Amid loss, no tears from these Atlanta clowns

By Ben Smith

February in Atlanta is circus month, and but not all the clowns are goofing under the Big Apple and Ringling Bros. big tops.

Vince Tortorici

Vince Tortorici

Far from the spotlight, for all but two weeks a year, a local troupe of clowns managed to practice their craft for tiny, tough audiences: some of the sickest kids in Georgia, even some who are dying. As clowns, they’ve kept their show going on this year even after sudden loss in their own ranks.

Photo of Vince "Dr. Giacomo Pucci" Tortorici of the Big Apple Clown Care Unit in Atlanta

Vince “Dr. Giacomo Pucci” Tortorici (1968-2012) of the Big Apple Clown Care Unit in Atlanta

For the surviving members of the Big Apple Clown Care Unit, creating laughter in the face of heartbreak has transformed them far more than wearing a funny hat, a fake nose and makeup ever could.

Their ability to work in highly emotional situations – and key advice from young patients — helped these clowns survive after the recent deaths of fellow clowns Vincent “Dr. Giacomo Pucci” Tortorici to a sudden heart attack and Mary Ann “Nurse Practitioner Very Merry” Hart to breast cancer. Kids on the edge of life and death can teach a clown a lot about mortality.

“You guys get back to your jobs,” a 13-year-old patient told the clowns after Tortorici’s death, before parroting a quote from the movie, “A League of their Own”:

“Pucci’s okay,” the patient said. “There’s no crying in clowning.”

That attitude carries these 10 clowns on seven weekly visits to Scottish Rite and Egleston, the two main Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Hospitals. They are prepared to do pratfalls and skits, play songs, juggle, tell jokes, do magic, sing and dance. But each stage – each room, each patient – is unique.

Unlike regular circus entertainers, these clowns they have to face audience members who might not be ready for a laugh or even want to see them.

They have to improvise, revise and even dump routines depending on the patient’s mood or condition — or if an emergency arises that force them out of a hospital room altogether.

They have to prepare themselves to face suffering they themselves have never experienced, and to forms bonds with children they cannot hold. They get close enough to the children to be invited to their cancer remission parties as well as their funerals. To help them cope, a therapist attends their rehearsals.

Their leader, Meredith “Dr. Squeeze” Gordon, recalled once being asked by a hospital chaplain to play a song on his ukulele for a family.

Atlanta's Big Apple Clown Care Unit

Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit in Atlanta is one of eight sponsored by Big Apple Circus that perform in pediatric hospitals across the country.

“They had this infant, maybe an 18-month-old, who was passing away,” Gordon said. “So I just played, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’”

“The child’s four-year-old sister sang along,” Gordon said. “It was this very sweet thing, this very touching thing.”

His team – in light makeup so as not to scare the kiddies — look past the seriousness of the injury or illness of the patients to the well part of the child.  “There is still a child in there who can to some degree laugh or smile,” said Gordon. “Our goal is find them.”

This is how Tim “Dr. O.K. Dokey” Settimi and his clown partner work with a “no, not today” from a sick kid: “We’ll say, ‘well, okay,’ and then all of a sudden our hats fall off. We try to pick them up, but we end up kicking them against the wall. Then we kick them all around the room. More often than not the kid’ll start laughing and we’ll stay.”

Tortorici was a master at reading the moods and mannerisms of children and family members and finding something that would make them laugh, Settimi recalled.

“One dad was wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt. Vince rode a scooter,” Settimi recalled. “So Vince starts talking like he’s this big pretend biker. Vince was really good at being observant and catching something in the room and turning it into something.”

Tony Tortorici observed his son’s work this way: “The doctors and nurses treat the child’s illness. The clowns treat the child’s spirit.”

Mary Ann "Nurse Practioner Very Merry" Hart

Mary Ann “Nurse Practioner Very Merry” Hart, a former member of the Atlanta Clown Care Unit, died in December of breast cancer

Last August, when Tortorici’s number showed on Reuben “Dr. Doohickey” Haller’s phone, Haller expected to be summoned to substitute for another clown. Instead it was Tortorici’s girlfriend Leslie Suson delivering the bad news. Dr. Pucci, 44, was gone, and the clowns had a new type of grief to handle.

It was up to them to continue the work that Tortorici, according to his mom Toni, considered a ministry.

“He was the best clown teacher I ever had,” Haller said. “I still channel things from him.”

In December, the team suffered another blow when Hart, who had left the clown unit three years earlier to battle breast cancer, died.

Tortorici and Arribas

On the Big Apple Clown Care Unit, Tortorici paired with Denise “Nurse Practitioner Señorita Clorinda Florinda” Arribas, aka CLoFLo

Personal loss and struggle have made these clowns the performers they are today, still constantly learning from their young patients.  “Being with the kids makes you less afraid of your own mortality,” said Settimi, a kidney cancer survivor.

“Very often children seem to handle death with so much more wisdom than adults do. I think we’ve become more afraid of death as we get older. Kids believe what they’re told about religion and heaven and as adults we get to questioning. We react to it kicking and screaming.”

A friend once asked Settimi what it was like to do this kind of clown work. Settimi responded with a quote from Tortorici’s blog:

“I’m in the sweet spot between doing what I love and making people happy, that is also of service to the world.”

“That’s got to give you good karma,” the friend remarked. “You’re going to straight to heaven.”

Ben Smith is a freelance journalist based in Decatur. He can be reached at benzmyth@gmail.com

About Michelle Hiskey

Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and writing coach based in Decatur, and her day job is senior editor on Emory University's development communications team. Michelle worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 22 years as a sports reporter, columnist and Sunday feature writer, and her stories of recovery and redemption bridge unexpected places and people across Atlanta. She lives in Decatur with her husband Ben Smith, also a journalist, and their two awesome daughters. She can be reached at michelle.hiskey@gmail.com.
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2 comments
Debbie Wilburn
Debbie Wilburn

Wonderful column sharing people who care. Good deeds should be reported more often. Thank you.

Connie Hilburn
Connie Hilburn

I am very happy to say that Vincent and myself were related my cousin Anthony Tortorici was his father.Iam very glad that he gave his time and work to these children at the Georgia Hospital he will be missed by many.