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Friday, February 8, 2002
These clowns take their work seriously

By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine


Sammy T. Clown was infuriated. Puffing smoky breath from his painted face, he clop-clopped in red shoes through the wind-driven snow on his way down the mountain.

"I'm freezing," Sammy said without a smile. "I'm so cold."

Sammy didn't want to talk about waking up at 3 Friday morning to get on his clown gear and oversized shoes to twist balloons for frigid ski jump fans. Didn't want to talk about how security took extra long to search his suitcase of synthetics. Didn't want to talk about the ski jump qualifying round being postponed even before he got his clown on. Sammy's day was over, and he wanted to leave. The paint on his face cracked as he slumped back through the metal detectors, setting them off with his top hat.

Fortunately, Sammy's wife of 27 years -- Sunshine T. Clown -- was in better spirits. "It's too cold to twist," she said from her Salt Lake City home. "Balloons just don't hold up. There was no way I was going up there today."

Sammy's real name is Tom Butte. His wife's real name is Carol. They met at an amusement park. They have four children, all of whom are also clowns. There's Giggles (Jennifer), Tutti Frutti (Sheena), Hugs (Kathryn) and Joe Cool (John).

They are all working the Olympics -- Joe Cool juggled for the athletes last night -- for free. Well, Tutti Frutti won't be available because she is expecting a child, to be named M&M. "She'll grow up not knowing if she's plain or nutty," Tutti Frutti likes to say.

What the Shea family is to the Olympics, the Butte family is to clowning around. The youngest, John, is a prodigy much like Jim Shea. He's been balloon twisting since age 3.

"John is one of the better twisters in Utah," says mother Carol. "He won a competition at age 9 against adult twisters. And clowns don't get points for cuteness."

Twisting, much like skeleton, is a little odd to people who don't understand it.

"We were just normal people before we became twisters," Carol says. "You start twisting, and it takes over your life. We can't eat dinner in a restaurant without stopping to twist for kids."

And twisting, like skeleton, is hard. Anyone can do a three-twist dog, Carol insists, just like anyone can ride a sled. But it takes a lot of patience and practice to twist Goofy, or Ariel from the Little Mermaid, or a dump truck. Sammy can rightfully be described as a gold-medal clown. He won the World Clown competition a few years ago.

"He almost always places against Master Clowns," Sunshine says evenly.

So if you see any clowns traipsing through the Olympic Village over the next three weeks, they are probably Buttes. Sammy will pick himself up and try again tomorrow. Hey, he skipped a twisting convention in Boston to volunteer for the SLOC for the full three-week fortnight. At the end of the month, Sammy must go back to work as a truck driver.

"He has to have a job," explains Sunshine, "to support his latex habit."

Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine.