With a name like “Pancake Circus,” there must be clowns. And there are – a small gallery’s worth. The vintage restaurant is part of Sacramento’s cultural landscape, and its collection of clown art and memorabilia is a niche repository reflecting a rarefied form of community involvement.
Over the past decades, as the restaurant has changed ownerships and names, the collection has grown as a three-ring circus of customers has donated clowns in the forms of paintings, dolls, clocks, coffee mugs, embroideries and figurines in ceramic, porcelain and pewter. There’s even a clown-costumed Cabbage Patch Kid from the 1980s, and the book “Clown Paintings” by actress and clown-art aficionado Diane Keaton. It was donated by Sacramento native son and internationally recognized artist Wayne Thiebaud, who dines there often.
In the foyer, near the cut-out clown holding a “Please wait to be seated” sign, is a glass display case alongside a circus-themed gumball machine. The case is a focal point for arriving and departing customers, who linger over it and marvel at the 100 or so clown-themed pieces crowded inside. A few steps away is a second display case, it too holding a jumble of clownish objects.
Hanging on walls throughout the restaurant, which is partly decorated with circus-animal cutouts, are colorful framed paintings and prints of clowns. Some are happy, some sad, some odd, such as the clown whose wig sticks about from behind the bright-red balloon that hides his face.
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Posted nearby is a watercolor of three ghostly looking clowns in a circus, its origins lost in the rifts of time. It turns out the picture was painted by the late internationally known artist Jack Laycox, a Californian whose works have hung in prestigious art galleries in New York and San Francisco.
Over here is a scene of clowns at “Circus World,” over there are two similar paintings showing tearful clowns with the front page of the Wall Street Journal, presumably heartbroken over a stock market crash. Some of the clowns resemble comedian Red Skelton’s character Freddy the Freeloader and Emmett Kelly Sr.’s definitive Weary Willie. Eight more paintings are in a storage room and are displayed on a rotating basis.
The de facto “curator” of the art gallery is Terri Mead, who lives just a mile away and has been at the Pancake Circus for 16 years, serving as its general manager for the past 13. The ever-growing clown collection has been the centerpiece of the restaurant for as long as she can recall, dating back to her high school years when she and her friends would come in for lunch.
“Our customers donate (all the art),” Mead said. “Not only do they create it, they find it in thrift stores and at garage sales. They’ll come in with (items) and say, ‘This was my mother’s’ or ‘This was in the attic.’ Many customers will anonymously leave figurines on the tables when they’ve finished eating.”
How does Mead explain this odd symbiotic relationship?
“When they bring something in, they get to come back and see it on display,” she said. “We rotate the art (in and out of the storage room) and reposition it so the donors can see we’re being respectful of what they’ve given to us. Every now and then, somebody will come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you still have my clown.’ One regular customer took a photo of a different clown every day and posted it on his website.”
Holding a clown doll she removed from a display case, Mead told this story: “One girl was very little when her father donated this doll. She sat on the bench by the cash register with the doll, and he took a picture. When she graduated from high school, she and her father came back to show me that photo. Then he took another shot of her with the doll.’”
Though Mead “always says yes to donations,” she is not frivolous about her curating responsibilities.
“Our guests’ reactions go from, ‘Oh, I just love the clowns!’ to ‘I’m scared, can I sit somewhere where there aren’t any clowns?’ But there isn’t any place. I have to be mindful about where (the paintings) go and careful about (deciding) whether to even (display some of them). I want to be sure no one is made uncomfortable, so there are certain things we just can’t put up.”
Controversial clowns at the Pancake Circus? Oh yes, Mead assured, recalling the self-portrait painted by a police officer who, as part of his duties, would sometimes dress as a clown for children’s birthday parties.
“(In the painting) the crying clown held a pamphlet that said ‘Child Protective Services,’” she said. “I never would have thought it would draw criticism, but there were nothing but negative comments on social media. Then they began comparing it to (John Wayne) Gacy.”
Gacy was a serial murderer who operated in Chicago in the 1970s. He became known as the Killer Clown because he would dress as his alter ego, Pogo the Clown, to perform in parades and fundraising events.
“People think of Gacy, and that’s what they picture – the Killer Clown,” said Mead. “Finally, I decided it had to come down, and I returned it to the police officer.”
Another clown painting that patrons found disturbing was one done in monochromes by a longtime customer, showing a group of bizarre clown faces that seem to float in the clouds.
