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I Used to Be a Clown

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I used to be a clown. Really. A professional clown.

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"Gino Cumeezi." That was my name. Great grandson of the infamous and toothless "Gums" Cumeezi. A cross between Charlie Chaplin, Jack Kerouac, and Grand Central Station. I like to think of Gino as a subversive public fool. A comic outlaw. A provocateur to the max. Truly one of New Yawk's "finest." In fact, Gino ran for mayor of New York City in 1977. Against the recently deceased (February, 2013), one and only mayor of New Yawk, Ed Koch. "Put a real clown in Gracie Mansion." That was Gino's campaign slogan. He finished fifth out of four candidates.

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Once, when he was campaigning for mayor, shaking hands, signing autographs, and kissing babies, Gino was arrested for "reckless clowning." For real! On a bright-urban, smog-filled, Big Apple fall day of 1977, two of New Yawk's blue-suited "finest" were so uncomfortable with the large crowd surrounding Gino -- underground in the 57th street IRT subway (two decades before terrorists and 9/11) -- that they handcuffed him, hauled and stuffed him into the back of their black and white police car like a human accordion, and shut him behind bars at the 59th street station at Columbus Circle, just adjacent to Central Park.

Now, "clowning" -- that is, being a clown -- is no laughing matter. It takes hard work, discipline, endurance, and total commitment. Especially the way I did it. You see, as soon as I left my small hotel room at 55th and Broadway (from the erstwhile seedy but elegant, Hotel Woodward) -- in white face, black derby, size 34 fur-lined Klondike boots, black mourning coat, butterfly tie, and complete clown mufti, I was completely and entirely "Gino." Not me, Trules, dressed in a clown suit. No, I was the one and only "Cumeezi" (etymology: "cum" from the Latin for... whatever, and "eezi" from the great Italian line of Sicilian bozos).

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But... when Gino was locked in the slammer in May, 1977, by two of New Yawk's "finest" at the clean and immaculate police station at 59th and Columbus Circle for "reckless and indecent clowning," he was also completely without... ID... or voice. I mean, c'mon, what kind of silent clown starts talking just because he's in jail? Well, certainly not Gino! (Ok, he did have his kazoo!) At first, this didn't go over too well with the Boys in Blue. You see, because Gino had no ID other than his "Gino Cumeezi for Mayor" button, they just didn't know what to do with him. "Ok, pal, what's your real name?" "Gino" (in wild pantomime): "Here's lookin' at you, boyz!" "Very funny, Gino, but you're in jail now. The act's over. What's your fuckin' name?" "Gino" (in wilder pantomime, with kazoo): "I'm Gino. Just Gino. Gino Cumeezi."

A few of da boyz in blue start cracking up. They have a clown in jail... who, they sense has done nothing wrong other than try to make New Yawkers laugh. He's voluntarily encouraged them to arrest him, which they've clearly and stupidly done, and the clown has no ID! What the hell are they supposed to do with him? Take off his clothes and do an anal search?

"What do you want us to do with you, Gino?" Gino: wild gesticulation. Cops: dazzlement and confusion. A few more laughs. The blue-uniformed crowd is getting bigger around Gino's jail cell. "C'mon, Gino, give us a break!" The boyz in blue are caught somewhere between amusement and procedure. They write him up. Charge him with "reckless clowning and disturbing the peace." Give him a misdemeanor ticket with a court date, and set him free. Gino (wildly gesticulating): "Thanks, boyz. That was fun. Have a nice day."

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A month later, Gino has his day in court. Unfortunately for presiding Judge Lance Ohno, Gino has brought his entire clown troupe with him, the "Cumeezi Bozo Ensemble" (R.I.P: Cumeezi.com), along with his childhood friend, Ric Reaper, now a public defender for "Legal Aide" at 100 Center Street, and... the New York Post. "Camille," Gino's prim and proper, white-faced Cumeezi colleague is sweeping the courtroom, "Mr. Eggs" is climbing over the courtroom pews like Benigni at the "Life Is Beautiful" Oscars, and Ric Reaper is pleading hapless Gino's case to Hizzoner.

