27 June 2013
Just clowning around
One particular clown, in full outfit and huge comedy shoes, is a familiar fixture in Southend, Essex. Amid laughing children and balloon animals on a sunny bank holiday Monday he speaks with Lucy Cooper about bringing a smile to the seaside town...
"Hello there young man," he addresses a pretty little girl in pink. He waves a bag around quickly: "You are slow at picking a balloon aren't you." The old-school jokes evidently still work as the six-year-old has not stopped giggling for breath. "Now to serious matters, would you like a girl or a boy face on your balloon dog?"
Having been a busker on the high street since 1998 and having spent over 45 years in entertainment, Salvo the Clown chats and jokes with old and new friends, and anyone who cares to stop by to say hello. When not in his spot outside Mcdonalds, he can be found at fêtes, events or parties entertaining children aged two to 102. I had imagined a clown to be audaciously overbearing but found an unassuming and gentle man, waiting for children to approach him or ask grown-ups if they could have a balloon.
Salvo is such an institution here that children who enjoyed him in their childhood are now bringing their own children to see him appear on mild Saturdays or school holidays.
"I know I am making a difference when I see a child leaving happy. All I really want to do is bring a little colour and happiness into other people's lives," Salvo tells me. The circus he was doing manual work for in the 60s suddenly needed an extra clown, and as he says himself "the rest is history". In 1974 his circus provided tents for Christian meetings hosted by Dick Saunders. Salvo recalls: "There was something inside of me which made me go forward and give my life to the Lord when he asked people to respond. In the same year, a motorbike accident left me unable to continue clowning with the circus due to the heavy lifting involved.
"Gwyn Jordan played a huge part in my journey to faith and later on in 1995, as a result of performing at his child's birthday party, I regained confidence and restarted as a full-time clown. I sensed God calling me to spread happiness and encouragement through my children's entertainment."
Born with significant hearing loss and struggling with dyslexia and the effects of an unhappy childhood, Salvo has overcome life's difficulties to make a positive difference to the lives of others. "It is great when people comment: 'You are great with the children. Other entertainers don't have the time of day.' It is only time. I would like to continue till I am promoted to glory – in fact I'd like to do a Tommy Cooper (die doing the job I love)."
It is clear, with snide comments from passers-by, that not everyone likes clowns but Salvo doesn't let negativity affect him by focusing all his attention on interacting with the children showing interest. He explains: "Some people are afraid, maybe because their parents dragged them up to see a clown in their past. It is the reason I have such a simple face – so that I'm more approachable and they can see the real me behind the make-up." A member of Clowns International, Salvo annually rededicates his life to his vocation at a special clowns' church service in London. He set up the first Clown's Directory in 1991 to support and encourage clowns everywhere. "The logo sums up my vision – clowns from around the world holding hands, helping each other. The gold indicates how precious I feel each clown is. A world without clowns is purely unthinkable."
Local authorities, lost children and frantic parents benefit from Salvo's presence and all can be assured that the clown will contact police and stand with the child until they are reunited with their guardian.
Salvo, whose name originated when he appeared alongside a Salvation Army Officer, doesn't push his faith on anyone, but will share openly if the opportunity arises.
"Pushing too hard could lose me my place in a community in which I have had the pleasure of living since 1974. I do sometimes get a chance to talk about Jesus but I hope that people see a difference in me anyway and I prefer to lead by example and action rather than words." Salvo is not trying to change the world but to make a positive impression on the people he meets. And he does. "Mummy, look at those huge shoes!"