“It’s a beautiful painting in a great frame, but it drew nothing but negative comments,” Mead said. “I didn’t get rid of it, though. I moved it into the women’s restroom. You can’t miss it. There was no backlash about it and all the bad comments on social media stopped, so I’ve kept it there.”
Then there was the case of the customer who brought Mead two paintings done by his mother.
“They depict the same five clowns,” Mead said. “In one painting the clowns are jolly, and it will always be my favorite. The other was painted in gray and black, and the clowns had fangs and blood dripping out of their mouths. I hung the good one and took the other one away. Clowns are there to make us happy, but there’s also a very sinister side.”
While the nonprofit Sacramento Klown Alley and the World Clown Association are the wholesome faces of clowndom, you don’t have to look far to find clown evil in popular culture. For instance, Hollywood has produced a funhouse full of “scary” clown movies that have become campy classics: “Carnival of Souls” (1962), “Killer Klowns From Outer Space” (1988), “Killjoy” (2000).
Darker were the malevolent, animated clown doll in the movie “Poltergeist” (1982) and horrormeister Stephen King’s lewd Pennywise from his novel “It” (1987) and the TV miniseries of the same name. Don’t forget (as if you could) Jack Nicholson’s and Heath Ledger’s over-the-top turns as the Joker in two entries in the “Batman” franchise.
More recently, the cable network FX has offered Twisty the Clown on its series “American Horror Story: Freak Show.” The well-named jester simply cannot control his homicidal rage.
A segue to music finds the “horrorcore” Insane Clown Posse, a hip-hop duo who wear edgy clown-type makeup when they perform.
All those clown personae serve as entertainment-oriented reflections or exploitations of coulrophobia, an irrational fear of clowns, which troubles a surprising number of people (who may enjoy www.ihateclowns.com). But what’s the basis for the condition?
Sacramento psychologist Nathaniel Mills has some ideas about that. He’s the president of the Sacramento Valley Psychological Association.
“On a primal, unconscious level, we have an evolutionarily derived response to avoid things that can cause us harm,” he explained. “It’s advantageous for us to stay away from things that look sick, and clowns are the incarnation of our fear of illness.
“Their faces are painted white, which can look like a pale, ill person. Sometimes their cheeks and lips are painted scarlet, which can remind us of fever. In addition, their erratic, often socially inappropriate behavior can remind us of severe mental illness.”
Back inside the Pancake Circus, Mead herself admits to a childhood bout of coulrophobia after a trip to the circus, when she inadvertently saw a clown in half facial makeup while walking past the dressing area.
“Seeing him like that just sent me into an ‘I’m so scared!’ place,” she said. “I told my children the story, and when I started working here they said, ‘You’ve come full circle; now you’re with them.’”
As Halloween approaches, the question was inevitable: Has anything clown-spooky ever happened to Mead at the Pancake Circus?
“I come to work very early, and it’s just me here, with all the dining room lights off,” she said. “One morning I was changing clothes in the ladies room, with the door propped open. I heard a sound, and I turned and looked. There was the clown doll that always faces the front door, and he was facing the bathroom and looking right at me.
“I assumed someone had picked him up and moved him the day before,” Mead said. “Or did he move himself? Do they come alive at night?
“We’re not here to see, so who knows?”
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.
2101 Broadway, Sacramento
Open 6 a.m.-3 p.m. daily
(916) 452-3322, www.pancakecircus.net
The evolving scene
Lou Gonsalves, who worked as a server at Pancake Circus for 35 years before retiring in 2011, helped piece together some of its history:
▪ In 1961 Al Nahas and Bud Sheely opened Al and Bud’s Platter. They sold it to Eppie Johnson, who added the restaurant to his mini-chain of Pancake Parade restaurants. Ruth and Louis Schuhr bought it from him and renamed it Pancake Circus. They sold it to Bill and Sandy Barton, who sold it to its current owners, Naren Muni and his son, Nick Muni.
▪ In 1972, two years after they took ownership, the Schuhrs decided to change the name to Pancake Circus. “That was because one of the walls was covered in a mural of a circus, and they could continue that theme,” Gonsalves said. “To give it a whole new name and change the whole neon sign outside was too costly, so by changing only half the sign (replacing ‘Parade’ with ‘Circus’) they saved quite a bit of money.”
▪ As for the gallery of clown art, she recalled, “Ruth Schuhr found a clown cut-out that said, ‘Please wait to be seated,’ and thought it fit in with the circus theme. That kicked off the whole thing.”