"Your honor, Mr. Cumeezi means no disrespect to your law-abiding and esteemed courtroom. However, he is... a clown. As such, he has no other choice but to... clown. He hopes you will understand and dismiss his public transgressions..." "Just a minute, Mr. Reaper," seethes the offended judge, turning bright red behind his ears. "This is a travesty! Will you please have Mr. Cumeezi sit down in his seat and get his other clowns out of my courtroom? Otherwise, he will soon be trading his ridiculous and inappropriate clown suit for one of another stripe!"

Anyway, you catch my drift. Gino Cumeezi was one crazy and comic, badass provocateur. His sole purpose in life was to push the public envelope... and make people laugh. "To live outside the law you must be honest." That's what Bob Dylan said when he was still "freewheelin'." And "free!"That's what Gino Cumeezi was. Beholden only to his own laws. The cosmic, comic, & Cumeezi laws of the universe. Gino didn't conform. He ... non-conformed... to the nonsensical, rule-breaking anarchy of white face and mufti. He directed traffic at Broadway and Wall Street. He climbed the desks of Norman Cousin's "Saturday Review" office on 6th Avenue in midtown. He voluntarily got arrested and went to court. And... the world just usually played... along.

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Decades later, I find myself working at a most respectable institution of higher learning in Los Angeles, Califonia. At USC, the largest private employer in the southern part of the great state of discovery, invention, bankruptcy, and non-conformity. Me, a clown? Teaching college? Yup. This is my 28th year as a faculty member of the USC School of Dramatic Arts, and I still teach the course I was originally hired for, "Improvisation" (along with other courses with names like "Bob Dylan, the 60s, and You," "Self-Expression and the Arts," "Solo Performance," "Arts & Culture LA," and "A Life in the Theater with Gordon Davidson"). I'm the maverick of the faculty. The "non-academic." I don't have a degree in my "field," I never studied what I teach, and I've completely "made up" my own courses. Yet my classes are always full and I get good notices on "Ratemyprofessor.com." As Frank Sinatra might say, I've sort of done things "my way." (Wasn't Frank also from Sicily?)

But... what most of my esteemed colleagues, or even my boss, never knew... until this last Spring of 2014... when I taught USC's first ever official "clown" class... is that Gino Cumeezi was always... and is still... alive and well. At USC, in the classroom... and in life.

You see, my style of clowning never included trained circus skills like juggling, or elephant riding, or fitting 25 clowns into a Volkswagen Beetle. Nor did Gino ever do a birthday party for hire. Sure, I remember seeing Emmett Kelly Jr, Ringling Brothers famous tramp clown, sweep the ephemeral spotlight in Madison Square Garden's sawdust center ring in the late 1950s.

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And I was always a fan of Soupy Sales and The 3 Stooges, but I came to clowning circuitously... through self- discovery, rebellion and... dance.

Let me explain. After graduating SUNY Buffalo in 1969 with a degree in frisbee and no direction home, I set out on my great Bob Dylan-Jack Kerouac American odyssey, crossing the great USofA like it was one big map. I drove my 1964 green camouflage-painted Pontiac Tempest named "Wolfie" up and down the country from New Yawk to the Florida Keys, and after six helter skelter months "on the road," I ended up in the Windy City of Chicago, where by good fortune, accident and incident, I somehow became... a modern dancer. I know, pretty far-fetched. But like ex-heavyweight champ, Sonny Liston, always said, "Life... a funny thang."

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In any event, before I knew it, I was living in one of my generous, flower-power co-dancer's bohemian attic in Chicago's burgeoning New Town, right down the street from where the future Steppenwolf Theater Company would one day come to call home. Mona, my modern dance angel, would wake me up every morning with a clunky but sonorous cow bell tied to a long rope from the 2nd floor up to the attic, and soon I was in the dance studio, miraculously making a hundred dollars a week, working my "first job." I was a lucky young man.

