Whether it's balancing a patio chair on his chin or a peacock feather on his fingertip, Westmoreland resident Albert Alter's intention is the same: As a professional clown, Alter wants his audience looking up.
'If they're looking up, they can't focus as much on their problems,' says Alter, as he pops a red squishy ball on his nose and, with arms spread and knees bent, steadies a metal-framed chair on his uplifted chin.
Ever since he was a child, Alter has steered toward life's lighter side. Though he wasn't the class clown, having been studious in school and having earned a science degree from Notre Dame University, even then he did enjoy practical jokes. When first employed in his field of chemical engineering, Alter was always playing tricks. 'I would tape somebody's phone down, and then call them.'
It was all good, clean fun. In fact, Alter realized, clowning was more engaging than working in an office. So he left his job to form the Portland Mime Theater. Then, in the early '80s, he joined Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, where--in the tradition of America's great circus clown, Emmett Kelly--Alter the Clown prevailed in his big-footed way through a series of slapstick situations. 'The clown is always kind of bumbling along,' says Alter. 'It represents the indomitable spirit.'
Alter's message--that, with laughter, comes healing--is universal. Now self-employed, his solo clown act is just as popular with orphans in Cambodia as it is with bedridden children at Portland's Legacy Emmanuel Hospital, where Alter is the Artist-In-Healthcare. 'When I do clowning at hospital pediatric wards, my intention is to get the patient and the family to relax,' he says.
His clown and mime shows also appeal to adults--not only at picnic, festival. and theater performances, but also in the corporate world. These days, Alter gets paid by business and nonprofit clients to conduct 'Playshop' seminars, with an emphasis on the use of humor to increase workplace productivity. This is nothing new; Thomas Edison wrote jokes in his lab notes to keep his associates alert, says Alter.
Meanwhile, the Westmoreland professional clown keeps his act fresh by improvising, and monitoring audience reaction. For example, he and his wife--under the name 'BoZoArtZ Duo', perform a comic song recital which features piano playing. Once, the piano bench accidentally broke under them, which cracked up the audience, who thought it was intentional. Now, the piano bench breaks at every show!
Besides being a clown, Alter calls himself a fool. 'We need more fools," he says.
Alter serves on the boards of several organizations, including Clowns of America International, Inc., where, he says, he sometimes plays the fool. The type of fool he's speaking of in this context hearkens back to the medieval 'court jester'--the individual who could question authority and get away with it.
Admittedly, such an individual had to not only be funny but clever as well. He tells the story of one jester who irritated a French king so much that the king banished him to England, forbidding him on threat of death from ever setting foot on French soil again. 'But he hated England,' relates Alter, so he returned to France, whereupon the king had him arrested and sentenced to be executed. But in his own defense, the jester removed his shoe. Inside the shoe was a layer of English dirt. So the jester was saved, because, after all, he hadn't actually set foot on French soil.
In addition to listing himself as a 'professional fool', were Alter to brandish his own business card, it would also have to read 'actor, physical comedian, clown, mime, fire eater, and funny guy'.
He lives with his wife Susan in a house in Westmoreland which includes 'a room full of treasures and clown props his wife calls 'junk!'' writes Alter about himself--as he goes on to sum up his mission in life with a famous quote by the late musical humorist Victor Borge: 'Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.'