Jim Caffrey was never a class clown as a kid, but for the past 22 years he's been a clown with class.|
The unfailingly polite 54-year-old Colona man is receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award today from the Midwest Clown Association (MCA) at Davenport's Clarion Hotel. And that's no laughing matter.
"I was totally impressed that my peers thought enough of me," Mr. Caffrey said of the honor Wednesday, the first full day of this week's 39th annual Midwest Roundup, which has attracted 175 clowns from seven Midwestern states to the Quad-Cities for classes on everything from character development, balloon sculptures, magic tricks and juggling to rubber chickens, clown ministry, face painting, sign language and birthday parties.
Mr. Caffrey was nominated by a colleague in the 30-member Quad City Clown Troupe, which he heads. The troupe is hosting the five-day convention for the first time since 2001. Mr. Caffrey also is incoming president of the MCA, which has a strong Jr. Joey program to train the children and grandchildren of the MCA members. Mr. Caffrey has been a key part of that youth training.
"I put together such a strong, solid program at the Midwest level that the president of Clowns of America International asked me to put together a program for them," he said, noting he's shared his ideas nationally and attends clown conventions from coast to coast.
Mr. Caffrey — who has worked in residential construction for 30 years and currently does blueprint design and drafting — got involved with the local clown troupe when it was founded in 1989, and he took park department clowning classes with Mickey Meeks, the former Davenport Ground Round clown. He wanted to clown at first to cheer up local hospital patients.
Mr. Caffrey started clowning in 1990, wearing a one-piece jumpsuit and a rainbow wig, and his first public performance was at the Special Olympics at Augustana College in Rock Island. "The most amazing thing to me was, at the end of the day, how accepted I was by everybody," he said.
The goal of clowning is to create a colorful, unique character with specific character traits and a back story, said Mr. Caffrey, who is naturally outgoing, but as a clown avoids being rude, overbearing or obnoxious.
"I really feel clowning has allowed me to be the person I'd like to be — easygoing; life's fun; with not a care in the world," he said. "You become another person. It's the only thing in your life you have absolute control over. You go over things that make you you."
Until 2001, Mr. Caffrey was "Jay J," a Technicolor-bold clown, wildly enthusiastic, who did a lot of physical comedy and slapstick. He was the only clown involved in the 1993 opening ceremony for The Mark of the Quad Cities (now the i wireless Center), during which he rode in on an elephant.
In May 2001, Mr. Caffrey broke his neck in a serious motorcycle accident. He spent a month in an Iowa City hospital and underwent two months of physical therapy and three years of outpatient rehabilitation. He was ready to give up clowning, but a friend convinced him not to.
Mr. Caffrey created a new character, B.C., who is more laid-back and reserved. His injuries forced him to give up juggling, making balloon animals, and stilt walking.
"The biggest problem was letting go of Jay J," he said. "It's like losing a family member. It's part of you you're letting go of."
He knows not everyone likes clowns, and he always asks permission first when visiting places such as nursing homes and hospitals. If he meets kids who are scared, he gently tries to win them over. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, that's the kid I'm trying to get off my leg to go home," Mr. Caffrey said.
The father of four and grandpa of two said the most moving experiences he's had as a clown came during a visit to a local hospital. An elderly woman called him back to her room after he went to the next one.
"Tears are running down her face, and she says, 'Don't stop — never stop what you're doing right now,'" Mr. Caffrey recalled. "She just wanted to let me know, 'Don't stop clowning in general,' and I have never, ever forgotten that. When you have somebody like that, praising what you did, you know you're doing it right."
Clowning for the public
The Midwest Clown Association Roundup at the Clarion, 5202 Brady St., Davenport, will feature two free events open to the public.
-- At 7 tonight, in the Cornet Room at the Clarion, individuals and groups of clowns will present a program of skits to be judged by a panel.
-- At 9 a.m. Saturday, outside the Clarion, clowns will compete for awards on paradeability. The parade will move inside if there is inclement weather.
The Quad City Clown Troupe meets at 7 p.m. the third Monday each month at Community Christian Church, 4330 12th Ave., Moline. For more details, visit midwestroundupwebsite.com.
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