Sunday, April 5, 2020

A Clown, for Christ's Sake: The curious career of Rev. Floyd T. Shaffer (UPDATED AGAIN!)

A tabloid article about Floyd Shaffer, the religious clown.

Floyd Shaffer's first book.
The Reverend Floyd T. Shaffer was looking for a new way to reach his congregation in 1969. How could he possibly get through to his practical, sensible flock during that tumultuous age of Vietnam, Woodstock, and Manson? The unlikely answer was by donning a fright wig, floppy shoes, and a round, red, rubber nose.

Though he may not have invented the form, Floyd Shaffer became, for a time, perhaps the most prominent and beloved proponent and practitioner of religious clowning in America. Born in 1930, the kindly and gentle Shaffer was a devout, deeply sincere Lutheran minister whose career trajectory took him from Michigan to Maryland to Ohio. In fact, Shaffer experienced his greatest period of productivity and prominence in the Buckeye State during the Reagan-Bush years. But to appreciate this man's story in full, we must travel back to the Age of Aquarius.

Destined to become a literal Holy Fool, Floyd Shaffer started upon his unusual path in the late 1960s in Columbia, Maryland, where he preached God's word at the still-existent Abiding Savior Lutheran Church. It was at Abiding Savior that Shaffer first introduced costumed clowning into his ministry and encouraged others to follow his example. According to fellow religious clown John Garrett, Floyd was aligning himself with a liturgical tradition stretching back to the Middle Ages, when so-called "holy interrupters" would lighten the mood of formal services with their comedic outbursts. Although a keen student of clowning history, Shaffer was more likely influenced by the counterculture of his own time. Clowning and mime were art forms beloved by hippies, who also had a penchant for face-painting and the donning of colorful, garish clothing. Back in 1969, a preacher dressed as a clown could almost be considered edgy or hip.

In those early years, Shaffer and his ilk were not always welcome among mainstream Christians. The soft-voiced pastor related to his followers the story of his disastrous appearance at a 1970s youth conference held at Houston's famed Astrodome. There, Shaffer and his fellow beneficent buffoons were regarded with extreme skepticism. Thinking the clowns were blasphemous, the other conference attendees derided and, in some cases, attacked Shaffer's troupe. Arlene Trapp, an original acolyte of Shaffer, recalled being "treated like Jesus, kicked at, hit, and mocked."

Still in all, Shaffer's tomfoolery-based evangelism must have yielded positive results in those early days, because he kept at it. In 1974, still based in Columbia, he founded Faith and Fantasy, a nondenominational clown ministry popular enough to have lasted into the 1990s, though its alumni remember it as a loosely-affiliated "non-organization" whose members were never keen on rules. During these years, determined to spread the message of Christ through the techniques of Emmett Kelly and Marcel Marceau, Shaffer and his followers performed their wordless, mime-based act at weekly Lutheran services and also visited numerous hospitals and nursing homes, where they found an appreciative, if captive, audience for their antics.

By 1981, having relocated to Ohio, Floyd Shaffer was well-known enough to attract the attention of the popular press. In August of that year, the black-and-white tabloid Weekly World News ran a profile of Shaffer with the headline "Preacher clowns for God to fill the pews." While essentially flattering to the clown minister, the article also described him as "wacky" and "bizarre."

The Christian Science Monitor followed suit in September with a slightly more dignified article by Stewart McBride headlined "Holy fools rush in." More wide-ranging than the Weekly World News piece, McBride's article looks at different examples of clown ministry from across the United States. In this context, rather than the isolated kook portrayed in the tabloid, Floyd Shaffer is part of a vital, burgeoning movement. The Monitor still recognized Shaffer as a pioneer, however, calling him "one of the first clergymen to perform a Sunday service in whiteface and clown costume" and declaring that "hundreds have followed in his suit of many colors."

The cover of the infamous video.
A few years after these articles introduced the Christian clown phenomenon to a national audience, Floyd Shaffer began writing a series of guidebooks about the topic dearest to his heart. If I Were a Clown and Clown Ministry appeared in 1984. Clown Ministry Skits for All Seasons followed in 1990. Of these, it is Clown Ministry that brought Shaffer a sort of late-blooming, ironic notoriety. The book was accompanied by a 92-minute instructional video that, decades later, was widely excerpted and mocked (shades of the unhappy Astrodome experience!) on video-sharing sites like eBaum's World, Daily Motion, and YouTube.

That was how I first became acquainted with Floyd Shaffer and Clown Ministry. In February 2011, comedians and avid thrift store scavengers Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher used clips from Shaffer's 1984 video in an episode of their web series, The Found Footage Show, which they originally produced for the A.V. Club website. They said they found the VHS tape at a church rummage sale. "This one was intended for budding Christian clowns who wanted to start their own clown ministry," explained Prueher. "I've never understood the connection between Christianity and clowning, and this video certainly didn't help." To which Pickett added: "Really, this video is the best argument against putting your grandparents into a nursing home."

For those whose curiosity has been piqued, the entire Clown Ministry video is now available for viewing on YouTube. In these 92 minutes, Floyd Shaffer walks us through the history and purpose of Christian clowning, demonstrates how to properly apply clown makeup, and even lets us tag along on a typical nursing home visit. It is this last aspect of the video that has attracted the most attention and ridicule over the years, as the elderly patients here seem bewildered and frightened, rather than delighted, by the antics of Shaffer and company.

Floyd Shaffer today
"The clown has no age," Shaffer optimistically told the Weekly World News in 1981. Mankind, however, is not immune from the ravages of time. Now 85 years old and comfortably retired since at least 2006, Floyd Shaffer has returned to his home state of Michigan, where he lives with his wife in Saginaw. The couple have two grown children. Though no longer clowning, Floyd Shaffer is still a loyal follower of the Lutheran faith.

The man's longstanding influence on the world of Christian clowning remains undeniable. In a September 2013 article on the World Clown Association website, Janet "Jellybean" Tucker recalled how seeing Shaffer changed her life; "It was in 1979 or 1980 at a Clown, Mime, Puppet, Dance Ministry Workshop in Oberlin, Ohio, and I saw Floyd Shaffer do a bit on feeding the hungry where his clown ate gobs of popcorn but offered it to a hungry person one kernel at a time. I began reading the Bible through different eyes and began to see the Bible characters as real people."

Obviously, despite the snickering of the internet, Shaffer's message got through to some viewers. As recently as April 2015, Christine Fontaine, a religious-minded mime in Northfield, Massachusetts, contacted Floyd by phone to seek his advice and counsel on how to proceed with her work. The two talked for an hour. As always, Floyd Shaffer remained committed to clowning for Christ.

UPDATE FOR 2020: Amazingly, some more vintage footage of Floyd Shaffer has surfaced! In addition to touring with their collection of offbeat videos, Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher also have a weekly YouTube series called VCR Party Live. In a recent "quarantine" edition of the show, the hosts interviewed film archivist Skip Elsheimer, who specializes in educational and industrial films. One of the clips Elsheimer showed during this visit depicts Floyd, both as himself and in costume, doing some Christian clowning.

After Pickett described the clip as "clown communion," Elsheimer responded: "That one, I can't remember. The title just suddenly left my brain. That one I got recently, and that one I have not shown online anywhere." He went on to say he didn't know where this film was originally shown. "I think this is too scary for Sunday school class." Pickett and Prueher note that the film is dour and that the clowns in it do not seem happy.

Floyd Shaffer appears as himself and as a clown in a newly-discovered film from the 1970s.

Scored with incongruous ragtime piano, the footage seems to date back to the 1970s when Shaffer was working with the Faith and Fantasy troupe in Columbia, Maryland. It may have been made as a record of what their performances were like back then. The movie begins with shots of a congregation in a mid-sized church. Floyd himself, with a full head of curly hair, enters the room in traditional vestments. A slight smile passes over Floyd's face as he stands behind the altar, and through the magic of editing, he transforms into a clown, complete with a red nose and a derby hat. The parishioners are understandably shocked and confused, though some kids giggle.

Floyd opens a gift box and retrieves a card that says FOR THE CONGREGATION. (This may be the title of the film.) The box also contains a pile of severe-looking nails. Shaffer takes one of these nails and hands it to another clown who has joined him at the front of the church. He presses it firmly into the second clown's palm, as if this is communion, and the nail is a wafer. He performs this same service for a third clown, and a title card reading "Communion" appears onscreen.

Floyd pulls a heavy wooden crucifix from a red box, then places bread and wine on the altar. After that, he fills a metal bowl with water from a jar. He takes the bowl over to a small group of clowns and has them place their hands in the water. They dry their hands. Shaffer then solemnly raises the loaf of bread and the wooden crucifix in front of him.  He places the bread on the cross as if the bread itself were Jesus being crucified, but then he breaks off a hunk of it from the bottom. Shaffer then mimes pouring invisible blood from the crucifix into a bottle already filled with wine. He and the other clowns silently, seriously eat the bread and drink the wine as the film fades to black.

The relevant portion of the video begins at about the 28:25 mark. Enjoy.

UPDATE FOR 2021: In my research on Shaffer's career, I found an elaborate article about him in the August 26, 1961 edition of the Fort Lauderdale News. Back then, he was serving as the pastor for Christ the King Lutheran Church. The article includes background details on Floyd's early life and a great picture of the man himself.

An article about Floyd's younger days.

And here's an article from the June 1, 1975 edition of The Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore Sun story about Floyd (part 1).
Baltimore Sun story about Floyd (part 2).

Wherever Floyd went, publicity followed. Here's a huge article from the June 10, 1981 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Floyd in St. Louis (part 1)

Floyd in St. Louis (part 2)