The clowns of La Crosse

Sometimes, a line in a news story can sidetrack you. I was dutifully working my way through the La Crosse Tribune story today about the dilemma facing the campus of the University of Wisconsin La Crosse. Much of its history is on VHS tapes and it has to be moved to a digital format if it is to be preserved.

It was this line that took me somewhere else.

Jim Jorstad, UW-L’s director of academic technologies, slid a tape out from a wall of thousands. Containing video of the 1987 Clown Camp, an annual event that ran its course years ago, it’s a fitting example of the university’s dilemma.

Whoa! Rewind there! Clown Camp? Indeed, at one time, La Crosse was the center of the clown universe.

Further Googling ensues on — no joke — The program began as an offshoot of the evening continuing education program.

Clown Camp® began in 1981 with 35 persons in attendance. Much excitement was generated, because attendees came from as far away as Detroit and Kansas City. The instructors at the first year’s program were Warren “Buddy” Boelter, Betty “Pee Wee” Cash, Gene “Cousin Otto” Lee, Bruce “Blinky” Nelson, Richard “Snowflake” Snowberg, and Michael “Bingo” O’Shaughnessy. Participants stayed in the Coate Residence Hall, and all classes were held in the basement of this building. The first camp store was located in the tv lounge. First year participants who will later became staff were Tom Cline, Al Fast, Paul Glaros, David Heim, Kim McRae, and Dorothy Miller. Walkaround competition was held at La Crosse’s Valley View Mail. Participants were judged while actually entertaining mall customers.

The university assumed that Clown Camp® would be a one-time affair, not an annual event. However at the conclusion of the 1981 program, participants all agreed that they (a) did not want to go home, and (b) definitely wanted to return again next year. Thus began the plans to host yet another program in 1982. This program had 50 persons in attendance. In 1983 the enrollment climbed to 80, and in 1984 Clown Camp® attracted over 100 attendees.

Photo: Richard SnowbergThe camp was started by Richard Snowberg, then the school’s I.T. guy. There were no textbooks on clowning back then, so he wrote his own, and eventually became the head of the World Clown Association, breaking down cultural clown barriers by inviting European and Asian clowns to La Crosse. He was given the World Clown Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and the World Clown Association President’s Humanitarian Award in 2013.

Apparently, there were no other clown camps in existence, at least on a college campus. Maybe it was an ’80s thing but the popularity soared to the point where, in 1985, the instructors were making $1,000 a day.

For 25 years, Clown Camp rolled along — expanding to include mime instruction. But the last UW camp was held in 2008.

In July of 2008 the university abruptly notified Clown Camp® that facilities could no longer be made available to continue to program. The stated reason was one of liability. Future programs would need to be re-located to other off campus facilities. The program offices had to be shut down, and all personal items, as well as remaining supplies and equipment were to be removed from the two campus storage facilities, and the two offices. Over 160 cases of items were packaged and removed from campus by the second week of August. Left behind as property of the university were computers, five printers, filing cabinets, storage cabinets, office furniture, video equipment, digital cameras, display systems, unicycles, and office supplies.

The lawyers killed the clowns.

Unsurprisingly, there is now a clown shortage.