Cindy Love was a second-grader in California when she and her sisters entered a clown contest.
Officiated by Catalina Cappy, the persona back then of Jan Natarno — the original Ronald McDonald in Southern California — the sisters won.
But it would be another two decades before Love would take up clowning as her avocation. That was 25 years ago, when she was working in the billing department at Walla Walla General Hospital.
She and a friend wanted to dress as clowns and visit patients. Neither had any idea what they were doing; they just dressed up for fun and went to cheer up the patients. Love said she simply felt called to do this.
“The response was so overwhelmingly positive from both patients and staff,” she said.
They continued for a couple weeks. Then her boss came to her and said there was an injured child in the hospital, so terrified the doctors couldn’t get near to do X-rays and treat him.
She was asked to go home, change into her clown outfit, then come back to see if the child could relate to her.
“I walked in and it was awesome,” said Love, now 54 and a teller at Bank of America. “I was the first person he would actually talk with. He wasn’t afraid of me. I was just doing it for fun but right then it became real for me.
“... At that point I realized I had a mission here and a ministry. I use it to help people. Slowly I kept learning more.”
Among her first order of business was to find a name for her clown persona. It, instead, found her one day when she went to see a friend who had resuced a dog.
“The dog’s name was Sparkle,” said Love. “I was thinking how sweet the dog was and it hit me: that’s your name.”
From then on it’s been Sparkle the Clown people see in parades, children see at birthday parties and patients see at hospitals — here in the Valley as well as in a variety of Western states and Canada.
She clowns around, makes balloon animals and tells stories, but no slapstick. “If it’s a circus clown you want, that’s not me,” said Love, a deeply Christian woman. “I find neat stories that have a moral to them.”
There are numerous clown schools and universities but she didn’t attend. Instead, she picked up information from other clown professionals. One who figured prominently was Little Petal. The most important thing she learned from the Tri-Cities clown is makeup techniques, such as using baby powder over her grease-based white makeup so it doesn’t get all over everything.
“Powder up,” she said, although it took a few attempts to to do it right when she was learning.
“It was horrible,” she said. “I had powder in my mouth, up my nose, everywhere.”
She’s also enlisted the help of many talented people to make her exquisite costumes, such as the light pink dress with dark-pink accents and a bejeweled pink wig she wore during the Labor Day weekend parade in downtown Walla Walla.
Changing from Cindy Love to Sparkle the Clown takes layers of clothing and two hours of applying makeup.
“After 25 years ... people ask me, ‘Can’t you cut it down?’” she said. “No. And I won’t.”
Sparkle has to look exactly the way she did the last time, and exactly the way people expect her to look. She’s in character, after all, just like performers at Disneyland.
“Sometimes I’m in a costume 12 hours straight,” she said. “It can get hot with layer after layer on me.”
But breaking character would be a let-down for her as well as her audiences.
“Over 25 years, they see my face a certain way; I will not disappoint them. I do it the same each time. Jewels on my face may be different colors but they’re in the same places. I don’t change my voice; I want the kids to know I’m real and to trust me. They can turn to me if they’re hurt or they’re lost.”
Sparkle is an extension of Cindy Love, and likewise she quickly adds, “Cindy is an extension of Sparkle.”
She considers it all a blessing.
“I want to make a difference in the world. It might not be a big difference, but when the end of the day comes I want to be able to look in the mirror and know that I’ve done something to help someone.
“I feel that no matter what I’ve done for others, I’ve received so much more out of it,” Love said. “I don’t always look forward to the two hours getting ready but then the excitement starts.”
And it will continue and expand, if she has her way.
She’s branching out by forming a foundation, “Smiles For Life”to help promote the work of healing clowns, in hospitals, nursing homes, AA meetings and wherever else children and families need laughter and wholesome fun.
“I want this to continue long after I’m gone,” Love said.