Isn’t that clown my lawyer?

Once you're in the clown clan, there is no opting out if it has been a bad fiscal year. "I tell people when they start, the only way out of this is you've got to be transferred or die. When you are a celebrity clown, you are a celebrity clown," Mr. Johnson says.

The Globe and Mail
November 15

Isn’t that clown my lawyer?
The 100 corporate clowns to lead off the Santa Claus Parade each year makeup one of the most exclusive clubs in town
Catherine Dawson March

There are many exclusive clubs that Toronto's business elite can join, but only one insists its members wear red noses and floppy shoes.

The corporate clowns who start the Santa Claus Parade each year — and will have their big hair out for the event tomorrow — have all passed a stringent referral process, paid a $100 initiation fee, plus $1,000 for annual membership.

It's a tough club to join. There are only 100 of the high-priced clown spots available, and prospective clowns must be sponsored by a clown already in the club.

Then Santa Claus Parade clown organizer Ross Johnson checks their references. "We don't let everybody in," says Mr. Johnson, who has been a clown for 12 years. "You have to be a business owner, a senior executive or a professional to be a celebrity clown."

He checks his clown roster and reads off a who's who of the city's movers and shakers: senior chairman of McDonald's Restaurants of Canada, George Cohon; filmmaker Norman Jewison and his son, Michael; Shoppers Drug Mart CEO Glenn Murphy; former CEO of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., Ron Barbaro; real-estate bigwigs Peter Barnicke and Lorne Braithwaite (who does the route on in-line skates); city councillor Chris Korwin-Kuczynski; restaurateurs George Bigliardi and Michael Bonacini. The list goes on to include doctors, lawyers, retail executives and five Toronto-Dominion Bank vice-presidents.

Once you're in the clown clan, there is no opting out if it has been a bad fiscal year. "I tell people when they start, the only way out of this is you've got to be transferred or die. When you are a celebrity clown, you are a celebrity clown," Mr. Johnson says.

There are 25 people on the waiting list, names Mr. Johnson keeps secret. Only female executives can bypass the line, providing they meet the basic requirements. Mr. Johnson wants more women in his group. This year, the Punches outnumber the Judys by about 9 to 1.

All clowns must be willing to do what it takes to get the crowd involved. They are, after all, Santa's warm-up act. "Going down the parade route, we all do outrageous things. We pick women up and dance with them; we hug all the cops. Nobody knows who we are so you get away with murder," Mr. Johnson says.
These special clowns also have the status to toss candy to the children lining the streets. Everyone else in the parade, including the ordinary, volunteer clowns, can only wave or shake hands.

Once approved, each member is invited to celebrity clown cocktail parties (no greasepaint required) and given a 24-karat-gold pin designed by Tiffany & Co. The small pin depicts a clown hand holding three balloons with the phrase "Ho Ho Ho." Mr. Johnson says: "You'll see these on men's and women's lapels downtown. They are very proud of it." This year, for an extra $200, the clowns are also offered matching 24-karat-gold cuff links.

One of the original clowns was Mr. Cohon. In 1982, he was meeting with then Metro chairman Paul Godfrey when Mr. Godfrey got the call from Eaton's. After 77 years, the troubled retailer was putting an end to its Toronto parade tradition.

"He came back in the room and his face was white," Mr. Cohon recalls. "We said we've got to save it somehow. So he appointed Ron Barbaro and I to be the co-chairs of a committee to try and save the parade."

It was early August — not a lot of time to cobble together the roughly $500,000 Eaton's said it couldn't afford any more. Mr. Barbaro and Mr. Cohon took a day off work and brainstormed. Their instinct was to avoid the unpredictability of government handouts, and with the city in an uproar about losing its Santa Claus Parade, it wasn't hard to find 20 companies willing to sponsor floats.

Another idea was persuading 100 of the city's business elite to dress up as clowns for the day and pay $1,000 for the privilege. The parade's corporate clown program began the following year.

"It is the largest single fundraiser," Mr. Cohon says. "Companies buy floats for around $30,000, but when you look at the income we take in, $100,000 is the largest amount."

This, Mr. Johnson says, is a point of pride. "The clowns know that they are the biggest supporters of the Santa Claus Parade, and that means a lot to them."

Mr. Cohon adds that he doesn't don the baggy pants just to give up his money. The Santa Claus Parade is one of his favourite days of the year. It's not just fun, but "a duty that you owe to the community you live in."

He also takes comfort from giving comfort during the celebrity clown visit to the Hospital for Sick Children on the morning of the parade. (This year, post-SARS precautions have put a stop to the event.)

Most of all, he loves to play the same trick each year on young parade watchers. Kids, watch out for the clown wearing a red coat, green pants and a big top hat (Mr. Cohon always wears the same getup).

"I've got a pail. It looks like a pail of water, but in it are streamers. So I go up to a little kid and say, 'Have you had a bath today?' Then I get the bucket and throw out the streamers. I've been doing that for 20 years. It is such a wonderful day."

The Santa Claus Parade is tomorrow. For information, visit http://www.thesantaclausparade.com


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