Ever the clown, Andy Swan is playful and upbeat even when he's not performing as "Zippy." He smiles by default and loves to tell knock-knock jokes.
After Swan's brother and circus sidekick of 37 years, Mike, died last December, he found it tougher but more necessary than ever to maintain his "show-must-go-on spirit."
"You learn through your losses sometimes, and find out what you can do," said the 61-year-old North Highlands resident. "Instead of whining, just be positive."
In his late brother's memory, Swan is resolved to fill a vacant space in the Westfield Downtown Plaza with his humongous collection of mostly miniature elephants. This is an endeavor Swan does not take in jest.
"The whole display is meant as a tribute," he said solemnly.
The more Swan channels his grief into setting up the shrine, the closer he finds himself getting into Guinness World Records for elephant paraphernalia.
According to a Guinness spokesman, the current record-holder is a Merced County woman named Janet Mallernee-Briley. As of April 2008, she had 5,779 items officially to her credit.
Having packed away his pachyderms since 1970, Swan is confident he owns more than his rival does. He cannot give a precise figure but estimates he has upward of 10,000 elephant objects.
"I didn't realize just how many I'd acquired until I started this project," he said.
A decent fraction of Swan's haul over the years plush toys, jewelry, album covers, clothing, tchotchkes of all sorts is visible through the storefront window of his makeshift Taj Mahal.
"The variety, I think, is what enraptures me," he said. His favorites are homemade because they give off a "whimsical" feeling.
The elephants in Swan's possession come from every material imaginable except ivory, to his knowledge. He opposes tusk poaching and bemoans the elephants' "shrinking habitats" in real life.
During a tour of his workshop, Swan darts frantically about, with "Baby Elephant Walk" playing from a holstered iPod. He stops at the elephants that mean something to him, and juggles a few that don't. Later, he gets choked up when describing a beige figurine, glued together from peanut shells, that his "talented" brother made for him.
Another symbolic elephant for Swan is a giant inflated dummy with an Uncle Sam hat on. His dear friend Charlie Ireland sent it to him as consolation, rather than flowers.
It was Ireland's idea to parade the elephants out of storage and into a large enough unit to count them all. He sensed that Andy would remain "lost" without a goal to focus himself on to amuse others with.
"We had no idea how we were going to do it, since we didn't have room in (Swan's) house to get a full tally," Ireland said.
Swan remembered hearing that the Westfield Downtown Plaza was struggling economically and looking for unconventional tenants. He is thankful for an "open contract" with them.
The elephant in Swan's adopted room, so to speak, was how much it cost to purchase and now organize all of his knickknacks. He insisted that "95 percent of them" came from thrift stores or as presents like Ireland's.
Eventually, once he finishes cataloging the elephants he half-jokingly considers family, Swan hopes to rearrange them so they're easier for mall pedestrians to make out from the outside.
A walk-through exhibit is impossible, he said, because someone might pocket an elephant if left unsupervised. Now, at least, Swan needs every last one accounted for to claim the record.
He also is learning how to carry on with a solo routine. The turning point for Swan came at a Kings County fair, where he spotted a black feather on the ground. Like in the Disney classic film "Dumbo," he tucked that feather under a headband and his confidence fired up again. (In the movie, a "magic feather" helps the title elephant transition to flying on his own.)
Before each of his shows, Swan reminds himself of the moral he drew from Dumbo: "If you believe you can do something, you can do it."