Who's afraid of Mr. FunnyBunny?

Joel Oliphint

Back in 1989, when Mike Wesley first started clowning, he painted red concentric circles on his nose and called himself Target. But he quickly realized that becoming a walking target wasn't a great idea. "That is just inviting something I don't want," he said.

Wesley, who calls Newark home, then decided to create a new persona, Mr. FunnyBunny, who has been making kids smile at birthday parties ever since. But recently, a spate of "creepy clown" sightings across the country, including a masked clown who chased a 14-year-old Columbus boy with a knife in late August, has made Wesley feel like there's still a target on his face.

On a recent Friday afternoon, walking Downtown in full costume (red nose, red pants, colorful jacket and a straw hat), Wesley warmly approached a woman standing outside a government building. "Oh no, keep walking," she said, backing up. Nearby, Bill Temple was waiting at a bus stop while his son, 7-year-old Tristan, searched for Pokemon. "I'm surprised you're willing to be out on the streets," Temple said to Wesley, who happily engaged him in conversation.

Others were also willing to speak to Mr. FunnyBunny, but they voiced similar concerns for his safety - for good reason. A block away, taped to the door of Downtown eatery Pizza Rustica, was a sign that read, "NO CLOWNS ALLOWED!!!" (A Pizza Rustica manager said the restaurant hasn't had any clown incidents and the sign is just a joke.)

With even Ronald McDonald limiting his appearances in light of the creepy clown sightings, it's a strange time to be a working clown. Wesley, a retired mail carrier, said his clown gigs have dried up. "At this point, people don't want to schedule a clown because they're not sure how their guests will take it," Wesley said. "I have probably met 3,000 clowns, and I haven't met one that would do the things that these creepy clowns are doing. It's just totally out of character for a real clown. These people are just imposters in makeup. I wish they wouldstop."

"It really makes me sad," Wesley continued, "because they are stealing the good moments from the kids. They're not hurting me as much as they are disappointing the kids. That's who I'm working for. I'm doing it because of the smiles and the looks in their eyes."

The look in a child's eyes is what got Wesley, 61, into clowning decades ago. "I did my first birthday party for the daughter of someone my wife knew, and when she looked at me, her eyes said I was Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and her favorite grandfather all rolled up into one," Wesley said. "You will do anything to keep from disappointing someone like that. As long as that look is in her eye, if she told me I had to walk on my hands from here to the North Pole, I'd try it."

Soon after he started clowning, Wesley began teaching other clowns through an education program called Clown Town, which began as a fundraiser for his Newark Kiwanis Club and eventually attracted hundreds of Midwestern clowns every year. After about 20 years, Clown Town ran its course, so in 2011 Wesley and a friend launched the American Clown Academy, which brings clowns from around the world to Newark every August. This year, the academy featured clowns from Canada, Mexico, India and China.

True clowning, Wesley said, comes from the heart, and it's driven by a desire to help children, not scare them. "I have run into kids that break my heart," Wesley said. "I had one little fella who was 4 or 5 come up to me when I was with another group of kids, and he just started pouring his heart out about all the things that were going on in his life. It made me feel terrible that in this kid's life, the only person he could think of to talk to was a clown.

"It was doubly hard because the biggest part of his problem was him dealing with his parents. Obviously, he had to go back to his parents, but I wanted him to realize that someone was listening to him. He was being totally ignored, and I wanted him to know that there was someone out there who cared, even if they're standing there in a costume and makeup."

Back on the sidewalk Downtown, Wesley approached young Tristan, who clutched an iPad encased in bright green rubber. "Hi, I'm Mr. FunnyBunny, but all my friends just call me Bunny," Wesley said, shaking Tristan's hand for a comically long time. Tristan smiled.

"I stumbled on the knowledge that, even at 3 and 4 years old, kids understand a nickname," Wesley told me earlier. "So myreal name is Mr. FunnyBunny, but my friends call me Bunny. So if they call me Bunny, then they are my friend. … I'm a large and imposing guy, and I didn't want to scare the kids, so I wanted to be called something non-threatening, and no one's afraid of a bunny."

In his time clowning at birthday parties and other events, Wesley has developed strategies for kids who are initially scared of Mr. FunnyBunny. "Usually when a kid is afraid of me, you lower your voice and back up. Then I try and work with the kids around them so that they can see their other friends are feeling OK," Wesley said. "I glance over from time to time so they know that I know they're there, but I'm not trying to get them to do something they don't want to do. Most often it works."

The current clown-hostile climate, though, is a different beast from the scared kid at a birthday party. "I was sitting in a cafeteria at the hospital, and at the next table they started talking about killing clowns," Wesley said. "Have we gotten to the point where ordinary people are willing to consider killing another human being just because they're clowns?"

Given how on-edge people seem to be around clowns this fall, Wesley admitted the thought of walking around Downtown as Mr. FunnyBunny made him a little nervous - but not for himself. "I'm not really concerned about my safety. My biggest concern is an episode happening where kids can see it," he said. "I don't want them seeing a problem happening around the clown or to a clown. They've got enough problems in their life. They don't need that."

Wesley also bristles at the language used to describe the clown imposters. "These are just people in makeup," Wesley said. "[People] can go to a haunted house this time of year and see a person in a lab coat, and they don't think all doctors are scary. Just because we're a clown doesn't mean we're scary."

Still, even though the creepy clown attacks, copycats and hoaxes have sidelined Mr. FunnyBunny in an official capacity, the situation hasn't stopped Wesley from doing what he loves, with or without makeup. "Even though I'm not doing as many birthday parties, when I go to the grocery store and somebody's having a bad day, Mr. FunnyBunny comes out for just a few minutes to put a smile on the face of this adult," Wesley said. "If I can make their day just a little bit better, that's what I'm there for."