Friday, March 09, 2001

Clown club comes calling

Hospital visitors in fright wigs cheer ailing trouper

By David Eck
Enquirer Contributor

        Sometimes, funny guys with multicolored hair, bright baggy outfits and big floppy shoes are the best medicine.

        At least that's the sentiment of Joe Sherman, an 88-year-old retired professional clown who is fighting pneumonia at Bethesda North Hospital. On Thursday a group of fellow clowns from the Shrine Circus - decked out to the clown-nines - dropped by Mr. Sherman's room for a visit.

[photo] With Joe Sherman unable to make his annual visit to the Shrine Circus,the circus came to his hospital room Thursday. Visitors included Rascal (right), Razzle and Big Bob.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        Mr. Sherman, who spent 50 years as a clown and regularly worked Shrine circuses all over the country, was clearly overwhelmed.

        “I'm very happy they took time for me,” Mr. Sherman said. “It's nice to know I'm not forgotten.”

        For about 25 minutes the clowns laughed and joked with Mr. Sherman, of Milford. He also signed pictures of himself performing in the early 1940s. Since he retired in 1980, Mr. Sherman has been a regular at the annual Shrine Circus in Cincinnati. His clown friends just wanted to cheer him up.

        “We're amateurs and he's a professional and did what we love to do as a hobby,” said Bill “Buckeye” Hillis. “He's like having Joe DiMaggio as a friend. In his older life, he's shared stories with us. He's become a very good friend to us and a mentor.”

        Friends say Mr. Sherman started in show business in 1932. For 40 years he and Chester Sherman - not a brother, but a business partner for decades - were a clown act that traveled with various circus shows.

[photo] With his dog, Lucky, Joe Sherman is shown in a photo from about 1941.
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        Mr. Sherman said his long career allowed him to rub elbows with some of the nation's biggest stars, including Milton Berle, Red Skelton and George Burns - who gave him his first cigar.

        “To this day ... you can still mention the name Joe Sherman and people will immediately light up,” said Art Bausman, a friend. “He has friends all over the world.”

        Mr. Sherman was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1995, Mr. Bausman said.

        The local Shrine Circus, now in its 80th year, is playing the Cincinnati Gardens through Sunday. The circus is expected to raise about $25,000 for the local Shrine, said Jack Drach, circus director.

    The 80th annual Shrine Circus runs through Sunday at Cincinnati Gardens. Tickets can be purchased through the Gardens box office at 631-7793.
        Known for its little race cars in parades, the Shrine owns and operates 22 children's hospitals across the country and in Canada and Mexico, including the burns hospital in Cincinnati. The hospitals serve children up to 18 years old and are free to all children.

        There are about 4,000 Shriners in the Cincinnati temple.

        The Shriners take an active role in the local circus, especially the Shrine's 37 volunteer clowns.

        “It's the unit I can get the most out of,” said Ted “Razzle” Reed, a Shriner since 1968 and a Shrine clown for about seven years. “Every time you get a smile out of a little kid, it makes it all worth it.”

        But Thursday, Razzle and some of his peers got a smile out of an old clown who made generations of little kids happy.

        “People like him are national treasures,” Mr. Hillis said of Mr. Sherman. “You can preserve a building or forest, but guys like him, when they're gone, there won't be any more. We've gained a lot of respect for him.”

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