Christmas brings ‘clown’ plenty to smile about
BY SETH MANDEL
Help me to create more laughter than tears, dispense more happiness than gloom, spread more cheer than despair.
|Above, “Katie” poses with her grandchildren during her storied career as a clown. At right, Rose Katzenstein, of Old Bridge, “Katie’s” creator.|
So begins the Prayer of a Clown, and the first three lines of what guided Old Bridge’s Rose Katzenstein — who as a clown goes by the name “Katie” — through her journey as a performer who touched the lives of countless terminally ill children.
In 1991, “Katie,” then 45 years old, had won a national clown competition and was sent to England to compete for the world gold medal in her art. She won the competition, and after being awarded the highest honor for a clown, she and a few others were asked by England’s royal family to entertain a group of terminally ill children.It was there that Katie met 24-year-old Maddy Philips, a mother of two who was dying of cancer. She paid a visit to Philips’ house and saw firsthand her plight.
“I had come to find out that they were so poor, they had never even gone to the movies. They were just a very, very poor family. She carried water to bathe her children, had never ever gone even for an ice cream with her children,” Katzenstein said.
“Katie” returned to the states after having done her best to cheer up the Philips family, but she would soon have another opportunity.
About two weeks after flying home, Katzenstein was invited back to Europe to chaperone a trip for several terminally ill patients.
Maddy Philips was one of those patients.
“The queen had done a trip for Maddy and four other terminally ill adolescents to go to the south of France for 10 days,” Katzenstein said, and “Katie” was asked to join.
Although Katzenstein said the trip was “marvelous,” Philips spent the entire 10 days crying, wanting to spend every moment with her children. When Philips was asked what her wish was, she responded that she didn’t want her children to only remember their mother sick.
“[She wanted] to do something that her children would remember their mother showing them fun. So I came back to America, and I told my clown friends about Maddy, and I said, ‘We’ve got to bring Maddy to America, end of story,’” Katzenstein said.
Maddy Philips had, unknowingly, helped Katzenstein found the Lollipop Foundation, a charity whose purpose was to fulfill the last wish of terminally ill children.
Katzenstein wanted to raise money to bring Philips and her family to the states, but needed to be part of an official organization to do so.
Katzenstein applied for, and was granted, official foundation status for the Lollipop Foundation.
“And two weeks later we called Maddy and we brought Maddy to America with her two children and husband,” Katzenstein said.
Once the public found out about Maddy’s impending arrival, the event drew substantial publicity, and donations began rolling in.
“So by the time Maddy got here, there was enough money to do Maddy’s wish plus extra money,” Katzenstein said.
Maddy wasn’t out of the airport before that money found its purpose.
There was a little girl, who Katzenstein immediately recognized as a cancer patient, waiting to greet Maddy as she stepped off the plane.
“She showed up to bring Maddy flowers, and didn’t even know her, so thus, she became our second wish child. We found out who she was, and we said, ‘Well, we’re going to make her our second wish child. She also became the poster child for all the Lollipop Foundation stuff,” Katzenstein said.
The girl’s name was Nicole Fury, and as the poster child for the foundation, she would represent both the mission of the Lollipop Foundation and many young cancer patients’ hopes of having their final wish granted.
At that point, Katzenstein’s future was crystal clear.
“And then from there, I thought, ‘Wow, there’s really a need; there’s a lot of kids that are dying and they need wishes.’ So my children had been raised, and I kind of said, well, if God sees me to raise my three kids, I’ll do something to give back to this world,” she said.
Never let me grow so big that I will fail to see the wonder in the eyes of a child or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged.
A widow, Katzenstein began working as a clown in addition to her job at the post office to help raise her three children.
She was an immediate success.
“And I started going to conventions to learn more and more. I just wanted to learn all I could. And eventually I started doing birthday parties. The first birthday party I did, I thought, I don’t know if I can do this, and I came home, and two days later, parents of three other kids that were at the birthday parties were calling me, saying, ‘My daughter wants you at her birthday party.’ And before you knew it, I was doing birthday parties every weekend,” Katzenstein said.
“Katie” quickly moved up the ranks in her local clown chapter, or “Alley.”
