Doug Sapp was digging into his bag of gags the other day, just clowning around. He pulled out a small bouquet of fly swatters.
“This is my S.W.A.T. team — that’s a joke,” he said, waiting for the laughter before producing a couple of cushions shaped like teeth. “I always tell the kids, ‘Be sure to tell the tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth.’ “
That was a joke, too. It’s one that generations of children at virtually every festival in and around Longview have cheered since the former Ronald McDonald took on the persona of Happy T. Clown. He doesn’t know how many parents have brought their children to him asking him to make the same balloon animals he had fashioned for them long ago.
Those countless happy encounters prompted the Gregg County Commissioners Court recently to “recognize and applaud” Sapp with a proclamation to mark International Clown Week, which is the first seven days of August. Sapp had brought the occasion to the court’s attention, but he hadn’t expected to be the center of attention that morning.
“I was kind of surprised,” he said.
Happy — it can be a challenge for reporters to drag his legal name out of him when he’s Happy — heard a call to clown as a young man in Florida.
“It was 1972, sitting in church in Pensacola, Florida. God spoke in my heart and said, ‘I want you to bring happiness to the world one smile at a time,’ “ he said, sitting in the dining room of the Spring Hill home he shares with his wife of 36 years, Lanette, a retired special education specialist, and a 29-year-old cockatiel named George Washington.
“He’s our watch bird,” Lanette said.
His heavenly calling was still with him when he spotted an ad in the Pensacola Journal (now, coincidentally, the Pensacola News Journal, though without the hyphen).
“And it said, ‘Clown Wanted. Call this number,’ “ he said. “And I thought, that’s what I am. That’s what I want to do. So, I called, and it was McDonald’s Corp.”
So Sapp became Ronald McDonald. And he still has the original, humongous red shoes he wore as the McDonald’s corporate clown, though for professional reasons he’s replaced Ronald’s bright yellow laces with a rainbow version.
But it was around the mid-1980s when bad news drew Sapp to dive into full-time clowning. (Sapp also works part time at Lowe’s but describes himself as retired). A single-rack sales manager for the News-Journal, Sapp was let go by a new circulation manager who wanted to bring in his own team.
That was right before singer Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” became a national slogan. It’s exactly what Sapp did, and he’s been Happy ever since.
He speculates he fell in love with his silly avocation to draw attention. Sapp described his father as pretty much a no-show and wondered if that lured him to comedy.
“I always wondered if that’s why,” he said. ‘I wanted attention. ... I always wanted to be a clown. I always wanted to be up front, to be seen, to be heard — a clown, so to speak, the class clown.”
He must have been a fine dad himself to the three daughters he and the woman he calls “Mama” raised. One of them, Sharon Handy, has his logo tattooed on her leg.
“So, she takes Happy wherever she goes,” he said.
After showing off the stuffings of his backyard clown workshop, Sapp invited guests back inside the house.
“Mama! Are you naked?” he called, taking an extremely rare shot at blue humor.
“Yeah,” she called back.
That was a joke, too.
Sapp and Lynette Meyerdirk met on a blind date in Palestine, where Sapp was a circulation manager for the Palestine Herald-Press. That dinner with married friends was in June 1983, and they married in November.
“And we had our first child in October,” he said.
“The next year,” his wife clarified.
Sapp will bring his corny schtick to churches and nonprofit groups for free, or for a donation, but charges for other appearances.
“Clowns have expenses,” he said.
Happy is pretty much self-taught in the balloon twisting skills that produce his signature wiener dogs. He enrolled in a couple of clown seminars but also found videos on the fine points of balloon art.
“And don’t forget trial and error,” he added.
Even with the balloons, Happy often has to convince a child to overcome the fear of clowns that comes naturally to many when confronted by a stranger in funny clothes and humongous, red shoes.
“I just tell the parent, ‘Just give me a couple of minutes for the kid to see that I’m not a scary clown,’ “ he said, noting tricks such as giving the balloon doggy to the parent. “And what does the kid do? Take the balloon from the parent.”
He has other tricks that come in handy when he is Santa Claus during Christmas at the Courthouse each year. He’ll ask a parent to distract their child while he steps behind the boy or girl and basically photo bombs the souvenir picture, waving like a Jolly Old Elf directly behind the child.
Happy’s only makeup is a painted red nose, though he keeps buckets of plastic red noses to give out.
“Over the years, you develop the character that fits you,” he said. “I see so many people. A lot of people in retirement, they want to sit down. And I’m thinking when you retire, that’s when you go play. ... Clowning is very serious to me. If I can just make one person smile per day, it’s made my day.”