For too many senior citizens, pandemic or not, isolation is the norm.
That was true even before the recent pandemic but not in the World of Chucko, the All American Clown.
As a youngster, Charles Sidlow showed some talent as an artist, was befriended by some professional wrestlers where he learned a few tricks of the trade and at 17, headed off to secure a place in a college far more selective than Harvard, one that would rarely accept more than 50 students from 2,000 applicants.
Founded in Venice Florida in 1968, Clown College was created by Irvin Feld, then owner of The Greatest Show on Earth, aka The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Clowns did more than entertain. They also were the safety valve of the circus. They literally would guide patrons to safety in case of any sort of emergency, from an escaping tiger to a fire.
Although the young man had never seen a circus clown, some tricks he learned from his friends in the world of wrestling came in handy.
That he had some artistic ability also would prove handy. Although just 17, he made the cut and found himself on the way to Venice, where he would graduate from that exclusive college and be hired into a new world that would not only take him around the world but one that would eventually transform him into Chucko the All-American Clown.
He was one who would make a difference in the lives of countless seniors as well as the lives of many who would climb aboard the Chucko bandwagon.
While all that was years away from the world of that 17-year-old young man attending that elite college in Venice, there was a world to conquer and records to set along the way.
He had joined a circus that had nearly gone bankrupt in 1956 but he would play a big part in that resurrection, starring in the Greatest Show for many years, during which he became the youngest Boss Clown in the Greatest Show on Earth.
He would move to Japan with a new act as an aerial clown for a year and then spend nearly a decade as a promoter for several companies as an associate of the American consulate, learning to speak Japanese, falling in love with a lady who was a Hammond organ demonstrator but was soon to be entrepreneur in entertainment and eventually entice her to move to the U.S. and become his wife and a key component of the World of Chucko which lay ahead.
Consider that she did all this and learned English after the age of 50.
Back in the Sarasota area, Chucko joined Circus Sarasota, which had been started by Dolly Jacobs, the daughter of Chucko’s close friend Lou Jacobs and Dolly’s eventual husband, Pedro Reis, who had a brief career as an aerialist.
Both Lou Jacobs and Chucko are featured at the Ringling where Jacobs famous little car is on display in the original Circus Museum and Chucko is featured in an 8-minute video applying his clown make-up. Find that in a section of the newer Tibbals Learning Center.
Dolly performed in Circus Sarasota as the Queen of the Air. Reis is the company president.
The circus only performed during one month a year but would eventually acquire the Sailor Circus, otherwise known as The Greatest Little Show on Earth.
That and the annual circus keep the staff busy. Meanwhile Chucko was about to find his destiny as he developed Laughter Unlimited, a small troupe of clowns who would visit area nursing homes and senior centers.
As Circus Sarasota developed as a not-for-profit organization, Laughter Unlimited fit nicely into the plan even as area seniors living in such places, thrived with their new visitors, who usually came just once a month.
Although the visits were not as often as the performers and their fans would have liked, many people could see the transformation in the residents. What Chucko is hoping to do these days with The World of Chucko is to reach many more seniors.
Chucko sought additional clowns for Circus Sarasota while there. He worked to expand the program even as new friends worked to secure funding for that expansion and also move to have Sidlow added to the Circus Ring of Fame at St. Armand’s Circle.
That finally occurred on Jan. 13, 2018.
While with Circus Sarasota, Sidlow expanded the Laughter Unlimited program he created and worked as a greeter to help fans find seats and even donned his clown attire if needed to entertain.
As Circus Sarasota grew and developed, it added some performances in other cities for a few weeks and expanded the Sailor Circus. Along the way, it was fundraising to air condition its tent for the health of the student performers, their faculty and coaches.
Then life changed two years ago and Chucko found himself no longer part of the little circus which was about to change its name to the Circus Arts Foundation.
Yet he had been involved in the start of something that was not about to stop growing. There was a cadre of people that would work together to fund it and staff it and soon acquire not-for-profit status for something called the World of Chucko.
At the same time, Chucko’s fans, led by Al and Bette Van Tieghem, who had been involved with the original Laughter Unlimited, moved to sponsor Chucko for a place of honor at St. Armand’s Circle. The couple was with the Sidlows and many fans a week ago at the Friendraiser at the Senior Friendship Center in Sarasota.
That event was held to introduce fans and helpers to one another. These included several professional clowns who have been donating time to promote the World of Chucko which has taken up the gauntlet begun by Laughter Unlimited which Sidlow created years ago.
Clowns who participated in the Friendraiser were Patri-Tot, Grandma Pearl, and JP Theron. Also there was Nancy Berman who, with Sidlow, starred in the last filmed event at the old Venice Circus Arena. That film will be spooled on a monitor at the new train car museum.
Friendraiser food was planned by Sidlow’s wife, Noriko, who also brought many to near tears as she spoke of the way the two met in Japan soon after a major earthquake in that country, and the progress of her business and fluency in English even as she and Sidlow came closer together and she would finally agree to move to the U.S. where they eventually married.
They have become a true partnership in the development of this new venture to transform the lives of people in senior centers.
Once vaccinated, the couple has been able to visit many centers even before residents’ relatives, making a positive impact on the lives of many seniors.
Now recovering from a serious fight with pancreatic cancer, yet another challenge of the past year, Sidlow is going all out to get his World of Chucko into to as many senior centers as possible and has received help from some foundations to fund their efforts.
The World of Chucko was accepted for the matching gift days of the Community Foundation of Sarasota.
Another key supporter of the World of Chucko is John Overton who was chairman of The Pines for 16 years. That is where Laughter Unlimited got its start.
Overton’s wife was involved in introducing the program to the Bainbridge in that era. New to the board is Tessa Reynolds Amato who has overcome Clown Phobia and also asked Sidlow, a licensed notary, to perform her wedding to Vito Amato last March.
You will be able to meet the All-American Clown and many of his friends from 3-5 p.m. Sunday, July 4 at the Historic Venice Train Depot. Look for the caboose and the former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey train car.
The later is undergoing a major transformation to become The Venice Circus Train car Museum in homage to the many years when Venice was the home of The Greatest Show on Earth, where the second unit of that great circus and Clown College were created and the only city in North America to ever have an arena built by, not just a circus, but The Greatest Show on Earth.
If any city were worthy of becoming the Greatest Circus City in the U.S., many circus fans might suggest Venice.
To learn more go to: WorldofChucko.com