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On the Job: A real clown

| Monday, Dec. 3, 2007

Five-year-old Lauren Haffner of Highland Park wakes up nearly every Wednesday asking the same question.

"She'll start talking about how she's going to see Giggles the Clown that night," said her mother, Shelley Haffner.

Lauren usually is one of about a dozen young people who flock toward the clown at Max & Erma's restaurant in Shadyside, where Giggles performs each Wednesday.

"Hi Giggles," says Bailey Preston, 3, of Garfield. It's not their first meeting.

After six years of performing at the restaurant, Giggles has developed a large following.

"The kids love this. It's something to do while we wait for the food," said Ron Levick of Point Breeze, a regular at Max & Erma's.

In fact, Giggles has become such a fixture that restaurant manager Bill Rice is accustomed to getting phone calls throughout the day on Wednesdays.

"Some people don't want to come here for dinner if she is not here. We would not see this many people in the restaurant without her," Rice said.

Giggles -- a.k.a Judith Coradi -- knows each of her young fans by name and even gets letters from children who knew her and since have moved away. "I have two kids who write me from Utah," she says.

Coradi, 46, of Coraopolis, has been a clown for nearly 40 years. Her father, George Besherich, better known as Smokey the Fire Eater when he performs for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and The Tom Nix Rodeo, helped her get a start as a clown at the 1968 Fall Fantasy Parade at Kennywood Park.

"He would put torches in his mouth," Coradi said. "That's not something I would ever want to do."

Instead, Coradi has honed delivery of an endless string of one-liners and word plays, and twists and bends balloons into whatever animals or objects kids want.

On a recent evening at Max & Erma's, Bailey asked for the most complicated balloon animal: a dragon. The finished product contained about 25 balloons and was so large that it overwhelmed the restaurant booth when Bailey ate dinner with her mother, Felisa Preston.

"That was like an IKEA balloon. It had so many pieces. It was just like putting a bedroom set together," Coradi said.

Felisa Preston said she hoped the dragon would last until that Friday -- "Show-and-tell day in day care."

Coradi puts on her clown outfit about four times a week. In addition to her Shadyside dates, she makes regular appearances at birthday parties, corporate events and other functions.

Besides balloon sculpting, Coradi's shows often include magic, juggling and face-painting.

She has led classes and seminars on "clowning" at the Community College of Allegheny County, Shadyside Center for the Arts and at Youth With a Mission locations in Belle Vernon and Smithtown, N.Y.

Coradi runs every part of her business, from advertising and promotions to booking events. But the performances satisfy her the most.

"I get to do what I think I was born to do," she said. "I was born to be a performer."

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