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

Zu-Zou the Clown, having discreetly downed a glass of white wine, is discussing the downside of pancake makeup with Fredgie's birdlike personal assistant Martha Gonzalez. Mr. Silver, who paints himself silver and pretends to be a statue, is handing Mr. Percussion a business card, talking collaboration. Luz LaRumba, a salsa dancer packed into spandex, sashays across the room with Charo-esque abandon. The child talent nibble at finger food, mothers poised behind them with napkins. Everyone is determined to be known, if only by one another. The Fredgie press kits, blue folders neatly stacked on a nearby table, remain untouched.

If Fredgie is fazed by the lack of media interest, he does not betray his distress. He knows fame is not an overnight thing. Besides, the event is being filmed, the footage to be stockpiled for use in future episodes of his show.

Near the bar, an elderly woman draped in jewelry watches Fredgie drag one of his guests in front of the camera. "Such talent!" she cries, listing dangerously. "They don't make them like him any more. Trust me. I used to be a star on Broadway, kid. Cats? Pfeh."

Presently Roni Goodrich herds the group into Scala, a Brazilian restaurant and nightclub where Fredgie has filmed previous episodes of his show. The crowd files into the cavernous room, fills the few tables closest to the stage. What ensues is a long and elaborate ceremony involving the introduction of nearly everyone in attendance, pronouncements audible well beyond the restaurant, owing to the emcee, a man in a lime-green suit who looks like a bite-size Geraldo Rivera and who, like Geraldo, screams at all times. After each name, a smattering of applause echoes through the room.

Video footage of the opening of Fredgie's show appears on a large-screen TV set: Costumed children pour out of the back of a station wagon, chanting Fredgie! Fredgie! Fredgie answers with his signature chant of Opa! Opa! He leads them past a man swallowing fire, through a torrent of confetti, into Scala, then out to the pool area for a conga line. When he shouts the names of his troupe members, the kids instantly take up the chant. Whereas a few months ago Fredgie was making do with surly French children, he now has authentic child talent -- smiling, compliant, feral in their enthusiasm.

The tape ends. Bespangled and radiant, the real-live Fredgie dances across the Scala stage, dispensing opas regally. He dutifully calls the children to the stage. Felix Reynoso, a pudgy four-year-old who lip-synchs to Willy Chirino. Claribel, "a Vegas showgirl trapped in the body of a nine-year-old," as the Fredgie promo video explains. Nayer Regalado, Fredgie's camera-hungry nine-year-old cohost. Abraham Ascoy, a young Michael Jackson imitator whose whiplash pelvic thrusts come off as somewhat disturbing in light of recent allegations against the singer. And so on.

The gathering adjourns. Those present file into the lobby, where another press party is in full swing, this one to ballyhoo the Miss Hispanic USA beauty contest. All the Spanish-language TV stations have turned out to film the contestants, long, thin women in formal gowns and impregnable hairdos. Fredgie's minions move through the crowd, lingering before the cameras. The child talent dance around the beauty queens, chirping questions. Miss Peru bends to greet them, then gently pushes her left breast back into her gown.

Fredgie himself retreats upstairs to his sixteenth-floor apartment, his home base when he's away from West Palm Beach. He settles in among the boxes of Fredgie pennants, buttons, plastic cups, squeeze bottles, T-shirts, and autograph pads. He fixes himself a cup of herbal tea, checks his messages. He wipes the makeup from his face, and marvels at the energy pulsing from his young proteges.

"Look, when I was seven years old, there was no television, so I had no way to express myself except to clown around in school. It took until I was twelve before TV was rolling. If you look at the kids on my show, they're five or six years of age and they're already on the air. So that's really an opportunity. An amazing opportunity."

Four days later, in a damp concrete cave behind the stage at the Bayfront Park Amphitheater downtown, another opportunity awaits. On hand are a battery of clowns, kids on roller skates, Latin dancers, sweaty band members, child talent, mothers of child talent, video cameramen, and representatives of the Bambino Brothers, with whom Fredgie has contracted to provide fireworks for the grand finale of today's performance at Brazil Megafest 1994. With five minutes till showtime, the only thing missing, in fact, is Fredgie himself, who now bursts forth from a private room, draped in a white coat and tails, his Opa-osity oozing.

Following a brief interlude spent bickering with event organizers, he issues the order to charge, and the cave empties itself onto the stage, the roller skaters holding aloft a shiny Fredgie sign, jugglers and drummers and child talent all fighting for elbow room, the band whacking out a disjointed salsa, Mr. Silver pulling scarves out of his mouth, Tippy the Clown blowing bubbles, a man wearing a fez and banging a gong, Fredgie shrieking front-and-center while the crowd, bloated with beer and fatigued by the sun, stares in stunned silence for what seems like many minutes, until the fire marshal steps in and asks that the stage be aired out.

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