Forget about the melting polar ice caps, the partisan gridlock in Congress and the death of the American dream.
We have something important to address, an issue so weighty, a dilemma so disconcerting, that you might want to sit down to read this.
The United States of America may be facing a looming shortage of clowns.
Membership in the country's most prestigious clowning organizations is plummeting. Attendance at conventions is slipping.
And the current clown population is graying, though it's hard to spot underneath the electric blue hair and the four pounds of white forehead paint.
We live in a country that is running out of Bozos.
“It's a little bit of a dying art,” says Bubblegum T. Clown, Omaha's best-known birthday clown who, in her free time, is a 72-year-old great grandmother named Donna Roth. “I know clowns all over the United States, and I'm telling you, everybody is feeling it. Even the magicians have slimmed down a little!”
This issue seems especially pertinent because the 85th Annual Shrine Circus — the place where an untold number of Nebraskans got their first long look at red noses and floppy shoes — opens in Omaha tonight and holds five performances this weekend.
Never fear: The Shrine Circus itself is doing just fine on clowns, says Chris Edwards, better known as Bitz when he puts on his orange-and-yellow polka-dotted outfit.
When I called, Bitz gladly described his clown persona, one that involves carrying three guitars and singing to children in a high-pitched voice. He politely advised me to move my phone away from my ear and then happily sang to me in a style that can only be described as “diseased chipmunk.”
But then I asked about the clown shortage, and Bitz seemed a bit irked.
“Ugh, people keep sending me this story,” he said of the “clown shortage” stories produced by the New York Daily News, National Public Radio and others and are now floating around the Internet. For the record, the Shrine Circus' clowns are all Shriners who volunteer to learn how to walk on stilts and tie balloon animals.
The Shrine Circus boasts 83 clowns, Bitz says, and nearly 40 of them will be performing this weekend, according to a Shrine Circus spokeswoman.
“We don't go out looking for clowns, they come looking for us,” Bitz said.
But outside the confines of the Shrine Circus, there is worry that the American clown seems to be going the way of the dinosaur, albeit a dinosaur who can yank an endless hanky out of a back pocket.
Membership in the World Clown Association has shrunk by a third in the past decade. Many of the high-profile clowns — men like Emmett Kelly Jr. and Larry Harmon, better known as Weary Willie and Bozo The Clown — have died. And most of the talented, top-level clowns left are nearing retirement age, Roth says.
Bubblegum would know. Her Omaha office is crammed with dozens of regional, national and international clown trophies for best costume, best makeup and best clowning ability. She has entertained children at the White House and worked thousands of Omaha-area birthday parties in the past three decades.
Last year, she booked the fewest gigs in her entire career.
“It's too bad, because there are so many people out there who need cheered up,” Bubblegum tells me.
The future of clowning is endangered for a trio of reasons, she thinks.
The first is competition. The children of 2014 can play games on their iPhones, watch videos of all manners of princesses, robots and friendly talking animals, and then request a bounce house instead of a real live clown for their birthday party.
The second is financial. To be a high-level clown, you need to be trained by a mentor. You need to own a closet full of costumes and a dresser crammed with makeup. All that costs money, as does insurance and traveling to various clown conventions where you hone your craft.
“I mean, do you want a Cadillac or a Volkswagen?” Bubblegum asks me, unaware that I drive a Volkswagen. “People today seem to think we should cost $50. They think clowns should be free.”
And the clowns' biggest problem is simple, she says. It's a single name that Bubblegum spits out with bile.
“Stephen King!” she yells.
Three decades ago, when Bubblegum started in the business, clowns were universally known as cheerful, helpful adults, like your favorite aunt with the added ability to tie balloon giraffes.
But then King and a group of filmmakers, authors and novelists began to change the image of a clown, Bubblegum thinks. These clowns weren't friendly, not at all.
They were deranged psychopaths. They were bloodthirsty serial killers. They were … creepy.
“Now, people aren't afraid of monsters. They aren't afraid of skulls or blood or anything like that. And then a clown walks up and they go, 'Aaaaaaaah!' ”
Not that Bubblegum is giving up. Next week she's scheduled to go to a preschool. She will arrive in her billowy clown pants and her floppy shoes, but sans makeup. And then, in front of the children, she will put on her makeup, slowly transforming herself from Donna Roth to Bubblegum while explaining that there's nothing to fear.
The hope is that the clown will live on, because in the end, people still love a clown.
“Everybody is a child. Everybody likes to have a smile and feel good about themselves,” Bubblegum said.
Says Chris Edwards, better known as Bitz: “You can put smiles on everybody's face. Children. Adults. Everybody. And the smiles I bring to those faces, it puts a smile on my face, too.”
TANGIER SHRINE CIRCUS:
When: 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday; noon, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 4:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Omaha Civic Auditorium, 1804 Capitol Ave.
Tickets: $12, $17, $23 and $30, on sale at the CenturyLink Center, the Omaha Civic box office, area Hy-Vee stores and all TicketMaster locations
Information: omahashrinecircus.com 402-444-3353