Three years later, after countless hours of sweat, injury, and dance-training, I'm now teaching a bunch of weekly classes in the Dance Center of Columbia College, a refurbished old meat-packing building at 4800 North Sheridan Drive, near Lawrence Avenue and icy Lake Michigan. I've already spent a lovely overnight in Cook County Jail for slamming "The Wolf"'s glove compartment door on an over-curious cop looking for delinquent parking tickets, and I'm more than ripe for some additional counter-cultural revolution. But how can I bring my avant garde, but still stuffy, indoor concert dance to... the streets of Chicago?

Then... it suddenly hits me. Just like a Keystone Kop pie in the face! "Hey, you guys," I announce to my adventurous, 20-something dance-theater students, "Go to the Salvation Army, or to some of the other local thrift shops, and bring your own 'clown' costumes to class. Silent film style. I'll bring the Max Factor white pancake makeup."

And lo and behold, they do. And lo and behold... I do. I find some oversize, white baseball pants with pencil-thin green pinstripes, hoist them up with wide red elastic suspenders, and somehow instinctually assemble Gino Cumeezi's first-ever costume (without even knowing his name to be). It's a three quarter, to-the-back-of-the-knees, black wool mourning coat, a mint black felt bowler derby, a standard old-fashioned white dress shirt with plastic moose cufflinks, a one of a kind 1950s cranberry butterfly tie, and providentially, the size 34 fur-lined Klondike boots. And voila!

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Out we go. Into the streets of Chicago. Fifteen newly-born ragamuffins in clown mufti, white face, and multi-colored grease paint. West along Lawrence Avenue... up to the transcendental "el" (elevated train), to... my new life as... Gino, the outlaw-clown.

What I remember most about that very first day was the havoc and fun we had on the trains. How people sat in our laps, kissed our faces, pulled our arms, and ran out of their storefronts just to see us and shake our hands. How thrilling and exciting and humanizing it all was... in the middle of big cold, urban Chi-town. And how... coming back east down Lawrence Avenue at the end of our one hour mad-comic expedition, the great gusting Chicago wind grabbed my (Gino's) black umbrella from my/his hand, and just held it up in the air, suspending it magically, for at least half an hour (at least it seemed that long), as I (Gino) ran madly around underneath the umbrella, a comic speck of madman, in the middle of the traffic-stopped street, for what seemed like.. the most beautiful moment of slapstick eternity I have ever experienced. I was sure that god himself, or at least the great puppet master in the sky, held that umbrella aloft in the swirling wind, while all of Lawrence Avenue tumbled out of their shops, topsy-turvy, to watch me, this crazy clown running around and around in circles, until... "half an hour" later... also magically... the great puppet master, finally floated the umbrella down, softly and gracefully, back into my (Gino's) hand, as if it was all gloriously choreographed by the Little Tramp, Chaplin, himself.

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Things would never be the same after that day. I had been touched by a blast of cosmic clown dust; inhabited by a free, improvisatory force I had never experienced before; found my own entry way into the 1960s rebellion... discovered how to live outside the law by being... a god's honest fool. I had found my alter ego, Gino Cumeezi. My risk-taking and rebellious ticket to ride... who would take me places, both inside and outside myself, that I had never known existed before.

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You see, I see... my entire life, as one huge, Sisyphus-ian effort to set myself... free. Ever since I painfully and metaphorically cut my 22-year-old umbilical cord from the cloying conveyor belt of American and parental expectation, I've been trying to do just that, to set myself... free. I guess... growing up so repressed, so un-free, for my first 22 years on the planet, I've had to spend my next 44 in constant and perpetual pursuit of.... that very thing. "Freedom," my favorite word in the English language. The pinnacle of human endeavor. Of discovery. Of invention. Of the creative act itself. Thomas Jefferson's, the French Revolution's, the chattel slave's... unattainable ideal. "Freedom"... the closest word I know to "transcendence." The getting out of... beyond... oneself. Beyond ego. Beyond self-consciousness. Beyond the strictures of others'.... control, opinion, comparison....

Thru god, thru love, thru art, thru devotion, thru surrender... each, a way, to set oneself... free. Whether submitting to Allah, to Mohammad, to Jesus, to Yahweh, to your husband, to your wife, to your son, to your daughter, to your practice, to your art, to your church, to your rabbi, to a cause, to a guru, to a... what...ever... it hardly matters. As long as you put something above and beyond yourself.

