, the Clown Doctor community is trying to figure out what’s next. Tom Piccolo reports.

Liz Bolick (BOWL-ick) has been performing as a hospital clown for 28 years. When she is on duty, she is better known by her medical name.

BOLICK 1: My name in the hospital is Dr. Sneakers. (0:02)

Bolick says that some of her career’s best moments have come while performing for sick kids.

BOLICK 2: We would get those kids to laugh and do tricks and do running gags and juggle and do circus stuff. (0:05)

Parents would get to see their kids laughing for the first time in weeks, sometimes months. But, this type of work can be draining on the clowns.

BOLICK 3: I think it was after two years, like, 30 of our kids died within two months. It was almost like being in a war zone. It’s very hard work emotionally, but it’s also like this mix with this extraordinary joy. It was the most meaningful time of my life. (0:12)

Earlier this year, Bolick says the members of Clown Care saw Big Apple’s financial struggles and decided to take action.

BOLICK 3: The clown doctors from the Big Apple Circus broke away and we started our own organization. So, you need to speak with Karen McCarty. (0:06)

Karen McCarty had been with Big Apple Circus for more than 27 years. There is a reason McCarty has such a special place in her heart for clown doctoring. She was once a sick kid herself.

MCCARTY 1: It is a…extreme passion of mine, the work of medical clowning, as I’m a cancer survivor myself. I’m a childhood cancer survivor. (0:09 )

She says Clown Care was so important to her she had to leave the organization to save the practice.

MCCARTY 2: It was a difficult choice for me to leave the Big Apple Circus, but I felt that they were going through, unfortunately, such financial fragility, and we had a 30-year legacy of work that I wanted to have continue. (0:14)

So, in July, McCarty and two of her colleagues left Clown Care to form their own organization. They named it “Healthy Humor.” Now, there are two clown doctor programs in the New York area: the old guard and the start-up. Will Maitland (MATE-land) Weiss is the executive director of Big Apple Circus. He says Clown Care has a future.

WEISS 1: I think that some combination of other non-profit organizations are going to pick up on the programming that we do in pediatric hospitals. (0:10)

McCarty has a suggestion where Clown Care should land.

McCarty 3: And, we hope that’s us (laughs). We certainly have the most experience. There is actually a conversation going on as we speak in terms of potential transitioning of these programs. (0:11)

But for now, some clowns are juggling a job with each. Take Joel Jeske (JESS-key). He works as a clown doctor for both Clown Care and Healthy Humor…at least for now.

JESKE 1: With Healthy Humor, as that program grows, and as Big Apple works out what it’s going to do, eventually, I’m sure, there’s going to be a line drawn in the sand and people are going to have to, you know, decide one way or another. Right now, it’s kind of up for grabs. So, it’s like you’re continuing with the programs that are surviving. (0:17)

Jeske says he has seen the impact of clown doctors first-hand. He has also seen the science to back it up.

JESKE 2: We literally had a research scientist walking behind us, checking off people who had been affected in some way by either a greeting, a presence or something we did. And, it was amazing that at the end of the day, he was like, “Well, gentlemen, you basically affected over four thousand people. (0:17)

Jeske says he doesn’t care what organization he works for, as clown doctoring stays healthy.

Tom Piccolo, Columbia Radio News.


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