For those who attend the Austintown Fourth of July Parade as well as other local events, there is one face that brings a smile. "Who-me?" an Aut Mori Grotto clown, loves bringing joy to young and old alike and has proven he is on top of his game.
The real face behind "Who-me?" is Robert Edwards from the Westside. He has been clowning for years, starting while he was a full-time detective for the Youngstown Police Department. He said to join the elite group of Aut Mori clowns, there are steps one must first go through as well as having a desire to bring smiles.
"It's in your blood. It's been in mine all my life," Edwards said. "When you see a child cry, and you make that child smile, that is a great reward."
Photo special to the Town Crier
Robert “Who-me?” Edwards is on the top of his tramp game when it comes to clowning around.
Like other clowns in Aut Mori Grotto, Edwards had to first go through the first three degrees of becoming a Mason. According to past Monarch of the Aut Mori Grotto, Alan Boles from Liberty, a person is invited to become a Mason. The person must be asked or invited and they first become a member of the Blue Lodge. Boles said the Blue Lodge involves a lot of work and is the first three degrees of Masonry. Once a candidate makes the third degree, they can move on to one of several branches that include the Scottish and York Rites or the Shriners or Grotto.
"You actually join the Grotto," Boles said. "The clown unit is inside the Grotto."
For Edwards, the invite to join the Masons came from a fellow detective with the Youngstown Police Department. He joined Argus Lodge in Canfield and went through the required first three degrees. After that, he made the move into the Grotto and the clown unit.
Each clown in the Grotto develops their own unique character and costume. The character name is normally inspired from something in the person's own life. Boles, who just finished his tenure as Monarch (leader) of the Grotto lodge, dresses like a chef and has the name "It's-so".
"My character is a chef," he said. "I was a cook for 47 years and that is how I got my character."
He said each clown in the Aut Mori Grotto has their own individual event or passion that inspired their name and character. George McClelland of Liberty had served as driver for the clowns several years back. On a trip to southern Ohio for the Special Olympics, the men stopped at a Bob Evans to eat. McClelland was the only one who wasn't in costume or makeup. The waitress referred to him as an "Odd Ball" which became his clown name.
For Edwards it was all about his favorite television skit. He always laughs when he hears the famous Abbott and Costello skit "Whose on First?" and when it came time for him to chose a name, he played off that skit.
"I chose the name 'Who-Me?'," Edwards said. "I still get a lot of play from that as people ask my name, then say, 'Yes you,' 'Who-Me?,' 'Yes you,' 'What's your name?' and it can go on and on."
Edwards' wife Sharon made his clown costume, but he said she doesn't really like clowns. She is supportive of her husband and the role he plays in generating smiles though. In fact, Edwards constantly runs across children who are deathly afraid of clowns. He said he tries hard to change that impression.
"I ran across a little 13-year-old girl at an event who was afraid of clowns and was trembling," Edwards said. "I sat and talked with her for almost an hour and when we were done, she was left smiling."
Learning to deal with frightened children and bringing joy and smiles to faces are attributes of clowning that are developed as a clown matures. The Masonic clowns constantly look to improve on their character and clowning skill by attending conferences each year.
"We call it clown college," Boles said. "A recent one was held in Newark, Ohio and one of the teachers was Pracilla Mooseberger, a Barnum Bailey clown."
Clowns also learn a lot by experience. Edwards said he was warned not to make balloons at a Youngstown State University tailgate party one year. He saw a little boy all alone who asked him to make a balloon animal.
"No one was around so I decided, why not," Edwards said. "All of a sudden, there were kids coming from all over and I ended up making balloon animals for two hours. I learned a valuable lesson."
In 2010, a house fire took Edwards' first costume. While he kept his clown name, and because he was a past Grotto Monarch, he decided to create his second costume using a tuxedo. The costume allows him the pockets and hat needed for magic tricks.
Recently, Edwards and 22 other members of the Grotto clown unit traveled to Orlando, Fla., to compete in a national clown competition. The competition has five categories including character, white face (no flesh showing), aguste (flesh tones and colors), hobo, and tramp. Edwards entered the tramp competition and ended up taking first place.
"I had to go before a panel of judges," Edwards said. "I had to turn left, then right, so they could judge my costume, then I had to perform a five-minute skit."
Winning among fellow clowns was a very high honor. Edwards said he plans to attend the next competition that will be held in Nashville later this year. In the meantime, he and his fellow clowns will continue to attend events like the Austintown Parade and perform at birthday parties. Most events they attend, donations are made to the Grotto.
"We don't see the money ourselves," Edwards said. "It all goes into a fund to help cover our supplies and balloons and most goes towards the Grotto charities that include cerebral palsy, Special Olympics, the Dyslectic Learning Center in Youngstown, and a dental hospital for needy children.
Boles said it is not uncommon to have several events going on at the same time, but with the large number of Aut Mori Grotto clowns, they manage to get two or three clowns at each event. He said the Grotto used to be on Calla Road in Canfield, but has just moved to its new home at 545 Bella Vista Ave., on Youngstown's West Side. Boles said the Our Lady of Hungry Church had closed and the Grotto took over the church hall as its new permanent home, a home just for clowning around.