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StoryCorps Chicago: 'I grew up as a clown'

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Michelle Roberts “grew up as a clown.”

When she was three years old, her mom started a small business called the “Funny-Bone Ticklers.” The business involved Roberts, her three brothers and her parents dressing up in clown costumes and performing skits for audiences.

They juggled. They danced. They made people laugh.

They performed at birthday parties, school assemblies, corporate picnics, daycares, and military bases. When Christmas came around they dressed up as elves, and in the summertime they dressed as peasants for the Renaissance Fair. When the circus came to town, they helped to warm up the audience.

“My mom knew how to diversify,” Roberts tells her friend Brad Dalrymple in this week’s StoryCorps. “She was actually a really great business owner.”

Roberts’ mom created characters for each of the family members: Roberts’ dad became “Silly Simon.” Two of her brothers were “Gabby” (which was a joke, because he didn’t talk) and “Bee Bop.” Another brother was “Mr. Music Matt.” He dressed as a professional photographer and ran sound for the group. Michelle’s name was “Cutie Pie,” and she started as a mini-me to her mom’s “Petunia Pie.”

Because their makeup and wigs were so extensive, it took about three hours of prep time before a show. The family was often running late to gigs and frequently got pulled over by the cops for speeding.

“There’s two types of cops,” Michelle Roberts says. “There’s one that would walk up and just see that this giant purple van full of clowns and just start laughing. And he would let us off. But the opposite reaction was a really stone-faced cop whose reaction was like, ‘This isn’t time to clown around, guys. Here’s your ticket.’”

“My mom really treated it like a business,” Roberts says. “When we weren’t performing we were practicing and constantly coming up with new skits and writing new material.”

“It actually got to the point where the school were threatening to hold us back, so I was homeschooled for most of my education.”

“I don’t tell people about it very often,” Roberts says, “because I think that everyone thinks that clowns are weird.”

“Like my boyfriend, we had been dating casually for a month or something and I said, there’s something I have to tell you about my childhood. And I pulled out some pictures and he was flipping through them and he got a little overwhelmed. When he got to the elves, he was like, ‘This is too much.’”

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