These Toes Won't Drown in Tears of Clown
June / July 1987
How did Alan Zerobnick, Master
Shoemaker and Craftsman, come to make a line of Clown Shoes?
" A friend of mine runs a costume shop" Zerobnick told
me, "and he said his biggest problem is getting good Clown
Shoes. I was curious. When the RIngling Bros. Circus came to
Seattle, I went backstage and spent 4 days and nights with the
Clowns. I gave my first pair of Clown Shoes, a sample, to the
Clown-performance director, Tim Holst. Tim tried them on, then
ran up and down the street. A week later, Tim called and said,
' The Greatest Show On Earth needs the Greatest Shoes On Earth'.
I have been making them ever since."
Zerobnick is a descendent of
a family of Shoemakers from Poland and Russia. His workshop is
a yurt, a circular portable dwelling, that stands behind a farmhouse
in Sequim, Washington. Here he hand makes leather and fabric
"My 4 days with the circus
gave me great respect for the Clowns," Zerobnick said. "I
saw, first hand, how hard they work. They need good shoes....
At Ringling Bros., a Clown does 13 shows a week, with 5 to 7
costume changes per show. A Clown also may run miles in parades,
at fairs, company picnics.... all the while doing acrobatics.
The first thing a kid wants to do is step on a Clown's toes.
I saw a real need for a durable, comfortable, quality piece of
footwear. What I make is less a shoe than a work boot for Clowns.
"I went home determined
to design a shoe that would eliminate all the problems that a
Clown faces. No shoemaker ever died rich so making money is not
my primary motive. My shoes travel all over the country, even
all over the world. Like most Shoemakers, I don't do repairs,
and most repairmen have never seen a Clown Shoe, let alone had
the right materials to fix them properly. While on the road,
the last thing a Clown needs is to try and find a place to have
his shoes sewn back together. So my first concern was to build
the best shoe possible... I don't my shoes coming back for repairs.
"I also completely redesigned
the traditional Clown Shoe. Many of the best known and established
makers of Clown Shoes in this country are approaching retirement
age. They learned the trade in the 1920's and the 1930's- those
shoes are patterned after a man's dress shoe and can be traced
back to Old World European traditions. My approach is more high
tech; I have drawn from innovations in the newer style of athletic
sneakers, combined with the best of boot technology."
I picked up a pattern template
from Zerobnick's workbench. Stamped on the front was, "Vamp
Toe. Logging Boot. 1924" Zerobnick explained that he used
both toe-vamp and heel-counter patterns over 60 years old, but
each had been altered slightly to conform to special relationships
inherent in his Clown Shoe design. To better illustrate other
features that help make his shoes a superior product, he pulled
a competitors shoe from an adjacent shelf.
"My shoes start at $250.
This other Clown Shoe, which I ordered from a catalog, sells
for $54. Most Clowns try them out once then give them away. My
competitors are the best advertising I have."
"Compare these 2 shoes.
Remember how kids love to step on a Clown's shoes? Well, they
scuff badly, unless the leather is vat dyed as mine is. These
other shoes are surface spray painted. My shoes have a waterproof
rubberized horse hair in the bulbous toe; it is flexible, non
chafing. The Clown can go swimming in the shoes. These other
shoes have cork in the toe, it is stiff and un-natural.
"Many other features are
important to the Clown. I use a high cut top like a boot, as
opposed to low cut shoe style, which gives better support. Look
in here a full bellows tongue; reinforced brass lacing eyelets,
instead of punched holes. There are no exposed stitches on the
bottom, and the sole is easily replaced. Everything is double
stitched. I use 3 layers of leather, instead of one, and the
inner shoe is pigskin for comfort. The soles are composition
and blown crepe, with a special rolled up toe, so that acrobatics
may be done in a Clown's normal stride.
I generally work from a foot
measurement or use a Clown's normal sneaker as a pattern for
the inner shoe, which is then cemented to the midsole. Following
that, the first layer of giant toe stuffed and stitched down.
Any inlaid applique is cut into the top layer, which is also
glued and stitched to the layer below, forming a part of the
upper. I use all dacron thread as it won't rot."
Zerobnick uses traditional shoemaking
hand tools, along with a modified punch press and steel rule
designs of his own design. His sewing machines include a Pfaff
545 upholstery machine with a modified foot, a Singer 51W32 post
machine, and a model 38-6 zig-zag Pfaff, all are original treadle
from the 1920's thru the 1940's. His only concession to modern
power assist is a home built finisher/grinder that operates on
a 12 volt car battery. Working alone, as is his habit, Zerobnick
can make a pair of shoes in 2 days, perhaps 100 in a year.
Markets? Who buys Clown Shoes
at $250 a pair? Zerobnick estimates that there are around 28,000
part time Clowns, Jugglers and Street Vaudeville Performers,
and perhaps 1,000 professional full time Clowns in this country.
There are the members of the World Clown Association and Clowns
of America, The Shriners, and about 200 Ronald McDonalds. And
don't forget to add to that, he says with a grin, probably millions
of "Closet Clowns" across the country.
There might be. I slipped on
a pair of ladybug Clown Shoes, which fit my feet like a fine
pair of pigskin gloves. I could see myself in the reflection
of Zerobnick's glasses, and I could not restrain a somewhat shy
smile. Zerobnick smiled in return. His young daughter wandered
into the yurt, laughed and clapped her hands. I took a tentative
jump, raising small clouds of dust as I landed on the dirt floor.
I heard more laughter, which I took for encouragement. I danced
a jig, and the ladybugs flew; the hot spot light shown in my
corner. Indeed, I was wearing a pair of the Greatest Shoes On