Tears of a Clown
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.
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.
Fredgie struggles to his feet. Like a child toppled from a jungle gym, there is a tense vanity to his movements. His head swivels from side to side, gauging how many have seen. His mirrored sunglasses gone, his small brown eyes register wonder at how one unscripted tumble can shatter an imagined world.
Faced with such naked humiliation, children weep. But Fredgie, a consummate pro after half a day in existence, turns to the startled tourist. "That's part of the act," he barks. "Don't worry. Were you scared? Why were you scared?" He draws closer, stamps out a self-conscious soft-shoe.
"If you want to be a clown," Fredgie announces to the tourist, "the first thing you have to know is how to fall."
Nearly every public appearance by Fredgie is, like his April 1993 debut, preserved on videotape. He gives away these cassettes incessantly, for promotional purposes mostly, but also as gifts. He enjoys watching them with others.
Above all, the footage represents raw material, the dramatic ore from which Fredgie mines product. The product, in Fredgie's case, comprises episodes of Fredgie El Maximo's International All Star Latin Music Dance Festival, the show he expects will carry him to the crest of international fame and ensure him the sponsorship deals he so richly deserves. Affectionately known as El show de ni*os, the program airs Saturday mornings from 9:30 to 10:00 on local cable.
While Fredgie attributed the project's genesis to the kids, the energy, et cetera, there is a more polished official version, set down in the Fredgie Promotional Video Brochure: Frederick Kramer, mild-mannered composer of children's songs from Peterborough, New Hampshire, falls terminally ill, travels to Brazil to seek alternative therapies, recovers, and vows to share his newfound love for life by helping children interested in the arts start careers. To this end, he launches his own TV show and organizes Fredgie workshops specializing in, among other disciplines, yoga, mime, watercolor, and "temple dance."
The actual history is a bit more complicated. Kramer did grow up in New Hampshire, the son of a successful lumberyard owner and builder. He attended private schools, then the University of Pennsylvania. He married and fathered three children, taught, dealt art, kept his hair well trimmed, and wore, on occasion, a pinstripe suit. But his normalcy circuits kept misfiring, shorts invariably sparked by some theatrical pipe dream. An off-Broadway play. Tap-dance lessons. Open-mike vaudeville routines. He drifted from job to job, divorced. In the late Seventies, he was diagnosed with cancer, a disease he had battled throughout his late twenties. This time the cancer, an affliction of the tear ducts, required surgery that left him with prominent facial scarring. He departed for Rio de Janeiro soon after with his common-law wife, a Brazilian.
It is difficult to extract from Kramer what he did at any given time to support himself in Brazil. At some point, though, he became the sidekick to Kate Lyra, a leggy blonde who starred
in her own English-language talk show. In a nod to native inflection, Freddy Kramer became Fredgie, and, in a flourish of irreverence, declared himself a professional tourist. In 1991 he returned to the States. He felt lost, and battled a deep depression, which, like his cancer, he is reluctant to discuss. His rejuvenation came in the form of a West Palm Beach TV personality named Jintsy James, who Fredgie describes, charitably, as a combination of Carol Channing and Phyllis Diller. Happening upon her one day on the tube, Fredgie phoned her and was soon associate producer and cohost of her show, Talk of the Town.
In these early roles, Fredgie's function was limited primarily to interviewing glitterati. Though he was establishing his character as somewhat outside the chat-show realm (his clothing, for instance, was already showing clownish leanings), it took the romp across France for his vision to coalesce.
The idea of incorporating children into his act may well have been rooted in his medical recovery. Fredgie, however, is less elaborate in noting a rationale: "I showed the Paris tape to some friends and they said, 'Why don't you do a kids' show?'"
Last May he made contact with Roni Goodrich, a curly-haired Miami woman whose talent agency, A Star Is Born, specializes in "child talent." The pair quickly came to terms. Goodrich would supply the kids, Fredgie the venue -- El show de ninos.
The first thing a clown must know is how to fall. The second thing, as Fredgie would have it, is how to promote. Anyone, after all, can dress up in silly clothing and film himself goofing around with little kids. And anyone can pay a cable company $200 a week to air these shenanigans. "The key to attracting sponsorship opportunities," Fredgie observes, "is getting your name out there."
And so it comes to pass that this previous September, amid a collision of colognes and questionable hors d'oeuvres, Fredgie holds a press bash to honor his new show. While drawing little in the way of actual reporters (one) to the lobby of the Four Ambassadors, off Brickell, the event assembles an intriguing rabble of self-promoters, aspirants to fame, and Fredgophiles.
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.
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.
Claribel's song ends. Fredgie grabs the microphone and moves around the makeshift stage area, kicking his legs outward in a now-familiar two-step. "Hey, Opa! It's time to learn a new word. Opa! Opa!" He circles the room with his portable microphone, urging the invalid children and their handlers to say Opa. He briefly considers engaging the group in a game of Simon Says, but wisely opts against this course. A conga line appearing equally unadvisable, he calls Claribel back for an encore.
Finally, he simply starts introducing people. One is Solomon King, a fading crooner who works PR for the Miami Kids Show, a "consumer-oriented" trade event in Coconut Grove at which Fredgie will appear the following week. A towering man with a crown of white hair and a bulbous belly, King snatches the microphone and begins singing in a deafening baritone. His rendition of "God Bless America" signals an end to the performance.
Fredgie invites Claribel and her brother to ride back to the Four Ambassadors in his limo. "You did a great job today," he tells her.
Then he falls silent for a time, winding down from the show. "I really think I made a connection with that kid on the stretcher," he says.
