News Story

Where Are the Clowns?

Another business, livelihoods at risk from epidemic and lockdown

What happens when one of Michigan’s idiosyncratic and successful live performance companies encounters the COVID-19 pandemic?

So far, nothing good.

Thirty years ago, Michigan natives Dan and Janice Priest were recent college graduates, working for a health care firm and taking occasional side gigs as entertainers.

Dan, now 53, had a degree in natural science and physiology from Michigan State University. He also had an interest in offbeat amusements: He founded a juggling club and took clown classes in college. Janice, now 51, was trained at the University of Michigan in opera.

It wasn’t long before their avocational amusements morphed into an entrepreneurial enterprise. They performed as clowns, balloon artists, magicians and face painters at sporting events, parties, restaurants and festivals all over Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

By the mid-1990s, Dan (under his clown name Derby) was spending more and more time twisting balloons for pay, while Janice (who went by the name Lovely) both entertained audiences and doubled as the growing company’s business manager.

In 2000, their firm,, was selected to perform at the Detroit Tigers’ new stadium, Comerica Park. Other gigs followed at the Lions’ Ford Field and the Red Wings’ Joe Louis and Little Caesars arenas. 2020 was scheduled to become their 20th straight season at Comerica.

Then came the novel coronavirus.

Early in February, there were a few warning signals, Dan said in an interview. The managers at a Monroe restaurant, where they had a weekly, family-night gig, warned them that the virus threatened the dining industry.

Shortly thereafter, their gig was cancelled. Then the Red Wings suspended the clowns’ contract, then its own season altogether.

Bookings for warm-weather events, the company’s busiest season, were coming in steadily early this year, until late February and early March. Then they were replaced by almost daily cancellations. Finally, state government-ordered shutdowns brought to a standstill.

“In late February, we went from full, regular income to no income,” Priest said. “We had all these major events coming up that are the backbone of our business. Everything has been put on hold.”

The Priests’ lives were turned upside down almost overnight. Priest said they’ve investigated government-run small business assistance programs, but they are uncertain if qualifies. He said he may be eligible for unemployment insurance, but that too is up in the air, and it wouldn’t make up for lost income in any event.

Just before the pandemic struck, the family refinanced their Flat Rock home with the intent of converting the basement into living space for one of their four children, a 23-year-old with special needs. Now, Priest said, they’re going to “sit on that money for awhile.”

For the time being, “we’re living on savings and donations,” he said. Former clients and fans, including some who contributed to a GoFundMe drive for unemployed clowns, have been generous, he said.

If government-ordered shutdowns are eased and public events reopened in some fashion by midsummer, the damage could be modest, he said. But only if people “begin to feel comfortable.”

Even with no government restrictions, the effects of the pandemic will likely to be profound. It may be awhile before parents are willing to sit their children down in front of a clown for a close contact face painting.

Priest said he’s started to see some glimmers of hope. His company has recently taken a few summer bookings from customers who said they’ll need entertainment, if their events go forward.

A few others have asked for limited services that can be delivered at a safe, social distance, such as balloon art. Priest said he can even imagine moving some of the family’s business online, hosting magic shows or kids’ karaoke events by teleconference.

Or he may go back to working in an elder care facility, or as a hypnotist or something else. But Priest said he is an optimist.

“We’ll get through it," he said. “You’ve got to have hope. It would take some pretty rigorous (government) restrictions to make me stop being an entrepreneur.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.