And that's what dance... what art... what clowning... did for me. It set me free. Thru the art of improvisation. By taking chances. By making up and discovering the next moment. Each moment after the other. Each unique, new moment... like jazz. Without knowing, without planning. Just being... in the moment. In the flow. Whether it was dancing... onstage... in an improvisation. Or clowning in public at O'Hare airport in Chicago. Or later at "La Marqueta" in New Yawk's Spanish Harlem. Or in the shopping malls of Kota Kinabalu, East Borneo, Malaysia. Clowning in public, with the public, was about investing enough comic, manic, risk-taking, rule-defying energy that you could transform the ordinary... into... the extraordinary. Make magic out of the ordinary. Make theater out of the everyday urban encounter.

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Gino Cumeezi had the "freedom," the instinct, the need... to flout convention . To climb the concrete lions at the New Yawk Public Library.

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To sit in passengers laps on the New York City subway.

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To show up at 100 Center Street -- in a clown suit -- with six other clowns -- in Judge Ohno's straight-laced, non-comic courtroom. Just because his "job" was to challenge... laws, mores, authority, even convention itself. To see how FAR he could go... without getting caught. Without causing injury or... offense. Because Gino knew the clown's job was to speak truth to power... like fools historically did to kings. Because Gino was certainly no mere mortal. He was sprinkled with "fool's dust." With "magic." Gino climbed... up... downstairs escalators. He chewed businessmen's ties on Wall Street.

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He rode baggage claim belts in airports.

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He started public food fights. He stomped from office desk to office desk in corporate, buttoned-down America. He comically "stole" a gangbanger's girlfriend in broad daylight!

You name it, not only could Gino do it, but he WANTED to do it. He was EXPECTED to do it. The public begged him to do it. And they rewarded him with -- laughter. With -- love. The more he flouted convention, the more he took wild risks, the more he made people laugh... at themselves... at each other... with each other... the greater the clown he was.

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How to describe -- to capture -- a real Cumeezi moment? Let me try. First off, you have to imagine yourself... larger than life... animated - like a cartoon character... dropped.. out of the blue... willy-nilly... into... ordinary life. You know how they say that a high speed race car driver has so much more control of his vehicle at 180 mph than an ordinary driver at 60? Well, that's a start. Put this elevated, high speed super-reality together with the controlled, manic animation of a cartoon character, then step forth into life's ordinary hustle and bustle. Try extending an index finger a foot in front of your nose.... what do you have? Twist it a bit to the right... what else can you discover? Put the thumb and the forefinger three inches apart... what then? Every moment is a new, animated moment. Movement has content. Every small gesture, is a new frame in the heightened cartoon reality of your character. Move the shoulders up, what does it feel like? Look at the surprised person in front of your white animated face... what can you make of the moment? Surprise? Delight? Embarrassment? Intrusion? Shame? Anger? What if you reach out, take a chance... see what you can... create... between the two of you?

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It's a Saturday afternoon in July. Hot as pancake griddle. Gino's found himself up a tree in Brooklyn. Literally, of course. Say it's the 4th July. The Cumeezi Troupe has ventured to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, long before it'll become the gentrified art mecca of world. There are mostly black skull-capped orthodox Jews in the hood, along with the usual mix of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and a colorful array of Patti Smith's Just Kids. Gino's climbed this long, slim-necked tree, well-planted in a sidewalk. Maybe in 20 years the birch, or dangerously bending bow... might... be good for some shade, but right now, it's succumbing to Gino's comic weight... as he climbs higher and higher, quickly running out of real estate... as a large motley crowd gathers beneath him... and eggs him on. "Go, Gino, go!"

