About a decade and a half ago, my wife Harriett sent for tickets to a popular television show produced locally and syndicated across the country. Every parent yearned to accompany their child to The Ruffles The Clown Show. Ruffles, whose outfit matched his name, wore a multi-tiered ruffled shirt in bright white, baggy blue ruffled pants, and wavy wild hair, plastic nose and artificial lips, all bright red. Patriotic and comical all rolled into one. Viewers were probably tempted to salute. Oh, and of course huge floppy black shoes.
The show included skits where Ruffles would get into convoluted situations with three sidekicks, Pappy, Slappy and Happy. The trio never came out on top, except if measured by the amount of seltzer water or meringue pie they absorbed during the show. And don't forget Flummox Falls, a stream of thick green goop that would envelop one of the three clowns at the end of the final skit. The volume was so great that the loser clown would literally disappear beneath the mound of accumulated sludge.
Ruffles was the top dog and a mystery. The identity of Ruffles was a closely held secret until the performer retired, at which time a big retirement announcement was made. I remembered a series of such unveilings covered by the news media, each just a few years apart. Every former Ruffles gave salutary speeches about playing the clown, how it was an honor, and more blah, blah, blah. I'd never heard of these folks again, even though they'd 'retired' at relatively young ages. The physical demands of the role were significant, because Ruffles didn't just walk around the stage. He jumped, leaped, trampolined, cartwheeled and tumbled from spot to spot. I'd watched the show with Annie when she was a child, laughing with her as Ruffles delivered pies and foam barbells to his three nemeses. Never once did Ruffles get gooped under Flummox Falls.
Yesterday Harriett screamed when the mail arrived. "Harvey! We got them! We got them!"
'Them' was two tickets to the Ruffles TV show. I rubbed my fingers along the glossy full-color tickets adorned with Ruffle's face. Now? "Aren't these fifteen years too late? Who do you know that has young kids?" I asked.
Harriett snatched the tickets from my hand. "Oh no you don't. After waiting this long, we're not giving them away."
I wasn't considering them as a gift, more as a marketable and desirable product.
"And we're not selling them either!" she added.
It was fortunate that Harriett was a good guesser and couldn't read my mind, or she'd kick me out of her house for all of my extracurricular sexual activities. "You're not suggesting we go, are you?"
"Well, either you and I, or one of us and Anna."
I'd learned the hard way that when Harriett made up her mind, there was no changing it. "I'll call Annie and see if she's free."
My subsequent phone conversation with our daughter was short and sweet. "Are you insane? That show is for kids. Besides, I have commitments at school. Would you really ask me to skip classes and abandon homework just to go see some clown-"
I cut her off. "Message delivered loud and clear."
Her tone softened. "Thanks for asking, Daddy. I love you." Click.
"Okay, so I guess we're going," I told Harriett.
She unclipped the envelope containing the tickets from the magnetic fastener on the fridge. "They're taping Monday the twentieth." Then she looked at the huge flat calendar. "Oh no! I won't be back from Philadelphia until Tuesday." She grabbed the enclosed letter of congratulations from the envelope and jumped onto the phone. I heard only her side of the conversation. "Yes, I'd like to exchange two tickets for the Ruffles Show-" "No, I don't want to return them and get back on the list. We waited fifteen years for these." "Yes, we're very happy you sent them to us. It's just that I have a conflict with the date and I was hoping-" "I wasn't planning on selling them, thank you very much, so whether or not that's legal doesn't matter. Can't I simply exchange them for another-" "No, I don't want to return them."
Harriett slammed the received so hard I thought the wall-mounted phone would rip off. "They kept telling me how oversubscribed the show is, and that I should be grateful for getting any tickets at all, convenient or not. Evidently they have a waiting list for the waiting list, in case any tickets are returned."
"It's the old supply and demand. Too bad it took so long-"
Harriett wasn't done ranting. "The nerve of them, accusing me of doing something illegal."
"So I guess we're not going."
"I'm not, but you are." She crossed her arms.
"Why me? Without a child or a spouse? I'll stick out like a sore thumb." I recalled a skit where Ruffles smashed an oversized hammer on Pappy's finger and it blew up like a balloon. Because it was a flesh-colored balloon, the kids in the audience screamed when it exploded, until Pappy showed that his hand was intact. For that 'thumbs up', he got a round of cheers that lasted forever. Then Pappy vanished under Flummox Falls.