“And I joined the local Alley, and the next thing you know I’m running for office; the next thing you know I’m president,” Katzenstein said, adding that she was the only one to hold the presidency for three consecutive years.
Katzenstein attributed “Katie’s” popularity partly to the character’s appearance and approachability.
“I think that Katie is a very soft, cartoony-looking character. A lot of clowns are very harsh looking, and I think Katie is very soft and delicate. I portray a four-and-four-quarter-year-old child. I act like a child, so I act at their level,” Katzenstein said.
But the more she “clowned,” the more Katzenstein realized that she actually cared for each and every child for whom she performed.
“I think you just give kids love, and they’re going to love you back. You know I did silly things, but I think, honestly, the true reason that I think I was successful is because all they need is love,” she said.
“Katie” usually performed magic shows and balloon sculpture, but face painting was where she had the opportunity to connect personally with each member of her audience.
“Face painting was always the most popular, and that’s because you’re sitting down one on one with each child and you’re getting to talk to them individually,” Katzenstein said.
“And I truly did love the kids. I have seven grandchildren of my own. I love these children. I loved all the kids that I clowned for.”
Never let me forget that I am a clown... that my work is to cheer people up, make them happy, and make them laugh, make them forget momentarily all the unpleasant things in their lives...
Since its inception, the foundation has granted the wishes of more than 400 children.
Probably 95 percent of them, Katzenstein said, were requests for a trip to Walt Disney World.
But one in particular caught Katzenstein’s memory.
“I think that the cutest thing I’ve ever had is, I had a little girl call me one time, and this kid was 11 years old, and she told me that she wanted to talk to Katie the clown. So I told her that I was Katie’s mommy. Katie wasn’t home, but she could tell me, and I would give her the message. She told me that her brother was dying, and that she wanted to buy her brother a bicycle for his birthday because he was dying and he should have a wish. So I got the bicycle and made sure that this kid had his wish through this little girl,” Katzenstein said.
“But there,” she added, “was a little sister who had seen us clowning, and knew what we were doing, and called Katie.”
The foundation has also run special events to raise money for its cause.
Katzenstein said she once ran a “rock ’n’ roll weekend” in Pennsylvania that treated the audience to a concert from several oldies bands. All profits went to the foundation, and it was enough money to fund three wishes.
She said she taught her granddaughter the art of clowning at the young age of 4 years old, and by the time “Dolly Pop” was 6, she would routinely compete against adult clowns and win.
“And I think it’s done a lot for her to teach her, because she saw kids that were far less fortunate than her, children that were sick, and she also saw the love that they give back and she saw a little bit about love. I think it did a lot for the character of my granddaughter. It taught her what life is really all about,” Katzenstein said.
Not only were the judges at local competitions impressed with “Dolly Pop,” but she had caught the attention of former President George Bush, who invited both the student and the master to clown at the White House.
“There’s not too many children in this world that can say they’ve been invited to perform at the
White House at 6 years old,” Katzenstein said.
“Love goes a long way.”
Never let me jeopardize the integrity of clowndom by improper conduct. Help me to always make others proud of my actions as a clown.
“Dolly Pop” was only one of many of Katzenstein’s students, however. As president of Merry Makers, Katzenstein would often be asked for guidance. She began helping so many budding clowns that she soon had guests in her house, powder makeup and all, past midnight every night.
“And I thought, you know what, there’s really a need for all this. We need to do something, so I started a clown school,” Katzenstein said.
The school had classes two nights a week in a local community hall.
“I just rented a VFW hall, and actually, we only had to rent it for the first two nights. When they found out the money was going to be donated to the Lollipop Foundation, they gave us the hall,” she said.
After 16 weeks, the course participants received their own graduation ceremony. Katzenstein said the graduates even donned caps and gowns for the ceremony, but their garb was far from traditional. The red caps and gowns were adorned with yellow polka dots.
“It was a clown’s graduation,” Katzenstein said.
Although Katzenstein was happy to share her tricks of the trade with her pupils, they needed to learn more than just balloon sculptures and face painting. She said their recipes for success needed the good old-fashioned secret ingredient: love.
“But the most important thing is to learn about the heart of a clown. So to teach them, not only the clowning, they had to learn a message in this whole class, so what we did was those $500 [in tuition fees] from each one of them, we selected wish children, and at their graduation we brought terminally ill children in and they gave them the tickets to go to Disney World, and so on,” Katzenstein said.
Never let me acquire financial success to the point where it will discontinue calling upon my Creator in the hour of plenty.
Because money from the tuition fees went to the granting of wishes, Katzenstein did not make any money from her time teaching clown school, but, as any true clown knows, that wasn’t the point.
“So it also taught them that you’ve got to clown from the heart, you’ve got to love it. It’s wonderful to go out and make money, and you can make good money clowning, but you’ve got to have the heart behind it all first,” Katzenstein said.
And she insists that the work is its own reward.
“To me, I got much more out of it than I gave.”
She said most of the money for the foundation came from her clowning jobs, though some was raised through church fairs, grand-opening appearances, Brownie troop car washes and school candy drives.
Clowning started as a means by which to raise her family, but it became her social scene as well.
She said she has made lifelong friends in the clown industry.
“I have friends in five or six different countries, and in every state in this country that I could get on a plane and have somebody pick me up and take me to their home. And they’re all people I met in the clown world,” she said. “It’s a good life.”
Katzenstein’s efficacious optimism, however, has never faced a greater challenge.
On Nov. 18, Katzenstein, 58, was diagnosed with lung cancer.
In the ensuing week, doctors ran several tests and found the cancer had already spread to her bones and many of her organs, including her liver.
Doctors have classified the cancer as stage four, the most serious, and have told Katzenstein that she has about six months left to live.
Most of Katzenstein’s family lives in North Carolina, where she will soon be moving. She said it would be difficult to leave Old Bridge, but was looking forward to hosting future Christmas gatherings. She usually flies down to North Carolina for Christmas, since all 16 of her close relatives live there, and is therefore always a guest for the holidays.
Unfortunately, her doctors have told her that this past Christmas was to be her last, but her family made sure it was the first Christmas she would host, by flying up to Old Bridge for Christmas at Mom’s.
“The only thing that was making me able to sell this house, or even think about selling, was to think that all my children would be able to come home to Mom for Christmas, because that’s all I’ve thought about. I go there for Christmas every year, but I’m a real mom, and I wanted my kids to come home, I wanted to cook Christmas dinner, and I wanted my children home with me for Christmas, so I thought, ‘Well, OK, I can lose my house and buy a house down there, and then next year they’ll all come home for Christmas.’
“Well, because that’s not going to happen, they all did come home; everybody was here in New Jersey. Everybody — my seven grandchildren, my three children, all their spouses. Everybody came home.”
Katzenstein said the usually neat and tidy living room was wall-to-wall mattresses, and it never looked nicer.
“I kind of feel like, all these wishes that I granted, wow, they made me believe in Santa Claus this year because I never thought in a million years it would ever happen that I could get all my children home,” she said, adding that her friends pitched in as well, decorating the inside and outside of the house for her.
“People have been wonderful. Everybody knew what it meant for me to have my children together for Christmas, and my friends were just wonderful to help me get it together.”
Despite her condition, Katzenstein is still concerned with making others happy. She said it was hard to pack up her clown costumes, but “Katie” never entered those boxes.
“I kept the lollipop costume, and I kept one pair of my shoes, and I kept one makeup, and I kept my magic case, because I would like to do Katie one more time. I don’t know where I’m going to do it yet because my health is not so good, but I want to be Katie one more time,” she said.
Katzenstein even ordered a snow machine, since her grandchildren rarely see snow in the moderate North Carolina winters. Although it did snow later in the weekend, it wasn’t cold enough on Christmas for the snow machine to work. She said it must be between 15 and 20 degrees; otherwise, the machine will just spray water.
But the idea itself is typical of Katzenstein’s selflessness, and she was happy they tried.
And, while discussing the idea, although she was not wearing any powder makeup, wig or oversized shoes, Katie seemed to make her presence felt, and that unshakable optimism appeared once again.
“Wouldn’t the kids think it was magical to wake up and see it snowed just at 14 Brookside?” she asked.
“My grandchildren would’ve thought that that was clown magic.”