Is that you, Bubba?

سانتا كلوز

Fat exclamation mark made from jigsaw puzzle p...

I recently started my “encore” career with the Clown Care Unit at Boston Children’s Hospital. It took less than a day to reconnect with the joy I get from doing this work, and it came from a little boy speaking words I could not understand.

Dr. Dazzle and I entered the playroom on one of the surgical floors, where a child-life specialist was working a jigsaw puzzle with a small boy who was in a cast from the waist down.

As we got closer he looked at us and started pointing toward me. He was babbling words I heard as “Bubba New Whale! Bubba New Whale!”

None of us knew what he was saying. In fact, we couldn’t even figure out what language he was speaking. But every so often, he’d look up from his puzzle and exclaim, “Bubba New Whale!”

When his Dad came into the room, the boy’s face lit up and he told him that I was “Bubba New Whale.”

The suspense was killing me, so I asked the father what language the boy was speaking. It was Arabic. Was being a “Bubba New Whale” a good thing or a bad rap? The Dad’s reply, with a little giggle in his voice, was simple: “Santa Claus.”

I am humbled and honored to do this job!

Seeing with the Heart

I recieved a phone call awhile back to entertain at a birthday party for a 5-year-old boy. The woman on the other end of the line was very nice, and we were close to a verbal commitment when she said, ” I feel awkward saying this, but I think you should know–and it’s O.K.  if you don’t want to do this–but my little boy is blind.”

He had been sightless since birth. She thought a clown would make the party special for her son and all the other children who were going to be there.

A female clown friend of mine was curious about how I was going to do this, so she tagged along. At the house, we found a typical party scene — adults, kids, hot dogs and hamburgers. We asked for the birthday boy by name and found him alone on the swing set. When he heard we were there, he bailed and ran toward us.

His mother made the introductions. He yelled, “I want to see!”  We let him “Braille” us from head to toe. The differences were profound. ME: Tiny little hat, a jacket big enough to hide a kangaroo, and enormous high-top, wing-tipped clown shoes. HER: Ponytails, frilly dress, ruffled apron and enormous Mary Janes. It flipped the birthday boy right out.

I winced every time I said, “Take a look at this!” or ” My hair is red, my jacket is yellow.” The makeup hid my mortified blushes.

I let the birthday boy use my battery powered pump to inflate some of  the balloons I had brought to twist into animal shapes for the kids. Since he couldn’t see, he couldn’t tell when the balloons were full and BANG! They burst. It sounded like firecrackers. BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG! All of us were laughing so hard we were crying.

Which leads me to the educational part of this story.

The Mom was very happy that I treated her son like any other kid. The boy had fun being part of the show. The guests who didn’t quite know how to interact with the boy grew much more comfortable. I was invited back for more birthdays, where the guest of honor happily played my cymbals, wore my coat, blew up more balloons (BANG BANG BANG) and laughed, laughed, laughed!

Though my vision is good, that blind boy taught me to see beyond what we call handicaps to the person within.

Highs, Lows, and False Alarms

Hospital clowning, like everything else, has plenty of high and low moments. Here are a few of mine:

  • Watching a young girl who received a new heart ready and able to go home after 10 days.
  • Seeing another child whose transplant is failing. This is humbling. Maybe we shouldn’t call it a new heart. After all, it did have a previous owner. Maybe it depends on how that person took care of it?

That’s me, looking up what ails this rubber chicken!

  •  Persuading a young brain surgery patient to turn his head and smile. It’s easy: we start the magic trick on one side of his wheelchair and finish on the other.
  • Getting a 4-year-old stroke victim to play a squeaker.
  • Walking past a young girl’s door and into a wall, only to hear a tiny voice inquire: “Are you O.K.?”
  • Dissolving in chuckles when a young neurology patient jumps out of his bed after a female clown offers to give him a kiss! (Little does he know it is actually a sticker.)
  • Laughing with relief along with a nurse who discovered that the pasty white substance she had scraped off the roof of her patient’s mouth wasn’t dangerous — it was actually just the remnants of the host the child had received during Communion!
  • Bringing a little comic diversion to parents, clustered together silently in the waiting room, whose eighth graders had overdosed on muscle relaxants at a dance.
  • Working miracles in Pre-Op and Radiology. In the Pre-Op waiting room, glazed-looking parents perk up after we’ve been hanging around. In Radiology, families nervous about an imaging study bust a gut thinking about one of us squeezing into the MRI machine.
  • Visiting a little girl who tells her mother she won’t eat unless the clowns come to see her every day. Just what we need — kids going on hunger strikes!
  • Watching the Boston Fire Department race to the rescue after we clowns powder our makeup in the hospital’s Wolbach Building. Our baby powder sure doesn’t smell like smoke, but maybe to a smoke detector it looks like it!

