“As a child I was a little afraid of clowns,” Steven Cater admitted while awaiting Clonky’s arrival at his son Zach’s fifth birthday party. There was even some doubt the night before the party over whether or not Clonky should “clown-up” his face for the gig. In the end, however, Clonky did enter the carnival-themed party with his face painted white, wearing MC Hammer-style pants held high by suspenders.
He greeted the enthusiastic group of 5-year-old boys with a voice reminiscent of Robin William’s Mrs. Doubtfire. That’s because Clonky’s accent originated in Sheffield, England, Clonky’s hometown.
“Where do you think I’m from?” Clonky asked the small partygoers.
“The Knight’s Castle!” was one guest’s prompt response.
Clonky then proceeded to knight the young audience with balloon swords on behalf of the Queen. Even “Sir Batman”—a boy sporting a Batman shirt who enjoyed hitting Clonky repeatedly during the show with his inflatable weapon—was filled with pride.
After some slapstick, plate spinning, and a grand finale on his unicycle, Clonky bid farewell. The partygoers ran to the front door to see him off, disappointed to discover that his primary mode of transportation was a mini-van and not a unicycle, as they were led to believe.
While riding a unicycle may only be part of the act and not a way of life, Clonky’s wife Hannah explains that her husband’s transformation from Chris to Clonky begins once he applies makeup.
“It’s very weird,” she says. “He starts to paint his face in Clonky makeup, and little by little weird phrases come out of his mouth, and as soon as the nose goes on, that’s it.”
Chris Middlebrook, alias Clonky, met Hannah, a native Tulsan, at sea when they both worked aboard the Norwegian Wind. Hannah ran the kids’ activities program and Chris was one of the ship’s entertainers, singing for vacationers in outfits embellished with feathers and sequins, which he says his future wife found highly amusing.
The pair fondly recalls their adventures at sea. One night, when the ship was at port in Mexico, the couple and another friend decided to go for a swim along a picturesque shoreline. As the three were chatting and laughing under the stars, they suddenly realized that an automatic weapon was being pointed at them. Hannah had to explain in her limited Spanish that they had not intentionally wandered on to the Mexican naval base. After a $20 fine each, they were released. “Best $40 we ever spent,” Hannah said.
The couple was married in Tulsa, at Trinity Episcopal Church. Chris, who had only been in Tulsa a short time, and was in the company of out–of-town friends, went to the wrong church the day of the ceremony. In the end, he was able to make it to his wedding on time and, as newlyweds, he and Hannah headed back across the Atlantic.
After six years of living in England while he performed on London’s famous West End, it was Chris and not Hannah who was the most enthusiastic about trading the River Thames for the low-water Arkansas for good. Perhaps influenced by his role in the musical Whistle Down the Wind, the southern U.S. seemed like a wonderful new world of “glitz and glamour,” he put it.
The couple now lives in a nearly century-old Tulsa home that has been in Hannah’s family for generations. They share it with their three boys–Jonah, 9, Eliot, 7, Theo, 5, and a dog named Marmite.
Chris found a sales job at a radio station shortly after relocating here, and even did the voice of Her Majesty the Queen on some ads. Clowning was just a weekend gig until the economy had Chris reconsidering the possibility of trading the suit for a clown nose. He resurrected the nearly 21-year-old Clonky character that he’d perfected over the years, performing it first at a shopping center when he was fresh out of drama school.
Hannah contends that her husband is much happier now than during his stint selling advertising,
“I was the one pushing him to do it. He was not cut out to be a businessman,” she said. “He was really good at it, but it killed a bit of his soul every day.”
Now she continues to support him in his career teaching theater and entertaining kids at birthday parties and events. She also helps him put together some of his costumes, like a cleverly fashioned astronaut suit made from products found at Home Depot.
Hannah describes how things that some children might find out of the ordinary–like seeing their father drink tea dressed as an elf—no longer warrant a reaction from their boys. A pink gorilla wearing a tutu or a pirate swashbuckling through the house has become part of the norm since Chris made the career switch.
Having a father who performs as a clown has led the boys to exploit the coulrophobia of others. Hannah grew suspicious one day when her kids kept entering the kitchen asking her for supplies such as cornstarch and red food coloring. Her motherly instincts and detective skills enabled her to foil a plot to scare a friend of hers who has a deathly fear of clowns.
After reading several horror stories about clowns the night prior, the kids had planned to dress like evil clowns and lie on the sidewalk surrounded by homemade fake blood, so that when Hannah’s friend came to pick up her son from a sleepover, she would scream in horror at the site of a small, bloody, fanged clown sprawled across the pavement. The plan was discovered before psychological damage ensued.
It’s evident the couple’s sense of humor has transferred to their three boys, and although they learned from a very young age that Dad and Clonky were two separate people, Dad is still pretty entertaining too.