"Fredgie's cool," Claribel whispers to her brother, popping a Coke from the fully stocked bar. "Fredgie rides in a limo."
As of last month, Fredgie is also tight with the Clintons.
"I got a call from the White House today, and they want us to cover the meeting of all the presidents. The World Economic Summit, or whatever. So I'm going to be starting a whole new thing, Fredgievision News, for kids. It's going to be me with my crazy hats and, like, 5000 other reporters. I've got dinner with the First Lady on Friday. Then on Saturday I'm slated to be the grand marshal for the Candy Cane Parade in Hollywood Beach. Then I've got to head out to L.A. One of my agents wants to put me together with potential advertisers. I'm telling you, it's all going to another level. But I've got some time on Tuesday night. We'll do sushi. You like sushi?"
Fredgie answers the door in a turquoise shirt and jeans. A caravan of boxes runs from the entranceway clear across the living room. All are filled with Fredgie products. (He has recently added Nerf balls, beach balls, shoelaces, pom poms, and maracas to his stock.) "I call this the Fredgie Corn-E-Fono. You fill it with popcorn, see, then you pop out the bottom and it becomes a megaphone," Fredgie says, lifting a small plastic cone contraption to his mouth. "Opa! Opa!"
Other signs of Fredgie abound. His trademark oversize hats are stacked like sequined logs on a director's chair. Dozens of bright, embroidered dinner jackets hang in his wardrobe closet. An army of videotapes encircles the TV, as if preparing to advance. Beyond these, three guitars and a collection of drums stand at the ready, should musical inspiration strike Fredgie, who, as his boosters point out on a regular basis, won a Grammy in 1988 for a children's song he co-wrote called "Hippopotamus Rock."
"Would you like some herbal tea?" Fredgie asks. He has been a devotee of homeopathic remedies since his recovery from cancer. Among the items on his kitchen counter: bee pollen, vitamins, and something called Colon Cleanse.
More difficult to spot are the relics from the Time Before Fredgie. There is a slim volume of poetry penned by Frederick Kramer 30 years ago, a delicate foil from his days as a fencer, a vintage photo album. Fredgie flips through the pages of the album, pausing at a picture of a young couple stiffly flanking a woman with a pale bouffant. "This is me with my ex-wife and Pat Nixon," he notes. "I was working on a book about the White House Rose Garden. That photo was taken in August 1973, during the whole Watergate gestalt. Nixon and Haldeman are meeting in the Oval Office behind us. You can't see them." He pauses. "It's funny. There I was with the president as a young author, and here it is twenty years later and the president is coming down to Miami and I've come back as a clown." He flips to another page. "Oh, that's me with Xuxa." The shot shows Fredgie leaning into a frame at whose center is the former pinup girl and current Brazilian television superstar. Fredgie has tremendous respect for Xuxa.
"Hey, did I tell you I'm going to be grand marshal of the Candy Cane Parade up in Hollywood? Yeah, I just went to Publix and bought five boxes of candy canes. You want a candy cane?" He grabs a box, rips it open. "Being grand marshal doesn't pay anything, but it's good exposure."
This disclosure, coming as it does in a relatively luxurious apartment brimming with Fredgienalia, raises a nagging question. How exactly does Fredgie afford his lifestyle? This, however, is a topic handled obliquely, with jokes about surviving on credit, or vague allusions to outside investors bankrolling his vision.
"I'm trying to treat this whole first year as an investment," Fredgie stresses. "Sure, it's expensive. TV is an expensive industry. But look what I've accomplished. You know, I went to the NATPE (National Association of Television Producers and Executives) conference here last year and I looked around at all the shows and I swore I was going to have my own booth by this year. Well, that's what I've done. Did you know that I've got 26 shows in the can?" He leans forward. "That's product. Product that can be sold to markets in Latin or South America, or Yuma, Arizona, for all I care."
He pauses. "Anyways, after New Year's I've made a vow that I'm not going to do any more shows for free. The truth is, I don't foresee doing much more street performance. I want to get into a studio with a set and some original material, as opposed to kids just trotting out a song. I've even got a pilot in mind: Fredgie's a soda jerk, see, and he's got this luncheonette, and kids come there for sodas and malted milks and stuff after school. It's sort of like a combination of Fonzie and Cheers. And in back of this soda fountain area, Fredgie's got this little theater, and Friday nights he holds auditions so the kids can perform. So you've got this combination of performance and real-life problem-solving, with Fredgie acting in a kind of parental role, giving advice."
And what do his own sons, now young men in their own right, think of his new career?
"I think their attitude is: If this is what I want to do with my time, then I should." He absently fingers a Fredgie yo-yo. "I mean, if you had a father who was going through a lot of changes, you would want him to be happy, wouldn't you? I mean, this is your dad; you wanna judge him, or what?"
He laughs, but the noise loses its steam, slows to a sigh. He gets up abruptly, searches through a stack of papers on his desk. He draws out a card from his son, a drummer living in San Francisco, and reads a portion wishing his father "good luck on the marketing side."
"You have to understand, this whole thing has been very existential," Fredgie says finally. "It's really been like letting something out of a box, like a genie. I guess you could call it a spiritual mission.
"Now, would you like a Fredgie Whammy?"
He offers up a necklace, letting it sway back and forth from his fingers. The reflective medallion at its center flickers like a dead star, a piece of plastic throwing color at the world.
Fredgie El Maximo's International All Star Latin Music Dance Festival airs Saturday morning at 9:30 on Channel 40 on Miami TCI, Channel 51 on TCI South, Channel 52 on Adelphia, and Channel 44 on Gold Coast. Call your cable company for more information.