"Because we're not going to waste these." She waved the two tickets in my face. "That's why."
Although the shows were shown in the afternoon, they were filmed in the morning, when the kids were fresh. And energetic. And loud. I could barely hear myself think as I stood in line outside the studio, behind a row of factories in an industrial park.
When I got to the head of the line, the mother and son ahead of me walked forward, each clutching a square pillow they'd been handed. Rather unexpected. I stepped forward to take their place next to the ticket taker. He held out his arm like a railroad gate. "Where's your kid?"
"She's in college and had a conflict. Why, am I prohibited from attending the taping because I'm a single male?" I hoped he'd say yes, because then I'd go home and watch a porn flick.
"No, just strange is all."
"So is waiting fifteen years to answer a ticket request." I couldn't help but make a snotty remark.
He looked me up and down. "We're popular. Can't help that." He punched my ticket so it couldn't be used again. From a box beneath his stool, he pulled out a purple pillow with Ruffle's image on it. Then I understood. Ruffles the Clown seat pads as a gift to audience members. "Makes it more comfy to sit in the bleachers." Before he passed back my ticket, he pulled a sticker from his pocket and applied it to my ticket. "There, you're a special guest. You'll get a tour at the end of the show."
"Really?" I smiled. Maybe I'd get some kind of gift too. There was a Toss The Beanbag game for prizes, but that was for kids, not grown-ups.
Some guy in a sports shirt and slacks came out to prep the crowd. He was boring as hell, telling us all to cheer when the APPLAUSE sign came on over head, and to laugh as much as we wanted. He told us that the show we'd be participating in would be taped for later broadcast, in about two weeks. Before he could say anything else, Slappy and Happy surrounded him, pulled out seltzer bottles and doused him with fizzy water. The audience erupted in laughter, perfect preparation for the announcer's voice, which bellowed, "Who makes you laugh, boys and girls?" Without prompting, we all shouted "Ruffles!"
Ruffles came out to enthusiastic applause and cheering. The double back flip didn't hurt. His voice had an electronic tone, as if it was being run through some kind of synthesizer. That disguised the actor and made every Ruffles sound alike. Quite high tech.
Ruffles must have studied gymnastics or something close, because every almost pratfall turned into a handstand or cartwheel or backflip. Ruffles was extremely agile and in great shape. No wonder the turnover was so high. The job must have been exhausting.
The skits began. The first was Ruffles cooking in a kitchen. He was interrupted by Slappy and Happy, who offered their help but only hindered the process. Pappy was missing in action. The choreography for the skit seemed off, as if Pappy's absence made a material difference, Maybe the repertoire of funny plays were designed around four participants. With only Slappy and Happy joining Ruffles, none of them would work as smoothly.
After the cooking skit came a cartoon, a retread that I'd watched when I was a child. I laughed all those years ago, and it still struck me as funny. When Annie had watched, we'd seen the cartoons full screen. So, playing the cartoon for us was a courtesy.
Dancing spotlights singled out a child for the Toss The Beanbag game. The little girl was successful in getting a beanbag into four holes but missed the fifth. She walked away with an armful of Ruffles-branded products: a game, a stuffed animal, a puzzle, juggling balls, license plate frames, pot holders, galoshes, a t-shirt, stickers, a pillow, a ukulele, a flashing button and a spice rack. Ruffles merchandising income must have been a windfall!
Another skit performed by the three, this time in a wood working shop. Rubber hammers and saws, foam two by fours accidentally slammed against clown's heads. The kids around me all laughed.
Maybe I was past the appropriate age, but the skits seemed uninspired and juvenile. Boring, to be honest, despite their slapstick nature.
Just as Ruffles announced the Big Contest, my seat cushion began to buzz and smoke and vibrate. I jumped to my feet. "We have our volunteer," he said.
Huh? I was no volunteer, just a victim of a malfunctioning cushion. And then it dawned on me. I was a 'special guest.' That jerk ticket taker had given me a rigged pillow, for this precise purpose.
Ruffles raised an arm in my direction. "Let's give him a big round of applause."
.... There is more of this story ...