"What the fuck?" That's what I'm thinking. I have no idea what to do next. What's going to happen... to Gino... to the tree... to me! Gino grabs another branch, hoists himself just a bit higher. His size 34, fur-lined Klondikes look like 2 Titantics in a kiddy pool. One is above his head like an distorted isosoles triangle, the other is supporting all his/my weight, on a thin, yielding branch that's muttering "C'mon, Gino, you must be kidding me!" The crowd is screaming & whooping it up: "Higher, Gino! Higher!"Not knowing that this isn't a well-rehearsed circus act, where the clown comically crashes to his own demise onto a soft foam rubber bed of theatrical artifice. No, this is a truly Cumeezi moment, where neither Gino or I have any idea how to get out of this Laurel and Hardy "what kind of mess have you gotten me into this time?" improvised moment of sublime comedy and/or... bow-breaking tragedy.

And here's the feeling, as the ever-growing crowd keeps chanting: "Higher, Gino, higher." Yes, of course, I want to take the next step "higher," knowing, of course, that maybe the branch'll just break... and I'll fall to my... miserable, untimely death or at least to my... sad, paraplegic future in a very un-funny wheelchair. But simultaneously, I'm also thinking 'maybe Gino'll just grab onto the next branch. or... he'll comically and providentially end up wedged into the crook of two convenient branches down below... maybe a little scratched up the next day... but it'll be a great moment. The crowd will laugh and you'll...

You'll... what? You don't exactly know, do you? No, of course not. It's just... "take the next step." "See what'll happen." Make 'em laugh." "Make 'em squirm." They're excited. They have no idea what will happen next, but they're... transfixed. You got 'em in the palm of your panicky hand. You do!

But... what, next, Gino? Grab the next branch? Give 'em the ol' Cumeezi clown tremble, practiced like the rubber-faced dancing bear you are. Not too difficult to manufacture... up here, maybe 20 feet in the air, birch branch bending to the will of the crowd... and from the weight of the manic, 155 pound Cumeezi. "Wave to the kiddies below, Gino." "Reach out for help, Gino." "Let go of one hand. Up the ante, Gino." What the fuck, Gino? How the hell are you gonna get out of this one?

Yeah, that's... the feeling. Controlled, unknowing... panic. Excitement. Risk. Performance anxiety. Invincibility. Staring down into the lion's den. From the mouth of Vesuvius. Vicarious thrills. Freedom. Transcendence. All in the name of... art!

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Sad to say, Gino retired a few years after that comic July misadventure (though he did get down safely from the tree growing in Brooklyn). He hung up the well-worn black derby... the size 34 fur-lined Klondikes. No broken bones. No broken (tree) bows. Just lots of bends. Lots of scratches, falls and tumbles. Most intended. Some not.

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They say a clown gives his audience the opportunity to laugh at themselves. "Damn, look at that fool. He's dumber than me!"... as he takes another pie in the face. Trips over his own gi-normous shoes, slams head first into another unforgiving wall, into another steam-rolling train. Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd... dangling from the face of a 1920s downtown LA clock... the old Mack Sennett Keystone Kop comedies and the long-forgotten Hollywood silent movie classics. Made right here in my old neighborhood, Echo Park.

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Perhaps Gino was just trying to carry on the comic tradition. By being a different, modern-day, New Yawk, convention-flouting kinda clown. A comic outlaw. A provocateur. He just wanted to see how far he could go... without getting caught. He wanted to be... free. To crumble barriers -- between people, between their cautious, oh-so-civilized exteriors -- and their oh-so vulnerable inner "childs. "Fuck pretense." "Fuck social norms." "We gotta lot more in common than we're lettin' on..." That's what Gino Cumeezi would say... if you could ever... get him to talk!

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Nope, Gino didn't win the 1977 New Yawk Mayoral election. He came in 5th out of 4 candidates. But you know what? I've been been thinkin'... now almost 40 years later... of maybe updating the Cumeezi tradition... maybe with some new mufti... a little less white face pancake... and....

Maybe just taking a little spin around Union Station. Right here in downtown, post 9/11 LA. Who knows? Maybe I/Gino... could get... arrested...

... again.

Sounds pretty good to me...

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Most "Cumeezi" photos by Anita Feldman. Many thanks!

Please visit Trules' personal blog, "trules rules" at: www.erictrules.com/blog/

And his "e-travels with e. trules" blog at: etravelswithetrules.com/blog/