With his fringe of carroty hair, red pingpong ball nose and stenciled smiley mouth, Chuck Sidlow looked jolly. But he was not a happy clown...

Share story

SARASOTA, Fla. — With his fringe of carroty hair, red pingpong ball nose and stenciled smiley mouth, Chuck Sidlow looked jolly. But he was not a happy clown.

Feelings of rejection and dismay have gripped many show folks of late in the circus town of Sarasota, once the wintertime home for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. At the root of their woes is a small but vocal group of local artists that objects to a seemingly innocuous plan.

To raise money and celebrate its 25th anniversary, Hospice of Southwest Florida wants to place up to 70 large fiberglass clowns — painted by artists and sponsored by businesses — around town. The concept has ample precedent, from Chicago’s cows to Miami Beach’s flamingos to Washington, D.C.’s donkeys and elephants, and beyond. For hospice directors, clowns unquestionably captured Sarasota’s spirit and history, and the city commission embraced the plan.

But the dissenting artists say the mass-produced figures are overly commercial and hackneyed. Sarasota’s plan is made worse, they believe, because the figures in question would be clowns, which they say would cheapen a city that bills itself as the “cultural coast.”

Plus, they noted, some children and adults suffer from coulrophobia — a serious fear of clowns.

“The clown phobia thing is huge, I had no idea. There are people who just plum hate the images of clowns,” said Virginia Hoffman, a sculptor and chairwoman of Sarasota’s Public Art Committee. “I’m concerned about fallout. What if there are protests by clown haters, or people who want to vandalize clown statues?”

Controversy over the proposed figures swept Sarasota last month, with news of the plan drawing heated reaction from locals, both pro- and anti-clown. Amazed city commissioners fielded complaints from locals professing a clown phobia.

“I’ve gotten e-mails from people who say they have a phobia of clowns. And I’m stunned,” said Ken Shelin, a city commissioner. “I don’t know whether these people are pulling my leg or telling the truth.”

A television crew showed up at a Public Arts Committee meeting — dumbfounding its members — where a handful of artists begged the city to abandon what they described as an “ill-conceived” and “Disney-esque” plan.

An editorial in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune cautioned that “there’s a fine line between taste and prejudice, and clown foes are at risk of crossing it.”

The commotion struck a nerve throughout the circus community here, and many think that those who are grumbling about the clowns have snubbed an integral part of the city’s past.

“Clowning and the circus are vital to the community. We have embraced the community and they have embraced us,” said Sidlow, 46, a full-time clown.

The hospice plans to forge ahead with its original plan.

Hospice spokeswoman Kristine Nickel said hospice leaders briefly considered the coulrophobes, but concluded that almost everyone is hung up on something.