Highlands Today staff
LAKE PLACID - The first thing Al Pelski asks wannabe clowns who come to the Lake Placid institute to learn the art of clowning is whether they like to do things for others.
"If they don't raise their hands, I usually dismiss them," said the president of Toby the Clown Foundation and Clown Museum, which has been organizing clowning classes for 20 years.
This weekend, a fresh batch of clown students will learn the ABCs of being a clown and the importance of giving back during a three-day, 24 hour clowning class that draws not just locals but people from as far as California.
Keith "Toby" Stokes, who started the clown school, organized the first class of clowns and graduated six clowns.
Since then, Pelski estimates the Lake Placid school has graduated more than 2,500 clowns, about a fourth of whom are from the Highlands County area.
"It's a life-changing experience," said Pelski, whose clown persona is "Big Al."
Students are taught about the history of clowning and the different types of clowns. They learn magic tricks, how to make balloon animals, the art of story-telling, safety tips and even how to stay cool in a clown costume.
Learning how to put on the make-up is a key part of the get-up for clowns, and so is coming up with the clown character, the costume parts and props.
While some students have a rough idea of what they want to be, clown school officials help the more uncertain ones find their unique persona "within their hearts," Pelski said. It could be a childhood nickname or a favorite sports team.
"Generally, a broad basic instruction is provided. Most graduating clowns choose certain parts of their skills to expand upon," the website adds.
The clown school charges $100 for every class and that includes the fee to get a background check.
The clown school also provides all students with a professional clown make-up and initial start up kit, a one year paid membership to The Toby The Clown Foundation & Toby's Clown Alley, a one-year subscription to The Toby Times Newsletter, and a graduation certificate after completing 24 hours of class time and participation in the student clown show.
The clown museum is a nonprofit group with 200 members and only one paid staff member, Pelski said.
A group of 12 instructors with specialities in different fields teach the class, he added.
While there are many clown schools, "we are one of the better ones," he added, and only one of two schools he knows that has an instruction manual.
Most of the clown graduates from Toby's become volunteer clowns. You may see them at the Caladium Festival or at a fair or a school event.
Pelski said all the community outreach is done for free. The only time they charge is when they are requested by businesses.
To sign up for the class, Friday to Sunday, call 863-465-2920 or Pelski at 863-243-9473.
Pelski said they will be taking applications until the morning before the class starts Friday.
The clown school is located at 109 W. Interlake Blvd., in Lake Placid.