Lynda Lilley is creating a spectacle.
She’s sitting on a bench outside the Visitors Pavilion at the John and Mable Ringling Museum, chatting with tourists as they stream past.
It’s a Monday afternoon —Presidents Day to be exact — and season in Sarasota is in full swing.
Lilley is dressed in garish, worn-in, clown regalia: white grease paint, neon wig, hulking sneakers and a polka-dotted dress, which she bejeweled with sequins and tassels specifically for today’s interview.
The museum is packed with kids, parents, senior citizens and teenagers, all of who seem to turn their cameras on the 54-year-old clown with the mini clown puppet.
“It’s been a while since I was here,” Lilley says. “This is like my mecca. You’d think I’d come here every day, but I’m not even in the same realm as some of these legendary clowns … Lou Jacobs and all those guys.”
Lilley has spent the last 32 years dressing as a Blossom the Clown. Yet in all her hammy endeavors, she’s only visited the Ringling Museum a handful of times.
“Ya know,” she says taking inventory of the paparazzi swarm, “having a clown around here wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
She came to a similar conclusion seven months ago when she drove past a Venice barbershop and noticed the owner had scattered signs outside his storefront hoping to attract customers.
Armed with a business proposition, Lilley marched into the barbershop dressed as Blossom.
When Jeff Strode caught a glimpse of the clown and her strange puppet, he agreed to pay her $10 an hour to stand outside and wave to people.
The overachieving grandmother-of-six said she’d do one better: She’d dance.
With her MP3 player loaded with songs by The Beatles, The Spice Girls, Pink and the Bee Gees, the clown began dancing in her size-14 New Balance sneakers.
“I can get anyone to smile,” Lilley says. “Unless they’re on their cell phone or picking their nose.”
She pulled out all her favorite moves –– The Twist, The Swim, The Mashed Potato and a little two-step she invented called “The Temptation Shuffle.”
“She’s helped tremendously,” Strode says. “I had a couple other people out there waving –– kids mostly, but it was like I had to go out there and take their pulse. Lynda is a ball of energy. She’s brought us more attention for sure.”
Lilley has danced so much she’s worn out a patch of grass in front of the plaza.
A Sarasota native and graduate of Sarasota High School, Lilley always wanted to be a clown.
As a child she worshipped Bozo.
When she was 5 years old, she drove with her parents to Boston to appear on “Bozo’s Circus,” a television show starring her idol, Frank Avruch.
“He was approachable,” Lilley says of Avruch’s Bozo. “He had a simple outfit and simple makeup. That’s important. You never want to look too good.”
Approachability is why Lilley keeps Blossom’s hair, makeup and clothes disheveled. It’s also why when people ask her how long it takes her to get into character, she tells them five minutes, followed by: “It gets easier as you get older. You just follow the lines in your face.”
Some clowns adhere strictly to pantomime. The quick-witted Lilley has never been that kind of clown.
After high school, she studied journalism at the University of South Florida before auditioning for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, in Venice.
She was rejected, however, for having a puppet.
“They didn’t do puppets in those days,” Lilley says. “But I went down to that circus tent and I tried. Boy, did I try.”
She raised six children as a single mother, working a variety of odd jobs, the oddest of which was, of course, clowning.
She invented Blossom in the late 1970s as a creative way to make extra cash.
Her first gigs were at the Brown Derby Restaurant on the corner of Siesta Drive and Tamiami Trail; there she worked as a waitress by day, clown by night.
In an outfit not unlike the one she wears today, Lilley would plod around the diner pulling site gags on customers.
Her favorite was an old trick she picked up from comedian Joan Rivers. She would tuck a long strip of toilet paper into the back of her shoe and walk around the restaurant like she didn’t know it was there.
“Anything to make ’em laugh,” she says recalling the memory. “Those were the glory days — before kids were afraid of clowns.”
When she says this, a dark cloud seems to hover over her otherwise sunny disposition.
If there’s one thing Lilley can’t stomach, it’s rampant clown phobia, which she blames on movies such as Stephen King’s “It.”
“These days, kids are taught to fear clowns,” she sighs. “But not all of us are bad. Most of us are good. It’s sort of like pit bulls. You get one bad one, and it ruins it for the whole lot.”
On her makeup
“You never want it to look perfect. It’s like quilt-making. It’s bad luck to make a perfect quilt.”
On dancing with arthritis
“My doctor says if it doesn’t hurt the next day, you’re doing fine. So far, I’m doing fine.”
On not scaring kids
“It takes a certain knack. You gotta get down to their level and work your way up slowly.”
On carrying a puppet
“I was doing a telethon years ago, and this famous actress walked by stinking like perfume, and Grover, my old puppet, started sneezing. A puppet can get away with things a person can’t.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at firstname.lastname@example.org
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