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Clown Without Borders 

Why would a former S.F. stockbroker travel to war-torn countries and refugee camps just to make people laugh?

Wednesday, Dec 4 2002

Page 4 of 7

After a 45-minute drive, he arrives at the community center and is escorted to the front office that will serve as a dressing room, where he begins organizing his props. He opens his suitcase to make sure everything is intact, then tunes his ukulele, knocking a tuning fork against a desk and strumming a chord. Suddenly inspired, his fingers fly into a series of Spanish guitar chords, while he bellows, "Ay! Ay! Ay!"

Once everything's in place, the transformation from Cohen to Mr. Yoowho begins. Using a small mirror, he darkens his eyebrows with eyeliner. He removes a set of clothes from a garment bag and dons a white button-down shirt, narrow suspenders, and a brown suit with puce lining that he bought on Haight Street. He stuffs a yellow handkerchief into his inside pocket and switches to thick, black-rimmed glasses. For effect, he puffs out the tufts of hair on both sides of his head.

"Excuse me as I do my warm-up exercises," he says, launching into a series of silly, exaggerated tai-chi movements. His arms and legs extend and arch in ways too angular to be called graceful.

Cohen suddenly remembers to put a windup penguin in his breast pocket. Finally, he adds a checkered bow tie to his collar, perches three bowler hats on top of his head, slings the ukulele across his chest, picks up his battered brown suitcase and cane, and heads for the door. At the last minute, he stops and takes one last look around to make sure he has everything. OK, now Mr. Yoowho is ready.

As teachers herd dozens of kids into the classroom, Mr. Yoowho waits in a darkened hallway. The children dash for front-row seats on the floor, excited and chattering.

"Today we have a special performer, and he will do mind-boggling tricks that will make you think and make you laugh!" a teacher says.

Mr. Yoowho enters the room immediately and, loaded down with all his props, pretends to get stuck in the door. Once inside, he places the suitcase on the floor and pounds it with the cane. The children watch silently as Mr. Yoowho climbs atop the suitcase, wobbling precariously, as if he's about to fall. He reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a tiny yellow drink umbrella, opens it up, regains his balance, and smiles. The teachers laugh heartily.

He gets off the suitcase, pulls out a mini harmonica, and plays a carnival tune, his hats wiggling. The kids applaud politely.

In preparation for his more active stunts, Mr. Yoowho removes all three bowler hats and sets them aside, revealing his glaringly pale, bald head. The kids are surprised by his naked pate and burst out laughing. Mr. Yoowho pretends to be indignant. But soon, he's eliciting more laughter by playing with his tufts of hair, pretending they're wings and using them to fly away.

"You look like Albert Einstein!" one kid bellows.

Unfazed, Mr. Yoowho summons an audience member to the front to help him with the next trick. Rueben, a chubby boy wearing green pants and a dazed look, stands next to the clown. Mr. Yoowho blows on his own fist and makes a red ball appear. Then, with a quick sweep of the hand, he makes the ball disappear. The next instant, he's pulling it from Rueben's ear. The children are amazed, their eyes widening.

Soon Mr. Yoowho returns to his suitcase of wonders and starts stacking a few cow-patterned juggling boxes. As he begins to walk away with the stack, he drops one. When he picks it up, another box falls. One impatient boy calls out, "That's boring!"

Without a word, Mr. Yoowho walks casually to his satchel and removes a colorful plastic hammer. He walks swiftly toward the naysayer and bops the kid lightly on the head while emitting a loud squeaking noise. The crowd giggles.

Mr. Yoowho returns to his cow-patterned boxes and juggles them for several minutes while playing the harmonica.

"More boxes?" he says, preparing for the grand finale.

"More! More!" the kids respond.

He pulls out box after box after box from his suitcase. Lastly, he removes a crystal wineglass, which he fills with water.

After stacking the boxes in a complex, precarious-looking configuration, he struggles to place the glass on the very top. The children squeal with anticipation and excitement.

"No! Don't do it!" they cry.

He plays on this tension for a few seconds more, takes a slow sip of water, and finally succeeds in placing the goblet on top of the boxes. He then balances the whole teetering configuration on his nose for a few amazing seconds.

"Ta-da!" he cries. The boxes crash to the floor, and Mr. Yoowho catches the glass as it plummets toward the ground. Water splashes everywhere. The audience -- students and teachers -- applauds with vigor, thrilled and relieved at the same time.

The show is starting to fall apart because several parents have arrived to pick up their children. Mr. Yoowho regains command of the audience and ends the show swiftly, juggling the hats back onto his head.

"Thank you, everybody!" he says in an exaggerated French accent.

And then he pauses.

"Yoowho?" he asks, putting a cupped hand to his ear. "Yoowho!"

He takes a deep bow, and exits.

Back in the office-cum-dressing room, Cohen starts changing into civilian gear, sitting down in an office chair. He doesn't realize the chair is broken, though, and as he settles into it, he nearly falls to the ground. "The clown is following me around!" he says, looking suspiciously over his shoulder.

Mr. Yoowho didn't return to Chiapas to perform until March 1996, nearly a decade after his first appearance. By then, Cohen had become a seasoned Clowns Without Borders representative, having founded the American branch a year before.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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