Tears of a Clown

Fredgie's quest for kids' show success hasn't exactly been a barrel of laughs -- but then again, it sure is a funny business

Fredgie is colorful and funny
like a clown; profound and
pure like Chaplin!
And as both of them
Fredgie is a melancholic character
-- a poem by Martha Gonzalez,
personal assistant to Fredgie

Fredgie would like the world to know how the whole Fredgie thing began. This requires slipping a videotape into his VCR, and letting art speak for itself.

The action takes place on a drab day in Paris, along the walkway that fronts the Sacre Coeur Cathedral in Montmartre. A cameraman's jumpy lens settles on a figure peering into a mounted telescope. The man whirls. "≠Hola, tout le monde! ≠Soy Fredgie, aqui en Pari! Hey, a'est bon! Magnifique! ≠Yo voy salsa en Pari!" His wardrobe, which, as it will turn out, is positively funereal by Fredgie standards, consists of white tap shoes, baggy trousers, a red denim jacket, red clown nose, mirrored wraparound sunglasses, and a psychedelic chimney sweep's hat.

Fredgie lunges toward the camera, throws a maraca high into the air and lets it drop onto his paunch, pinning it there with a palm. His hat falls to the ground, revealing a shaggy Prince Valiant haircut. He bends to retrieve the hat, shakes a curtain of bangs over his receding hairline, wiggles his hips. "Opa! Opa! Cha cha cha. ≠Mamba y merengue!"

A small figure in a long coat and Arab headdress trudges past. "Hey, senor, bienvenido a Paris," Fredgie shouts, grabbing him by the hand. The man does not slow down, keeps his eyes fixed straight ahead, as if being marched across the surface of a disquieting canvas. "Okay, adios," Fredgie pants. He is breathing hard now.

A fellow hawking postcards wanders into view. "®Como estas, senor? How are you? Hey, es Leonardo da Vinci. Opa! Opa!" Fredgie turns to the camera, taps a postcard of the Mona Lisa. In his deeply furrowed cheeks, flecks of clown glitter shimmer like tiny radioactive seeds. Speaking a language he takes to be French, Fredgie tells the man he will buy postcards. "Hey, j'appelle Fredgie," he says, before handing over his francs. "What's your name?"

The salesman looks at him, uncomprehending. "Merci," he murmurs.
"Merci?" Fredgie asks. "Merci Beaucoup?" He chuckles at his bon mot, shakes the postcards frantically.

This Fredgie character is only a few minutes old and already he appears to be groping for a purpose. But all that is about to change. "Now watch," Fredgie says, pointing insistently at his own televised image. "This is how Fredgie was born."

On-screen, Fredgie shouts, "Hey, come here!" He dodges out of the camera frame, as is his wont, then reappears next to three pasty boys. "Hey! Opa! Opa! Are you Franaais?"

"Angleterre," they say in unison.
Fredgie looks confused.
"England," the tallest one clarifies.
"England?" Fredgie pauses. "Hey, I speak English!"

He quickly establishes the boys names (Billy, Sam, Clayton) and where they are from (Bristol), and attempts, unsuccessfully, to affix his red clown nose to each of their noses. He hands them each a maraca: "Shaka-shaka-shaka," he instructs. They do. He flops his hat onto Sam's head, snaps a huge bow tie around Billy's neck. The boys dance a bit and peek at the camera and giggle.

Fredgie is ecstatic. "You have fun with Fredgie, huh? One day you grow up and be a clown. We're bringing salsa to Paree," he sings out. "We are having a partee here in Paree. Yes, I'm going to dance tonight." He shuffles his feet, essays a loopy pirouette. The boys look at each other, arch their thin eyebrows, and announce their departure.

The interlude has lasted 120 seconds, maybe. But for Fredgie, it is liminal. He has established a crucial truth: Children, attracted by the bright colors and noise, gravitate toward Fredgie. The tape rolls on, with Fredgie exhorting other Parisian children to dance, shake his maracas, and chant his name, all the while regaling the camera in his own personal Esperanto -- a jumble of Spanish, English, French, and Portuguese. In front of the Eiffel Tower, a hellion with buck teeth grabs Fredgie's hat and absconds on roller skates. Later Fredgie steps too close to the camera and gets bonked on the head. He effuses over a crippled boy, bequeathing him a tasseled baton, then forgetting the child's name.

"The energy coming off those kids was just phenomenal," Fredgie recalls. It was precisely this sort of energy, he says, that compelled him to shed his identity as a 53-year-old wanderer named Frederick Kramer and to recast himself as a street clown with epic delusions. Already the star of his own Miami-based television show, Fredgie envisions his future as that of an international TV personality, living in a world filled with Fredgie products.

Those watching Fredgie from a distance, however, might be struck by one other vital moment on the videotape, a scene that slices utterly through the forced merriment and self-promotion.

Fredgie stands on a narrow cobblestone road. "What is this place called again?" he asks someone off-camera. Upon hearing the name, the Place de Tete, Fredgie begins reciting the words Place de Tete and spinning down the street, metal taps chattering on the stone tiles, passersby gawking anxiously as his circles grow more erratic, as he narrowly avoids being plowed into by a blue Citroen, as he loses his equilibrium and tips backward, landing hard on his derriere, his head slamming into the calf of a tourist, his legs jackknifing in the air.

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