ONTARIO, Calif. -- Even when she's not in character, Julie Varholdt acts like a buffoon.
On a recent day, the veteran clown named "Lovely Buttons" gave her age as 1 billion, 527 million and 437,512 seconds; did a few pull-ups on a luggage cart, and then stretched out on a hotel front desk to the giggles of the receptionist.
Bring up professional clowning, however, and the mother of three decked out in cartoon-sized purple buttons, a red straw hat and oversized shoes grows serious -- and even sheds a few real tears.
"Clowning is an art, it is an ancient art," said Varholdt, whose grandfather was a clown. "You can't just pull on a wig and slap a watermelon smile on and -- 'Poof!' -- you're a clown. Unfortunately, we see it a lot."
These days, that half-rate competition is cutting into clowning when the recession has already hit some in the business like a pie in the face. A weeklong conference to help clowns punch up their punch lines and learn new tricks also became a forum for how to make it in a niche industry that is contracting in decidedly unfunny ways.
For many at the conference about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, the number of paid gigs have dropped while demand for pro bono performances at charities, hospitals and schools has soared. Parents no longer are content with someone just joking around: They want a skilled face painter, a magician, a stand-up comic and a wizard with a menagerie of ever-more-complex balloon animals.
"I can't tell you how many times that phone will ring and they'll say, 'Well, they do painting AND balloons for that price,"' said Donna Hofstee, who taught about 15 attendees the finer arts of face-painting, including how to dab on a tear drop and cover tiny faces with tiger spots, cheetah spots and zebra stripes.
California Clown Campin' started three years ago after a long-running camp in Wisconsin went kaput. Instructors from the U.S. and Canada led sessions on marketing and character development sprinkled among staples of slapstick and sleight of hand.
The most successful clowns will have a Mother Goose-type character for schools, a seasonal persona for the holidays and even a special shtick for parades, said Laura Sicklesteel, the event's co-director who focuses on church events as "Molly the Clown."
"Everybody's cutting the extras and unfortunately we are an extra," said Sicklesteel, who has seen a 15 to 20 percent drop in paid gigs. "The growth potential of expanding your character -- or maybe even creating a new character -- that helps you to market yourself better."
Morgan Thacker got a scholarship to the conference from Bristol, Tenn., with the hope of building her clown character.
She learned to twist balloons into ladybugs and dogs, apply her own whiteface makeup, yank a tablecloth without disturbing the place settings and practiced delivering and receiving a pie in the face.
"A person opens up so much more whenever you make them laugh, or make them smile or show them that you're a little bit different," Thacker said. "I think that will help me in all areas of my life."
Rather than joining the circus, though, she'll start her freshman year this week at Utah State University -- with some new tricks up her sleeve. Her clowning aspirations will soon be tested off-campus.
She has her first gig at a family restaurant this fall.
California Clown Campin': http://www.californiaclowncampin.org