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Rash of hoaxes no laughing matter for clowns

| Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, 8:39 p.m.

The national hysteria over creepy clowns hasn't stopped Elaine Scalf, better known as Glitter Dot, from performing goofy skits with cheesy punch lines and contorting balloons into toy animals.

“I'm still a clown. I still like to make children laugh and entertain them,” said Scalf, a Delmont clown who has performed across the region for almost 40 years. “And I don't want to give up the art just because there's some teenagers out there being ridiculous.”

Reports of crimes being carried out by people in clown suits have surfaced across the country, including in Western Pennsylvania. The clown rumors largely have spread via social media, with an overwhelming number proving to be false.

Last week, Mt. Lebanon police determined clown threats made against a local elementary school were a hoax. In Ford City, Armstrong County, officers said they would stop and question anyone dressed as a clown on Halloween.

The negative publicity has real clowns burning red with anger under their makeup. They worry the public fear will drive away younger performers.

Scalf has heard from fellow clowns who have received harassing phone calls since the paranoia started, and she's concerned some may decide to trade in their red noses and extra-large shoes for a less scrutinized career.

“It breaks my heart because there's not that many up-and-coming young clowns in the area,” she said. “And this whole epidemic is only going to make it worse.”

Clowning never has been easy, and the recent bad press is just another hardship, she said.

“I used to do 400 shows a year. Now I'm like under 200,” said Scalf, who performs with her husband, Daniel “Dapper” Scalf. “It's a sad thing when it's the way you make your living.”

Still, she's confident most audiences won't be put off by the scaremongers.

“I honestly think the news media is kind of blowing it up and giving the kids ideas,” she said. “To me, people know the difference between a real clown and a fake Halloween clown, a scary clown.”

A performance on Friday by Glitter Dot and Dapper at St. Mary of the Mount's Oktoberfest celebration in Mt. Washington got a good review from 9-year-old Liam Campbell of Baldwin.

“I think they're funny, and I don't think there should be creepy clowns,” he said.

Though he has heard “many reports” of such clowns, he said he likes clowns and is not scared.

Breanne Waters, 33, of Brookline, another Oktoberfest visitor said she thinks professional clowns are “great” because “they make kids smile.”

“Clowns don't scare me, and they never have,” Waters said. “I would say if I was out in the woods and a clown were to appear it would be a little scary, but I think it's crazy that they're running around trying to scare kids or get a rise out of anybody.”

Dustin Kidd, a sociologist and pop culture expert at Temple University, said professional clowns have dealt with this sense of fear for a long time, from Stephen King's “It” to a number of TV shows featuring scary clowns.

The phenomenon taps into a primal fear rooted in “this duality of clowns being both terrifying and cute,” Kidd said.

In many ways, the creepy-clown scare is reminiscent of the Salem witch trials, he said, “of this threatening force that we don't understand that we have to attack.”

“It really directs all of our energies and distracts us from the things that are actually much more threatening to us in our day-to-day lives like car wrecks and economic inequality and climate change,” Kidd said.

Jim Koontz of Latrobe occasionally performed as a clown. He is retired now and appalled by the effect hoaxsters and imposters have had on the profession.

“I don't even know what to tell you. If they find people who are doing this, something should be done to them,” he said. “I feel bad for the clowns who are trying to make their living as clowns.”

Some clowns carry ID cards showing their picture in and out of makeup. If “scary clown” reports remain common, such identification may become necessary, Koontz said.

“They'll have to pay money to have these IDs made up and have them on them wherever they go,” he said.

He remembers a friend and fellow clown who was stopped by police because someone had robbed a bank nearby while dressed in a clown mask.

“Talk about your profiling,” he said.

Staff writer Madasyn Czebiniak contributed. Jacob Tierney and Tony Raap are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Tierney at 724-836-6646 or jtierney@tribweb.com. Reach Raap at 412-320-7827 or traap@tribweb.com.

Glitter Dot the clown chats with Liam Campbell, 9, of Baldwin, and Cole Palombia, 8, of Brookline, during the Oktoberfest event presented by St. Mary of the Mount on Oct. 7, 2016, in Mount Washington.
Glitter Dot the clown chats with Liam Campbell, 9, of Baldwin, and Cole Palombia, 8, of Brookline, during the Oktoberfest event presented by St. Mary of the Mount on Oct. 7, 2016, in Mount Washington.
Glitter Dot the clown paints the face of Liam Campbell, 9, of Baldwin, during the Oktoberfest event presented by St. Mary of the Mount on Oct. 7, 2016, in Mount Washington.
Glitter Dot the clown paints the face of Liam Campbell, 9, of Baldwin, during the Oktoberfest event presented by St. Mary of the Mount on Oct. 7, 2016, in Mount Washington.
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