Everybody loves a clown

Alternate personas allow couple, to cut loose and just try and make people laugh

Alyse Axford — aka Zig Zag — says being a professional clown is no day at the circus. Preparation for a morning gig often begins as early as 4 a.m., she said.

Heidi Schiller
   Alyse Axford is soft spoken, with long, dark brown hair knotted on top of her head by a feathery white scrunchy.
   Zig Zag is a snappy, giggly clown with a crown of electric red hair who is sometimes mischievous and always a hoot.
   Axford and Zig Zag have something in common, however — they are the same person. Zig Zag is Axford’s clown character, and half of the business venture, Zig Zag and Ragz clown service.
   At an early morning Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry breakfast the cement-colored sky only barely illuminates wet sidewalks while guests wait in line with rain misting their faces. As they approach the door, desperate thoughts of coffee are replaced with a smile as they are greeted at the door by Zig Zag and her partner-in-clowning, Ragz.
   Axford discovered clowning in her early twenties, but the stage was set for her vaudevillian career early on. As a child in Pennsylvania, her father offered her the gift of humor and music. He had a mammoth record collection that the family spent weekends listening to. He took her to amusement parks and to ride on big steam engine models. He introduced her to classic comedians like Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob on TV.
   After high school, Axford began studying commercial art at a community college. One day she decided to take a clowning class at a local high school.
   “At the time — you can ask all my family and friends — I was very, very, very shy,” she said. “I thought I was just going to be a silent clown, like Emmett Kelly. But as soon as I put the makeup on, I started talking more.”
   She began learning the art of clowning through the evening classes and it came easily for her.
   Then she went to her first clown convention and she was hooked.
   She began to cultivate a serious hobby, taking more clown classes and attending clown conventions. At the North Penn Clown Alley she networked and “jammed” with other clowns, learning face painting and balloon making skills. She also met Cameron Stewart, a fellow clown who would become her future husband and clown partner, Ragz.
   When Stewart moved from Pennsylvania to Bellingham in the mid-‘90s, Axford followed, and they got married as clowns in 1997 in a ceremony involving KGMI broadcasting their vows.
   Since her first days of clown class, Axford had dreamed of turning her hobby into a career.
   “I had in mind that someday, somehow, I was going to do this for a living,” she said.
   The couple started Zig Zag and Ragz in 1999. Axford runs the show while Stewart continues to work a 9 to 5 job and joins her on the weekends for events. The clowns perform for any type of event — child and adult birthday parties, company picnics, anniversaries, family reunions and public events. They face paint, make balloon art — including gargantuan balloon hats that twist and drape comically over partygoers’ heads — play games, and perform “funny magic.”
   “We make things disappear, we make them reappear, we make unexpected things happen,” Axford said. These include changing scarves into lollipops and card tricks.
   The two can also be hired as singing telegrams.
   Axford said being a clown offers her a way to tap into the sense of play she felt as a child.
   “It’s a way of playing, of forgetting about all the serious stuff out there,” she said.

“A clown’s makeup and character, that’s all he has to sell. He loves and believes in that character.” — Emmett Kelly

One of the first things that attracted Axford to clowning was how it allowed her to express herself in a way she otherwise wouldn’t as her real self.
   “It opens you up because you become a different person than who your family and friends know. But it is a part of you,” she said. “It’s something you’re probably too afraid to bring out.”
   It takes Axford and Stewart a few hours to get into costume. Hers includes a striped yellow and white jumper, a bright red wig, and a hat with a floppy white flower. His includes a bright yellow collared shirt with a striped red and black suit and vest and a purple hat.
   And then, of course, is the makeup — white faces and red cheeks that give Axford a small pucker and Stewart a friendly grin.
   In order to transform into their clown selves for the chamber breakfast, for example, the couple wakes at 4 a.m. to get ready.
   They are not just dressing up during this time, they are transforming themselves into different personas.
   “I become Zig Zag,” Axford said.
   In fact, both clowns have specific characteristics. Zig Zag, for example, is 17 years old, has big toes and comes from a long line of ballroom-dancing clowns. Her favorite color is pink and she’s a tremendous face painter.
   Stewart said when he is dressed up and in makeup he enjoys getting to be “somebody else.”
   “I can be more silly and have more fun and get away with more in costume than I can as a ‘real person,’” he said. “For instance, Ragz can be smooth with the ladies because he’s funny and interesting. Cameron, on the other hand, is lucky to get a date, let alone be married. From an outward appearance only, Cameron looks like he might scare the kids, but in costume, Ragz can amaze both little kids and big kids with balloon creations.”
   Ramona Abbott, a local management consultant, has been in the Business Network Alliance with Axford for about three years, and has noticed over time her ability to switch into clown character.
   “I find her completely different. In person she seems much more quiet and much more shy. Very sweet and very thoughtful, but not super outgoing,” Abbott said. “(As a clown), she’s much more lively and outgoing.”
   Axford said being a clown has helped her learn to be more outgoing in her personal life.
   “I’ve learned from being a clown not to be so, so shy,” she said.

“The arrival of a good clown exercises a more beneficial influence upon the health of a town than twenty asses laden with drugs.” — Thomas Sydenham, 17th century English physician and author

Abbott has hired Zig Zag and Ragz for two events she’s hosted, one at the Mother Baby Center where she is a board member, and the other for a party at her home.
   It’s interesting how varied her guests’ reactions are to the clowns, she said.
   “You get a group of adults together having a summer barbecue and not only do you find out a number of your friends are clown phobic, but there’s no better ice breaker than those balloon hats — they are extravaganzas. They’re four feet tall. It’s almost like having a daytime masquerade party,” she said. “Some kids are freaked out by clowns, and those children grow up to be adults. We had a couple friends who were like, ‘did you know there are clowns here?’ They stayed away from the clowns. Then the rest of us teased them mercilessly.”
   At the event for the Mother Baby Center, Abbott appreciated that Zig Zag and Ragz performed for a discounted rate, as it was a charitable event. She also appreciated their ability to keep the children entertained while waiting to be photographed.
   “They were superb with the kids. They kept them entirely entertained while waiting in line. Between the two of them there is always something going on,” she said. “They allow the group to be more interactive. There’s just nothing like having a team of clowns at a party.”
   After a long day of clowning, Axford and Stewart are often too tired to go home and change before they hit the store for groceries. They routinely find themselves in public, in costume, with onlookers gaping at their getups.
   While shopping at Costco once, a man curiously sidled up to Axford and peered in her cart, asking, “So, what do clowns eat?”
   She just rolled her eyes and said, “Bananas.”
   People are always interested in whether they’re on their way to a gig, or want to take a picture with them.
   Things can get hairy when driving. Axford said people tend to slow down and gawk at them, getting distracted, while on the freeway. She just ignores it.
   “To me, it’s not a big deal. At first it was — I mean, you don’t see too many clowns out in public,” she said.
   Stewart said going out in public as a clown gives them an opportunity to hand out business cards and perhaps line up an event.
   It’s all in a day’s work for Zig Zag and Ragz, and the two clowns hope to entertain people far into the future.
   “We both enjoy what we do and if you had told me 20 years ago I was going to entertain people as a clown, I would have said, ‘not a chance, I’m a truck driver,’” Stewart said. “We’ll probably live longer with laughter.



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