Ooh La La (Or, Clowning in Paris)

Eiffel Towe

I once had the opportunity to work in Paris. The fact that I spoke no French was not a problem, as laughter has no accent.

Working with the clowns at Le Rire Medecin, I learned that they had a different approach to hospital clowning. Where we used magic, they used music. The clowns over there could make and perform all types of music–they could play or sing everything from Mozart to the Spice Girls.  When the clowns decided to play music for a young patient, they would shut off the TV upon entering the room so that the youngster could hear it clearly and enjoy it.

Another difference between the American and French styles of compassionate clowning was that the Parisian clowns tended to do more verbal improv than circus-type routines. For them, time was no factor and they would take as long as it took to do their work. The French clowns also used more buffoonery, assuming roles of high and low status. They tended to sort themselves into kings and commoners or bosses and workers instead of the doctor theme some of us use here.

The French clowns were also very open about sharing or using their props. They allowed the smaller children to hit or squirt them with squirt guns. The use of sexuality becomes a good  distraction as is a powerful magic trick with adolescent children.  The use of a squeaker in a bra of a female clown is very funny and shocking!

The way they entertained babies was interesting. I observed the clowns performing in the nursery of the hospital. In the hospitals where I have worked in the U.S., we typically heard, “They’re too small for clowns, they don’t understand.”

On the day I observed the clowns working the nursery, there were 8-10 crying babies. The staff and the clowns didn’t seem to mind at all and just went about their business.

One of the French clowns who had an accordion would start by playing one high note, then one low note —  just to see if he could get a response. Once curiosity kicked in, another clown would start with bubbles. Then they’d do a little dance to make it more visual. They took the time to thoroughly entertain the babies, and one knew they succeeded because the crying would stop and the babies would signal that they didn’t want the clowns to leave. 

They used few or no props, as opposed to some of us who haul bags, pull carts, golf carts, trailer trucks, wagons, etc.

I was able to show them that the classic circus clown skits still work. In a little dance routine, three of us got into a “butt kicking contest” with the same clown getting kicked no matter in what order we stood. It wasn’t violent, and it played well with children big and small.

Just as it is in children’s hospitals here, reality was never far away. One day, we asked a teenage boy what grade he was in school, and his startling reply was, “I chose to get cancer instead of working hard at school.”

Now I know why I do this work.

Grock, the great master clown, once said, “In order to know humor, one must know life. Good and bad.”

Lyrics – Old Bones

Old bones inside an old raincoat

Old bones inside some ole shoes

Old friends from the hotel

stop by to wish me well,

They keep me up to date

on all the old news.

Sometimes I have me a whiskey  ( Binky, or Geritol  age appropriate )

Then I fall asleep in my chair

Then I dream that I’m a man  – much younger  than I am.

I bet by now you think that I wouldn’t care.

But I love life  and I’d do it again

Though I might not be

much more than I am.

Just to turn back the time and let my life begin

Oh Ya! I’d like to do it again.

Old Bones, but Young at Heart

I was working with one of my colleagues down in Sarasota, Fla. We were on rounds in the local hospital,and had been invited into the room of a man who was dying. His daughter thought it would be nice if we visited him. Maybe we could sing him a song.

In our conversation with her, we learned she was very proud of the fact that her dad had made his living as a professional musician. He played for a lot of the “big “bands. He even played at the White House for a couple of Presidents.

When we approached the bedside, he looked as if he were sleeping. I leaned down to speak softly in his ear, explaining who we were and asking if he would like us to sing him a song. He said,”I would like that.”

The only song I could think of that was appropriate was “Old Bones,” the same tune I had sung to a 3-month-old baby who was also on end-of-life care.

As we crooned, the man’s body started to twitch and convulse. Our first reaction was that he was having a seizure or this was it! The End. As we continued singing, his daughter called out, “Oh my God! He’s dancing!”

