Twenty minutes of clowning in 1970 changed Don Burda's life.
Burda, a professional actor, walked away from a spur-of-the-moment weekend job and launched a new career as a clown. His clowning skills have earned him scores of awards. In his 31 years as a professional clown he's spent thousands of hours performing and taught at universities and clown camps.
Homer the Happy Hobo, Burda's clown character, has been featured on a series of collectible plates, and Burda has modeled for clown paintings and porcelain clown dolls that have been reproduced and sold nationally.
Burda and his wife and performing partner Dee will perform an all-ages show Saturday night at Centennial Hall, packing 19 acts into a two-hour performance that will include magic, pantomime, comedy routines and audience participation.
"It's a comedy show with a clown character," Burda said. "Some parts are touching. Some are silly. It's not going to be boring for adults."
The pair will also teach an extensive, three-day clowning workshop this weekend.
"If somebody ever said, 'I want to be a clown. How do I do it?' We're going to show them how to be a complete clown," Burda said.
The hands-on weekend workshop will include character development, theatrics in clowning, comedy magic, makeup, costuming, balloon sculpturing, developing a clown program or business and a host of related topics.
"You'll learn the skills that are going to make you an entertainer," Burda said.
Burda speaks with authority on the subtleties of clowning, such as differences between hobo clowns and tramp clowns, comedy magic and stage magic.
"A magician will perform an act. It's like, 'OK, I fooled you,'" Burda said. "For a clown, when you've finished, the clown acts just as surprised as the audience. The joke is always on the clown," he said. "You never let the audience be the brunt of the act."
That's part of the fundamental appeal of a clown, Burda said.
"The appeal of the clown is that he's in a little world of his own and everything happens to him. And they go on. No matter what happens to the clown, he always goes on."
Burda grew up in the small town of Friend, Neb., and married his high school sweetheart, Delores, in 1956. He studied theater and drama and had been working as a professional actor for six years in San Francisco when a theatrical company called on a Friday night in 1970.
"They asked if I could be a clown in a children's show the very next day," Burda said. "I had no experience at all as a clown, but I'd done improv theater. They had a makeup artist and a costume and two sold-out houses for a children's program."
The group had decided at the last minute they needed a clown on stage for crowd control. They told Burda, "We don't want 1,500 children running wild around the theater during intermission." He took the job.
He showed up the next day and they put on his makeup, gave him a couple of tips and sent him to the wings. Two minutes before he went on he panicked. He had five minutes of material for a 15-minute spot. He decided a pratfall was the answer.
He went out and fell off the stage, clambered back up fell into the curtain and generally clowned around to the delight of the audience. He was a complete hit. He was mobbed after the show by the kids and congratulated by the other actors. Homer the clown was born.
"I realized what this clown character had done," Burda said. "It had such an impact on people. I had to pursue it. I still did theater for a while, then switched to my own clowning business. I changed the whole direction of my career. It's still theater but it's a new character that I created."
Burda said one of the most important things he teaches is how to develop a character. Burda has thoroughly developed Homer's biography.
"It's like the basics of acting that person you portray, you really have to understand who they are if you're going to do the job right," he said.
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