IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Send in the clowns — to honor their muse

Image: Clowns sing at Holy Trinity Church in London
Clowns sing during the annual Grimaldi Service at Holy Trinity Church in London on Sunday. Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) is considered the father of modern clowning. Luke Macgregor / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Brilliantly colored wigs, parasols and minuscule hats filled the nave as men and women sporting white face-paint, polka-dot bow-ties and bright red noses sang hymns and said their prayers.

The 350 people gathered Sunday at Holy Trinity Church in east London were remembering one of Britain's best-known clowns — as well as recently departed friends — in their own, unorthodox way.

The service, which has been drawing clowns to this dour, red-brick church for more than 45 years, was held in honor of Joseph Grimaldi, known to many as the father of modern clowning. The service also honors clowns who have died in the past year.

The attendees kept the service bright and cheery. Roly Bain, the clowns' chaplain, blew bubbles from the pulpit and, at one point, a clown rode his unicycle down the aisle.

The Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin, a vicar at the church who helped organize the event, said the clowns had a religious role to play.

"In the Bible, in the New Testament, it talks about us being fools for Christ and in a sense they clown around, they fool around, and they try to help people see the lighter side of life," Hudson-Wilkin said.

"I think from that perspective, that they have a ministry to perform."

Grimaldi was born in the late 18th century, and began performing publicly at age 3. A skilled mime, acrobat, magician and a consummate physical performer, he popularized many of clowning's trademark tricks, including thieving long strings of sausages. Grimaldi, who died in 1837, is also credited with inventing the white face-paint and two red triangles that still grace clowns' cheeks.

Clowns chat as they attend a church service at Holy Trinity Church in east London, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008. Each year on the first Sunday in February, clowns from across the UK gather in Dalston, east London to attend a church service in memory of the clown Joseph Grimaldi. This has been an annual tradition since 1946. The service moved to Holy Trinity Church in 1959, and in 1967 permission was given for the clowns to attend in their costumes. (AP Photo/Akira Suemori)Akira Suemori / AP

"There's a clown tradition and Joseph Grimaldi is the father of modern clowns," said Albert "Clem" Alter, who traveled to the memorial from Portland, Oregon.

The first memorial service was held in 1946 at a church near Grimaldi's grave in London. It moved to Holy Trinity and in 1959, and, in 1967, permission was given for the clowns to attend in their costumes. Since then, every February, the church has been filled with performers in full 'motley and slap' — clown lingo for makeup and dress.

"If you're a clown, you know about it," Alter said.