SHERIDAN — Behind the makeup and outrageously colorful attire, Joe Schwartz can act like a kid again.
Schwartz is part of the Kalif Klowns, a local team that won the Pacific Northwest Shrine Clown Association competition earlier this month in Casper. It is the group’s second consecutive year returning home with the top prize after winning last year in Seattle.
“That’s when I get to cut loose,” Schwartz said. “That’s the beauty of the makeup, is you don’t have to be you.”
In his third career PNSCA competition, Schwartz also scored the most points as an individual and received the Top Banana award. He portrayed an auguste clown — known for their clumsy, buffoonish actions.
“He doesn’t mean to get into trouble, but he finds it,” Schwartz said of Jo-Joe, his clown character.
Fellow Kalif Klown Bill Rathburn competed for the second time and acted as a sad tramp clown named “Buddy.” Rathburn was hesitant to compete last year, but Schwartz ultimately convinced him.
“I didn’t think I could even be a clown,” Rathburn said. “I don’t have the personality to be a clown, so I figured, ‘If I’m going to do anything, I’m going to be a (sad) tramp.’”
Schwartz and Rathburn were two of four participants from Sheridan this year, along with Jeff Schoen and Steve Schlenker. Competitors came from seven states and two Canadian provinces. There were many categories, including single and multi-balloon tying — with a time limit of five minutes for single and 15 minutes for multiple — individual skit, two-clown skit, group skit and parade ability.
There was also a makeup and appearance category, where the clowns apply their own makeup — which takes around an hour — and are judged by how well it matches their costume. The clowns also strike a pose at the end that fits their character.
The Kalif Klowns not only won as a unit; they dominated some of the individual awards.
“There were categories where we took first, second and third,” Schwartz said. “When that started happening, it was pretty surreal.”
Schwartz placed first in five of the seven categories he entered: auguste clown, multi-balloon tying, one-clown skit, two-clown skit and unit skit. He also took second in parade ability, which Schoen won.
Rathburn and Schwartz relished the congenial atmosphere.
“That’s a big reason why I compete,” Schwartz said. “It makes us all better clowns. We learn tips and tricks from other guys … We couldn’t have done what we did this year without the advice of a lot of the guys that were there.”
The Kalif Klowns — who also take part in Sheridan County and PNSCA parades throughout summer — are part of the Kalif Shrine, an all-male fraternal organization in Sheridan that focuses on fundraising for Shriners Hospitals for Children around the country. The Kalif Shrine — which is the headquarters for members from the northern part of Wyoming — is part of Shriners International, which has about 350,000 members worldwide.
Both Rathburn and Schwartz were born and raised in Sheridan. Rathburn has been a Shrine member for 37 years. Schwartz has been a member for five years and is a third-generation Kalif Shriner.
Rathburn called Schwartz the driving force of the clown group.
“Joe is the guy that keeps us going and gets us going and builds the fire under all of us,” Rathburn said. “Now he’s made all of us really want to compete.”
Rathburn said in order to get into character before his performances, he constantly reminds himself that he is bummed out and down on his luck. He forces himself not to smile.
“The makeup you have puts you in this category, so you have to keep that composure the whole time,” Rathburn said.
Schwartz, meanwhile can act far more emotive and express part of himself that may otherwise be kept hidden.
At least for a day, Schwartz was a kid again.