Minnesota clown camp big on silly

BUFFALO, Minn. – How many people can one fit in a subcompact car? What are the secrets of a properly staged pie fight?

For people who need answers to questions like these, Tricia Manuel has set up the perfect summer camp.

"We're in clown heaven," exclaims Tricia during a tour of her grounds. "This is Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp."

Tricia is the founder of one of America's largest camp for clowns. Nearly 80 students from the U.S. and four foreign counties have come to Buffalo to learn the secrets of pie fighting (shaving cream yes, whipped cream no) and cramming a small army of clowns into a 1960 Mini and putting out an imaginary house fire for maximum laughs.

"We're all about looking foolish," says Tricia. "That's what it's all about is how goofy can we look."

Raised in Maple Lake as a young adult, Tricia had the unenviable task of phoning her parents to let them know she'd been accepted to Clown College. At the time, she was already in regular college.

"And my mom and dad, there was just this pause," recalls Tricia. Her dad was the first to respond. "'If this is really what you want to do," he told her, they would support her decision.

Clown College, run at the time by Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, led Tricia to a stint with "The Greatest Show on Earth" performing under the clown name Pricilla Mooseburger, for whom the camp is now named.

"It was three of the best years of my life," says Trisha, who also now runs a costume business in Maple Lake specializing in clown clothes.

Clown College closed in the late 1990s, but several of its graduates have become instructors at Tricia's camp.

Between instructors and students, more than 100 clowns arrived in Buffalo for the Mooseburger camp .

"We're the ones who laugh too loud, we're the ones who have these goofy ideas – everybody in the room goes, 'You said that out load man,'" laughed Tricia. At camp, "we're with own kind."

Courses include face painting, comedic movement, ukulele playing and working with props – rubber chicken included.

Thelma O'Neill made her first trip to Mooseburger camp in 2011, a year after her husband passed away. "I was afraid I'd be depressed by myself at home. We'd been married 37 years," said the retired school administrator from Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

Thelma was inspired by a clown who performed at her grandson's birthday party. "And I thought those people love her and she's loving what she's doing and that night I went home, looked up, found the camp and signed up that night – a year ahead so I couldn't back out."

Thelma now works in her hometown as Sweet Mimi the Clown, a far cry from her school career. "My job was pretty serious, so I wanted something real different," she said.

Thelma – who also battled breast cancer in the past year – represents a substantial number of the students at clown camp -- people dealing with tough times in their lives who find an escape in clowning.

"All the hurts that we have, we can get past it," says Tricia. "We get to take off our mask of teacher, of parent, of Middle Manager and find our true selves."

Daniel Boone came to clown camp with his brother, hoping to rekindle his passion for teaching.

"It's been a tough year this year," said the sixth grade science and technology teacher from Utah. "I just got burned out and I'm hoping to have this whole thing revamp me and get me ready for the new year and get things going again."

For Nathan King, a Michigan 9th grader, the challenge is social. "I'm not very good at making friends," said Nathan, an outgoing 14-year-old and a natural at clowning.

Nathan worked as "Woody the Clown" in his hometown to raise the money to come to the camp. His parents came along as chaperones because of his age.

"I want to be in Ringling, I want to be a big Ringling clown," Nathan said, "that would be awesome."

Each year Mooseburger clown camp ends with a clown show that draws hundred for people from the Buffalo area. Tricia says it's the largest clown show in the country.

"Laughter is an instant vacation," says Tricia, quoting the late comedian Milton Berle.

For her students, the vacation ends the Monday they go back to being retirees, middle managers and teachers.

But it's nice to know their true colors are only a makeup kit away.


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