On Aug. 5, worshippers at Hickory Neck Church in Toano, Va., will don their Sunday best. That is, oversized shoes, gaily-coloured wigs and -- "Can I get an 'Amen'?" -- boutonnières that squirt water.
Since 1971, the first week of August has been recognized around the globe as International Clown Week. And for the last 12 years, Hickory Neck, a historic, 130-seat chapel in rural Virginia, has set aside the first Sunday in August for a mass titled Blessing of the Clowns.
The service is just as advertised, says Ann (Tuttles) Sanders, the secretary for Kolonial Klowns, a band of buffoons based in nearby Williamsburg.
"We stand in front of the church and receive a special blessing (and) afterwards, the clowns host a reception in the parish hall," she says, pointing out that funsters from as far away as Ohio, Maryland and North Carolina show up to be sanctified. (During last year's sermon, the minister gave "thanks for clowns, who in their stumbling and bumbling ways, hold up our fragile humanity to bask in our abundant mercy.")
Closer to home, Melody Zakowich doesn't need a calendar to tell her when it's Clown Week. That's because the 49-year-old Winnipegger toasts the "holiday" seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year.
"As my 10-year-old nephew Matthew likes to put it, you are now entering Clown Town," Zakowich says, ushering a visitor into a second-storey space that is populated by clowns of every size, shape and description. (As soon as everybody is safely in the room, Zakowich reaches back to shut the door; although guests are allowed inside Clown Town, her cats are not.)
Here's something you'll never see on Love It or List It: during Zakowich's apartment-dwelling days, most of her horde was stored in boxes. But when she and her husband started house-hunting about 15 years ago, one of the first things she told her real estate agent was that any potential homes had to come with separate living quarters for her clowns.
Funnily enough, Zakowich doesn't remember giving clowns a second thought when she was growing up. She may have dressed up like Bozo for Halloween once or twice, she says. And she does recall enjoying the clowns' antics whenever her parents took her to the annual Shrine Circus. But Zakowich's preoccupation with all things clown didn't begin until 1984 -- the year her co-workers asked her what she wanted for Christmas.
"I was working at Northern Telecom at the time, and the girls said, 'Mel, what should we get you?'
"There was a Regal Gifts Catalogue near me open to a page of porcelain dolls. I pointed to a clown one and said, 'How about this?'"
Two weeks after receiving her gift, Zakowich spotted a clown music box at a neighbourhood department store. Ten days later, she stumbled across a clown-crested coffee and cream set at a second-hand shop.
"Then I found something else, then something else... that's when it all started to go haywire."
Within months, Zakowich was on first-name basis with almost every antique dealer in Winnipeg. Many still contact the "clown lady" every time something interesting comes through their doors. Not that Zakowich is too discriminating: besides figurines, Zakowich is also on the lookout for utilitarian objects like piggy banks and lamps, or playthings like Kewpie dolls and bowling pins. (An entire shelf in the room is devoted to salt and pepper shakers that are shaped like clowns.)
"But what I love the most are cookie jars; I have close to 100 (with clowns on them) but I still want more," she says, noting that her containers are decorative only; nary an Oreo has ever seen the inside of one of her jars.
The bulk of Zakowich's treasures were purchased on eBay. She tries not to spend more than $100 on any individual item. Late last year, however, she went a little over budget for an antique wind-up toy that dates back to the golden age of clown collectibles.
In 1907, the Ringling Brothers bought out their chief competition, the Barnum and Bailey Circus, to become the undisputed "greatest show on Earth." In a bid to cash in on the big top's rising popularity -- and its most beloved act -- toy companies in the United States and Europe began churning out miniature clowns by the thousands.
One century ago, those playthings wouldn't have cost you more than a few pennies. That's not the case any more. In 1995, a collector from London, England, paid $13,600 for a hand-painted, metal jester seated in front of a miniature sewing machine.
The value of Zakowich's treasures is somewhat more subjective. Her insurance adjustor asked her for an itemized list a couple of years ago ("How many PEZ dispensers? How many punching bags?") but Zakowich stopped counting by the time she got to her overflow baskets.
"I couldn't put a dollar value on my stuff, anyways" she says. "To me, every last one is priceless."
Finally, although Zakowich has been a Saturday morning fixture at garage sales and flea markets around town for almost 30 years, she has only bumped into two other collectors who love clowns as much as she does.
Check that: almost as much.
"I invited each of them to my place but I think I might have scared them away. As soon as I said the words 'clown room,' they were like, 'Sorry, but I'm busy.'"
What's so funny?
AN estimated one out of seven people suffers from coulrophobia, more commonly known as a fear of clowns. Included in that number is Johnny Depp, who, during a 1999 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, said, "Something about the painted face, the fake smile... there always seemed to be a darkness lurking just under the surface, a potential for real evil."
The Pirates of the Caribbean star might want to turn the page now. Here is a list of the 10 scariest clown movies of all time, according to www.horrornews.net
1. Stephen King's It (1990, above)
2. Amusement (2008)
3. Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
4. Clownhouse (1989)
5. Blood Harvest (1987)
6. Poltergeist (1982)
7. Carnival of Souls (1998)
8. Killjoy (2008)
9. Zombieland (2009)
10. 100 Tears (2007)