The staff came running. No one could believe it! So many tears were falling we almost had to get a mop.

After we finished singing, my partner offered the man a kazoo. With what little breath he had, he started jamming with us. We played  “5-Foot-2” and “Please don’t talk about me when I’m Gone.”

A special moment. A special time. A special place. You’re never too old for clowns.

Baby Body, Old Soul

As we stood at the door of the room, everything was in a dark shadow. There stood a crib with the familiar digital lights and TV monitors beside  it. We saw a fragile tiny baby who seemed to be asleep with a thin yellow tube stuck in his nose. Both my partner and I sighed when we saw him. How sad.

I said, “Come on, let’s sing him a lullaby.”

As we were singing “Old Bones”* very softly, the baby opened his eyes, lifted his head and stared at us. He didn’t cry or exhibit any sign of strain or pain. He just took us all in. Then he put his head back down and closed his eyes.

We finished by fading the song down and backing out of the room.

Both of us were weak-kneed after witnessing what we just did. My partner said just what I was thinking.  “It was like an old man just admiring what we were doing. He was assuring us that it was a good thing!”

I told her I had to find out how old the baby was, so I asked the charge nurse. He was 90 days old. When I told her how we sang to him and how he lifted his head, she said that was impossible. He was far too weak.

I thought, End of life. There’s no warranty, is there? We may have been the only event worth watching for the little old soul.

You’re never too young for clowns.


* This is the song that George Burns sang on his 100th Birthday

Tiny Bubble Song

C                            G7

Tiny bubbles  – in my bed

G7                                       C

Tiny bubbles – bouncing on my head

C                         C7         F

Tiny bubbles – going up my nose

   C                       G7              C

I got tiny bubbles – in my pantyhose.

[ At this time, while vamping the chords of the song, my partner would look surprised and ask, “Are you wearing pantyhose?” I would reply: “Only when I am dressed up as a Super Hero.”

All super heroes wear pantyhose –Batman , Robin, Superman, Spiderman. All of them.

Then they  wear their underwear on the outside!

C                              G7 

Tiny bubbles – in my hair

G7                                    C

Tiny bubbles in my underwear

[ Brilliant! That’s why they wear them on the outside !]

C                     C7             F

Tiny bubbles – going on my feet


I love tiny bubbles

G7                    C

Gee they’re good to eat!

[Eat a bubble – Burp or use electronic whoopee cushion  – and explain that it was a gas bubble]

Note: the last line can be changed to “Gee – I think they’re neat” if needed.

You got a bubble up your nose!

Tools of the Trade

Cheap rubber bladder

Ever since the Big Apple Clown Care Unit started up at Boston Children’s, we have prided ourselves on our exhaustive Research and Development program. One of the items that underwent close scrutiny is known familiarly to most of you as the “whoopee cushion.”

Hospital management wanted me to take them away from the clowns, but I pleaded with them, saying, “That would be like taking the color red off an artist’s palette. ”

A whoopee cushion is a critical tool (combined with facial expressions and physical movement) that is understood in any language. Kids love it because it’s bathroom humor, but this was a problem in the hospital. Maybe some young patients were hospitalized for malfunctioning excretory functions! Toilet humor is not a road to travel in the hospital for sooooo many reasons. ( Do not follow the yellow drip road.) It also encourages “potty mouth” among the siblings and adolescents.

Chemical gel – FLARP

Do you realize in less than a decade, we have seen the whoopee cushion go from a cheap rubber bladder, to a chemical gel, to a fat rubber hose with two hard plastic ends, to a remote-controlled electronic device, to a self inflating cheap rubber bladder? Who got the grants for that technology?

Due to hygiene and  latex allergies, the electronic device is my instrument of choice in a hospital setting.

I have found it interesting and challenging to use it as a silly little sound and incorporate its use in musical numbers or in hearing tests along with squeakers.  

I like is to let my clown partner hide the main console of an electronic fart machine  in one of their pockets, while I control the remote. Things just slip out as they do and the kids crack up as we try to maintain some kind of composure and dignity!

Use this for high-tech bathroom humor!

Self-inflating rubber bladder. Works every time!

Funny what kind of sound those elevator or vending-machine buttons can make when you least expect it…

“Le tooter”