Not so scary: Lakes pastor draws squeaks, not screams, as Sarabelle

Friday, October 14, 2016
Rev. Dr. Sarah Rohret, of Calvary United Methodist Church, has taken on clowning as a hobby. She attended clown school in late July and worked the crowd at the 2016 Pioneers Day parade in Milford. (Photo by Russ Mitchell)

ARNOLDS PARK The sound of footsteps coming from the woods won't be made by Rev. Dr. Sarah Rohret's floppy shoes. As Sarabelle, she chooses a mid-morning parade route over an ominous trail at nightfall.

"Scary clown" sightings have left areas of the country unsettled in 2016. Authorities have been called out to clown reports about 15 miles south of Rohret's Calvary Untied Methodist Church location in Arnolds Park.

The fright trend is disappointing for the Methodist pastor, who has a soft spot for the painted-face-and-rubber-nose crowd. Rohret attended Mooseburger Clown Camp in late July. She has walked in parades as Sarabelle on behalf of her church, but her interest in clowning isn't tied directly to her ministry.

"I just kind of got into clowning recently as something fun for me to do personally," she said.

It should be fun for people who encounter clowns as well. Lives may not be in jeopardy with every clown scare but Rohret worries that livelihoods might be.

"Remember that real clowns are professionals who make a living at making people happy and getting people to laugh," she said. "That real clown's whole goal is to bring joy and laughter to the world. So the people dressing up to be scary are not real clowns. And, they're hurting the real clowns by making it difficult for the real clowns to make a living. The friends and people that I met at clown camp have said, the last couple of months they've lost a lot of business. It has been very difficult to get bookings because of the misconception and the harm that these scary clowns have done."

Rohret is an innovative pastor who orchestrates special blessing-of-the-animals services and presides over a weekly, lakeside boat-in-worship for the area's summer vacationers. She discovered the mirth of clowning during studies at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. The campus ministry had a clowning group. Members delivered a Christian message with their antics.

"I was a part of that, but I was a really terrible clown," she said. "I did mostly the sound and the props. But, I was turning 40 this year, and I wanted to do something just for myself. That had always been something that I wanted to do really well."

Mooseburger Clown Camp is located in Buffalo, Minnesota, and run by Tricia Manuel ("Pricilla Mooseburger"). Manuel worked with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus before starting her own clown camp.

"They just celebrated their 20th anniversary," Rohret said. "It's about 200 clowns from all over the United States. There were a lot of newbies like me who were there to learn the basics of clowning and then there were a lot of seasoned veterans who were there to learn new skills."

As part of the "Clown 101" beginner's group, Rohret learned the basics of makeup, costuming, pratfalls and how to play to an audience.

"They really should have called it 'Clowining for Dummies,'" she said. "It was a really basic class. There were other groups that spent a whole week just focused on balloons, face painting, juggling and writing skits."

It turns out slapstick under a big top isn't as easy as the audience might think.

"There's a lot that goes into clowning," the pastor said. "There's a lot thought and I don't want to say rules but there's a lot of tradition behind the makeup, behind the costume and behind the personalities and the skits. It's a lot more thought-through and a lot more intentional than I think a lot of people know."

Mooseburger Clown Camp week draws to a close with a big performance for low-income special needs children. Everybody in the group gets to be a part of the skit. Rohret's Sarabelle was a white-face clown in the performance.

"White face used to be the most popular kind of clown and today it's the least popular clown," Rohret said. "Very few people are doing the white face anymore because of the scary clown trend, which is kind of sad. I don't want to be Pastor Sarah when I'm clowning. I want to be something totally different. So, for me, having the white face and totally covering myself helps me to be totally in my character."

The pastor also relies on collaboration to hone her skills. Fellow clowns are encouraged to pile into a tiny car for a road trip to the Iowa Great Lakes.

"There's a tradition of having clown groups get together on a regular basis to encourage each other, practice and do skits," she said. "But, I haven't found anyone in our area to do that with, so if there is anybody out there who is interested or wants to do clowning or has been clowning, I'd be interested in meeting them."

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