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

The next hour is a blur of soft-porn lambada dancers, aging South American torch singers, and lip-synching child talent. Fredgie himself acts as ringmaster, stars in a brief comic piece (he and another clown fight over a newspaper), and gazes with paternal bliss as the debut of a new Fredgie theme song, this one sung in Portuguese, plays in the background.

The only discernible glitch comes late in the going, as six-year-old Tiffany Rodriguez struts on-stage, her tiny frame wrapped in a polka-dot minidress and matching petticoat. She looks out at the audience, perhaps a thousand faces, waits for the tape of Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Want to Have Fun to begin. There is a pause, a terrible pause, during which the audience shifts and the energy Fredgie speaks of so fervently funnels itself onto the narrow shoulders of young Tiffany, who, feeling the magnitude of the moment, re-examines the forces that have compelled her into the limelight, drops her microphone, and flees the stage bawling.

On a quiet Wednesday morning in late October, a stretch limousine glides up the driveway of the Four Ambassadors. A few minutes later, a familiar technicolor figure clatters into view, hauling a large bag, followed by a female in a purple wig. The woman is Zu-Zou, a young Canadian Fredgie met through a mutual friend named Rainbow.

"I like to rent a limo for performance days," Fredgie explains, settling in next to Zu-Zou. "It gives me a chance to kind of relax and get into character."

The notion of "character" is a prickly topic when it comes to Fredgie, because, as he likes to point out, his character is constantly evolving. Further, as may have been discerned, he seems not to specialize in any one area that might be defined as a performing art. The way Fredgie sees it, the key to understanding his character requires a brief lesson in the history of Brazilian television.

From his bag he pulls a metal contraption that looks like a giant golden Danish but turns out to be a horn of some sort. "This is called a bozinha," Fredgie imparts. "It is one of three that belonged to a man named Shacrinha, who for many years hosted a musical variety show for kids in Brazil. Shacrinha was a master showman, a national hero. When he died, one of his bozinhas was buried with him. One was put in a museum. And I got the third." He squeezes the horn, which issues a shrill blast. The limo driver's neck stiffens.

Fredgie is fond of replaying a tape of Shacrinha's show. The host, by now an old man, stands at the center of a multilevel set crawling with kids and assorted Brazilian television personalities. There is an almost constant level of hysteria, regardless of the action, the audience cheering madly, it seems, simply because this is what an audience does. Dressed in leather shorts that ride high on his belly, Shacrinha does little beyond sputtering an occasional introduction. His primary role is not to perform but to act as a conduit to fame, an object of worship uncomplicated by further purpose. "I like to see myself as carrying Shacrinha's legacy," Fredgie murmurs.

Of course, Fredgie would like to think he is handling the endorsement angle more shrewdly than his progenitor. "I've got a deal I'm looking at right now that's just fabulous," he says, pulling a brochure from his bag. "Fredgie-Phone-Home cards for kids! You give one of these cards to your kid and they can call home from wherever they are. It's the latest thing."

The limo comes to rest in front of a set of electronic
double doors. Fredgie instructs the driver, a thickset man with a ponytail, to be back in 90 minutes. (Drivers of whom Fredgie is especially fond can, incidentally, expect to find themselves listed in the credits of various Fredgie productions, along with his personal trainers, haberdashers, and assistants.)

He and Zu-Zou proceed inside. The sight of two clowns rattling through the carpeted lobby is certainly nothing new to the staff of Miami Children's Hospital. And yet they generally expect clowns to be goofy and unencumbered, whereas Fredgie, by natural temperament, often appears anxious and put-upon, prone to fretting over contingencies. He also carries a portable phone.

The hospital's severe PR chief leads Fredgie and Zu-Zou to a small enclosed playroom on the third floor, where they are to perform for a group of patients. Fredgie is disappointed to learn that the kids are not terminally ill, as he had understood. They are, however, plenty sick. One by one, nurses wheel in the spectators. Most are attached to elaborate machines and IVs. One lies on a gurney, his movements restricted to the frantic scrolling of large brown eyes.

Today Fredgie shares the bill with another performer, Sari Mitchell. Unfortunately for Mitchell, whose routine involves interactive song and dance, the crowd is not especially mobile. The mothers of the children, and the hospital volunteers, must stand in, gamely imitating her perky steps.

Fredgie is likewise hampered. Of all his child talent, only Claribel, the reincarnated Vegas showgirl, has shown up. Dressed in bright ruffles, she dances to recorded salsa, her bony hips teetering as she balances on high heels.

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