Archive for Thursday, October 18, 2007

Elmo’s swan song

October 18, 2007

There will be no more clowning around at the Maple Leaf Festival parade for Danny McMillen after Saturday.

Yes, it's Elmo the Clown's swan song after 27 years. He's retiring to the old clowns' home. It's the oversized clown shoes that got to him.

"I want to quit while I'm ahead," said McMillen, long-time Baldwin City resident who has been clowning it up at the festival since 1980. "I've got an ankle that's getting bad. I can't wear those big shoes anymore.

"I may do some little things for people in town, but this is it for the parade," he said. "I want to walk. I don't want to ride."

During those 27 years, Elmo has seen it all, brought tons of smiles and laughter -- and scared a child or two, which he always seemed to fix. His fondest Maple Leaf parade memory came from that first trip down the brick streets.

"The very first year -- I'll never forget this -- I turned the corner on Eighth Street," said McMillen. "I saw a little kid with no legs, just pegs, on a blanket. He came out toward me on his hands. He caught my eyes. You could just see his eyes light up that someone picked him out of the crowd.

"It makes you feel good," he said. "I guess that's the pay."

A clown's beginning

McMillen wasn't always a clown. Not by a long shot. By the time 1980 rolled around, his family was pretty much raised. It was something from his childhood that sparked the interest into putting the makeup and clown nose on.

"What really got me started was I saw the Barnum and Bailey show in Lawrence in 1954," he said. "They unloaded off the railroad tracks and pulled all of their stuff to the fairgrounds. My dad took me to the show that night.

"The clowns just fascinated me," said McMillen, adding that all the famous ones, including Emmett Kelly, were there. "I really didn't know it, but that was what I liked best about the show. It kind of took a backburner until the boys were done with things."

It was out of the blue for all when he made the announcement in 1980.

"I said, 'I'm going to be a clown,'" he said.

"Surprised the heck out of me," said Becky McMillen, his wife.

"The seed had been planted way back then," he said.

First-year jitters

McMillen thought he was all ready to go back in 1980. That was until the day of the festival parade.

"Maple Leaf 1980 -- it was a good testing ground," he said. "I didn't want anyone to recognize me, so I had a white face that was painted, a wig and a hat.

"When the morning came it was raining," said McMillen. "Not hard, but it was raining. I looked out the window and said I'm not going."

That didn't work. His boys returned a favor on what he used to do with them.

"When the boys wouldn't do something, I'd 'buck, buck, buck' like a chicken," said McMillen. "That morning I heard the boys going around the house doing that. I thought you can't call the kettle black."

So, he lined up for his first Maple Leaf parade. Although there were tense moments, it all worked out -- for 27 years.

"That was a lonely feeling out in that street," he said. "I got to doing things and intermixing with the crowd and forgot all about what I looked like. It kind of went from there. I built on it for years."

Did anyone figure out who this Elmo the Clown was?

"No one knew it until my sons spilled the beans," said McMillen.

Festival finale

But this, the Maple Leaf Festival's 50th anniversary, will be Elmo's last.

The McMillen family will have a float in the parade and are encouraging people to join the Elmo Fan Club and wear t-shirts at the parade. Proceeds go to the Lumberyard Arts Center Project and people can call Becky McMillen at 594-3959 to join.

Although the festival was Elmo's beginning, it was far from the only parade he performed in during those nearly three decades.

"For awhile, we went to a different parade every week," said Becky McMillen.

During that time, Elmo developed his craft. Sometimes he poked fun at politicians. Well, many times he took shots at politicians, especially those that were in the same parades. But, it was so much more than that. It was playing to the crowd.

"It's like a piece of canvas and you paint on it on the way," he said of every parade route traveled. "You mirror people, happy or sad."

When he realized that Elmo needed to retire, just as he'd done from the work day life many years ago, there was no doubt how he'd go out -- the Maple Leaf Festival's grand parade.

"I started there, I'm going to end there," McMillen said.

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