Macomb TownshipJuly 5, 2012
Making a career of clowning
By Robert Guttersohn
C & G Staff Writer
MACOMB TOWNSHIP — When Ross Champion first joined the Mount Clemens Kiwanis Club in 1985, there was an unwritten rule that no one could be elected president more than once.
With each decade that passed, though, membership dwindled.
Finally, in the mid-2000s, it got to the point where every member had served as president.
“One of the members turned to me and asked, ‘Couldn’t Rosco join?’” Champion remembered. Everyone laughed off the question as a joke.
Champion missed the club’s next meeting, and when he returned the following week, “the clown was nominated,” he said.
For a full year, Champion donned his derby cap, fuzzy nose, red and white striped shirt and his 32-year-old clown shoes and supervised the Mount Clemens Kiwanis Club meetings as his better-known half: Rosco T. Clown.
Theresa Randolph, the current president of the club and a member since 2002, remembered that year. She said Champion never once broke character at the meetings.
“He was professional to the bone,” she said.
“It was wild,” Champion said, but he shared the story to highlight a more somber point — the dying appeal of community involvement.
As someone who is now in his third decade walking parades, cracking jokes and beckoning audiences to jump into pools that don’t exist, there is no better witness to the fact.
“Communities have failed to cater to families, and families encourage growth,” he said, dressed in a maroon button-down shirt, his white hair shaggy and face bare of the makeup that has made him so recognizable. “What frustrates me is, you have cities, and the first thing they cut is the department of parks and recreation.”
To explain why he felt city officials go after that particular department first when austerity knocks, he broke into another story of when he was performing as Rosco during a Kiwanis-sponsored event.
An older man there clearly was not at all amused by the clown. Years later at another Rosco the Clown event in Mount Clemens, he ran into the same man. This time, Champion said, the man was with his grandchild, and he suddenly understood the point of the clown.
“He saw how Rosco connected to his grandchild,” Champion said, referring as he often does to Rosco the Clown in the third person. “My point is that people make decisions based on where they’re at, at the time.”
But at 56, Champion is now the same age as the city officials he was referring to, yet he still attends community gatherings around Macomb County, metro Detroit and all over the state just to make children laugh.
“Because I see the value of their excitement,” Champion said.
Champion was born, raised and still lives in Mount Clemens.
Randolph, who grew up not too far from Champion, said it’s likely that his love for community came from his parents, particularly his mother who was active in several Mount Clemens organizations.
As a teenager, Champion gained a liking for landscaping and began helping senior citizens on his block with maintaining their yards.
He enrolled at Michigan State University to study landscaping and horticulture while already running a lawn maintenance business in Mount Clemens.
During one of his semesters there, he bused nightly to a 10-week clown course at Lansing Community College. He described the decision to take the course as just a “kick.”
“I loved Red Skeleton as a kid,” Champion said. “I loved how he laughed at his own jokes. “You’ll notice how I laugh at my own jokes,” he said, then laughed at the very mention of it.
The class taught him the basics of clowning: magic, making balloon animals, dealing with children. Like every profession, there is only so much about clowning that can be taught in classrooms. “It took me five years to develop my character,” he said.
And Champion shaped Rosco and developed his various escapades through the process of elimination.
“The kids make who I am,” Champion said.
Pouring cold water on himself, he discovered one show, does not work. Whistling, beckoning and inviting “Everybody in the pool” in a place with no pool, does work.
“I did that my first year as a clown,” Champion said. “Now, I don’t get anywhere without someone whistling and saying, ‘Everybody in the pool.’”
“I love his ‘free shakes,’” said Michelle Duda, the Macomb Township parks and recreation program leader, referring to fake milkshakes Rosco offers to people at parades. After they say they want the shake, Rosco shakes his body for them.
Duda, who has worked with Rosco professionally over the last decade through the township, said she has seen the same jokes every year and still laughs.
“Year after year, I still can’t explain it,” she said. “He’s just silly and fun. He captures the delight of young and old audiences. The little ones come up and stare and smile.”
After graduating from the class, he did part-time clowning while still attending classes at MSU.
During this time, he began dating his future wife, Julie, now the head naturalist at the Lake St. Clair Metropark. She described their relationship as one of contrast — she is quiet, and Champion is, well, a clown.
On one of their first dates, Champion said, while they waited to be seated at the restaurant, he began pulling balloons out of his pocket, making animals and passing them out to other waiting patrons.
Champion recalled his date placing her hands over her face in embarrassment.
“I’ve gotten used to it,” Julie Champion said. “It’s been great to see and watch what (his comedy) means to people. He’s still out there so much, too, that so many people know him.”
In fact, Ross Champion has a room in his Mount Clemens home designated to his Rosco the Clown gear and memorabilia. In it is a photo of a mother, her daughter and her granddaughter — three generations Rosco has entertained.
“I feel like that I am a great communicator,” Champion said. “I don’t feel that I am a rock star. I don’t feel like I am idol material. I just make people laugh.”
Champion graduated from MSU and started his own gardening supply store in 1975 called Champion Garden Center. Clowning was a part-time gig then.
“So I had this business, but I was still clowning once in awhile: once a month, then once a week, then twice a week,” he said. “Then I’d clear my Sundays and go out on Sundays. And then before long, I was doing it every day.”
Simultaneously, commercial home-maintenance stores began to carry flowers and other gardening supplies, selling at prices that mom-and-pop businesses could not compete with.
In 1990, he asked his family what they thought if he dropped the garden center and became a full-time clown.
“Are you crazy?” Champion said they told him. “Go for it.”
Since that decision, Champion has done more than clowning. He served a term on the Mount Clemens Board of Education in the ‘90s and on the YMCA board in the 2000s. He’s also spent portions of his time pushing others toward serving the community like he did with Jill Johnson, who joined Kiwanis Club after four years of Champion’s lobbying.
“He’s a hell of a guy,” said Johnson, former president and current secretary of the club, who with her husband owns Printing by Johnson.
“I hope my life shows that,” Champion said. “I just believe the community is the most important thing.”
And he carries that mantra with him to each performance, well-worn clown shoes on the ground, greeting family after family.
“It’s about developing lifelong friendships,” Champion said. “And that takes more than an email or a tweet.”
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