Clowning around becomes second career
Published 9:00 am Monday, May 7, 2018
When Chris Burton was in elementary school, his grandparents took him to a magic show in Bowling Green. It was his first taste of magic, but not his last.
However, now, instead of watching the magic unfold on stage, he creates it.
Burton, 39, said he has been clowning for 17 years but officially made PJ’s Magical Events an LLC in 2015.
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“I’ve always enjoyed clowns,” he said. “And when I was younger, a lot of times for Halloween, I would do a clown. The very first time I put clown makeup on, my grandmother had the idea of white shoe polish on my face. So that was the very first time I had makeup on was a base of white shoe polish.”
From that point on, Burton knew clowning was what he wanted to do. One year at a church in Lexington in 1989, a clown was performing during a weeklong event, so Burton shadowed the clown and helped him prepare for his shows.
“It started pretty much as a career from there,” Burton said.
Burton said that clown gave him literature and training materials, and then, later on, Burton started attending clown conferences. Eventually, he went on to teach at clown conferences.
In 2012, Burton was the president of the Southeast Clown Association.
“The majority of gigs are birthday parties,” he said. “I do a lot of company picnics in the summer. And then once fall hits, I do some fall festivals. I’m also a clown for Biwater Farms in Georgetown during October.”
His clowning adventures have taken him to Jamaica, Cancun, Mexico, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Missouri and all across the state of Kentucky.
Burton said his shows are akin to comedy magic shows.
“That’s regular magic routines that a magician would do except they’ve got a clown twist on it,” Burton said. “So they end up with the same finish, but just a different way of getting to that finish.”
Burton said he also does walkaround routines, balloon twisting and is a certified balloon artist which means he can make elaborate balloon decorations and artwork for just about any purpose.
Burton is also a professional Santa Claus. When it’s time to be ole St. Nick, he grows his beard out more and bleaches it.
However, his job wasn’t always funny. For 12 years, he also worked at a credit union.
“(Clowning) was the only thing I wanted to do,” Burton said. “I did work for a credit union for 12 years and then just after 12 years, that was enough and decided to pursue this as a full time venture.”
The entertainment business ebbs and flows, he said, so it can be tricky when business isn’t overflowing. But when the gigs are lined up or he’s on stage performing, it makes everything worthwhile, Burton said.
“It’s a heart form, not an art form,” he said. “…You have to want to be in it to bring joy to people. There are so many times that you walk into a situation. You don’t you don’t know what’s happened and you’re you’re there to make somebody’s day.”
Burton said there’s a lot of training that goes into clowning and ballooning. Burton had to take an online training course and pass an online exam as well as an in-person exam in Kansas City, Missouri to become a certified balloon artist. Burton said he’d built intricate balloon art for different events — arches, bouquets, chariots and more.
“There’s like a lot of actual training that goes into doing this business,” he said.
You can’t just put clown makeup on and call yourself a clown, Burton said. There needs to be character development and choosing what type of clown to be, which can include whiteface, auguste or hobo/tramp, he said.
Burton said he always thought it would be fun to experience working at a circus, too.
Several people are or were afraid of clowns, Burton’s wife included. However, after his wife watched a few of his shows, she began to see the effect his character had on the audience. Inspired, she decided to try out clowning herself. Her clown character goes by Penelope.
Burton said his character’s name, PJ, was inspired by Penelope, but he often tells folks it stands for Praise Jesus.
“We thought PJ and Penelope would go well together,” he said. “We do gospel clowning also, so we go into churches and do summer events or fall festivals, dances or vacation Bible schools.”
Burton grew up in Glasgow but moved to Lexington when he was 6-years-old. In 2016, he moved to Anderson, Indiana, but in November of 2017 returned to Kentucky, settling down in Winchester.
“Most of our family is in and around Lexington, and then (Cornerstone Baptist Church) is our home church,” Burton said.
The best part of Burton’s job, he said, is seeing the expressions on people’s faces.
“Knowing that you’ve touched them in some way, not knowing the situation around or what their home life was like, you never know what impact you may have had,” he said.
Recently, a little girl asked to take a picture with him, and those moments are what matters, he said.
However, Burton said it’s also difficult to perform for children who may be hospitalized or are sick.
“The difficult part is going into a situation where you have a child that’s sick, and you know the situation’s not going to be better for them, but you still have to put on that face, and you still have to do the best you can and not let your real emotions show until you leave that hospital room,” he said.
Through the last 20 years, though, Burton said he’s thoroughly developed his character, PJ, and he’s even grown out his beard.
“PJ is very much a child,” he said. “He likes to have fun… As I tell the kids, I’m seven-and-a-half and three-quarters of an eighth when they ask how old I am.”
But the first-day nerves are still there after all this time.
“Still to this day before I get onto the stage I’ve got butterflies, and they say if you don’t have some bit of nervousness about you that you’ve just gotten above yourself and you’re not as good,” he said. “I’m not sure how to explain that. But if you’ve gotten so confident in yourself that it’s starting to show, then it’s just kind of no fun anymore.”
Burton said people could book him through his Facebook page or by calling 859-619-0047. Burton said he also uses an online booking agency and a few local agencies for companies and organizations that are looking to hire for bigger events.