A bunch of clowns took over Four Points hotel's conference center in Fairview Heights last weekend.
You couldn't miss them.
They tromped through the lobby in enormous clown shoes and tried on wildly colorful wigs.
Chatter in the vendor area was all about top-of-the-line balloons ("The business keeps expanding," said Derek Koleas of Hico Balloons) and one-of-a-kind huge clown shoes. "They cost $170," said Robert "Rusty the Clown" Cordle, of Atlanta, who bought a new pair for the clown competition, "but I forgot my clown socks."
It was the Ainad Krazy Klowns Mid-Winter convention. The local chapter of Ainad Shriners of Southern Illinois, based in East St. Louis, left their makeup and costumes at home to host clowns from near and as far as Canada and Mexico.
"It's a way to share ideas," said Dan O'Connor, of Alberta, Canada, whose tiny red hat perched atop a bright blue wig. "My clown name is Doc, my initials. I wanted to be Dubious, but I got told kids don't know what dubious means."
The clowns want to perfect their skills on how to make children smile and laugh during community parades and visits to the 22 Shriners hospitals. They attended seminars on basic face paint, paradability and the business aspects of children's parties.
Friday morning, they put on funny faces and headed into a conference room to be judged, one at a time.
"Quarter turn, please," a moderator called out as a clown posed. Judges got up to slowly circle each of about 30 clowns that came before them.
"Most of them were really good," said Ken "Krackers the Clown" Morey, one of six judges. "There wasn't a bad clown in the group. You've got to get pretty nitpicky in that one, two and three spot."
They were impressed by tramp clown Agustin Martinez, 68, of Mexico City. Feathers and plastic scorpions covered his dark, tattered suit. A fake big toe poked from an untied shoe. And you should have seen the long, wild black hair on his legs.
"I decided to be a tramp because of my childhood," said Agustin, a retired engineer. "I was born in the southern part of Mexico. My dad moved around to find jobs. I've seen so many needy people."
When Agustin can make someone laugh, he's also happy -- especially on hospital visits.
"Most of the time, when I see a child suffering, I know the parents are suffering, too," said the sad-faced clown. "Once in a while, I try to make a little balloon dog with a giraffe neck. I am not so good at that."
A clown with yellow hair and a flower balloon on his lapel leaned in.
"The kid doesn't care," he said.
Shriners stopped in to watch competitions, check out vendors and visit. Carl Hall, of O'Fallon, gave out flyers for an April 5 screening in O'Fallon. He has been doing screening clinics since 1962.
"Fifty-two years," he said, leaning on a cane. "When I joined (the Shriners), I was in the military. At the time, I had an uncle who had been treated for a club foot in the 1920s in St. Louis. That got me started."
Matt "Tiny the Clown" Greer, of Atlanta, got started eight years ago. He was 2013's clown of the year.
"One of my buddies was a clown," he said. "He kept telling me I need to join the clowns. I tried it. I liked it. I fell in love with it."
The best part?
"Making the kids smile at Shriners Hospital," said the big green-haired fellow. "I'm a deputy sheriff. It's two different worlds. I am normally the bad cop."
That day he was so interested in talking about his wigs that he almost forgot about his bad left shoulder.
How did Tiny get hurt?
"He fell off a stool in the doughnut shop," said a fellow clown.
(Tiny missed a step coming off a porch.)
Tiny's wife, Debbie, appreciates his efforts.
"I didn't realize what a big organization it was and how much hard work is involved in learning to be a clown," she said. "No matter what, he has fun as long as he can bring a smile to kids' faces. That's all that matters to him.
"I kid with him. When he goes into his cop mode, he's no nonsense. When he's a clown, he's complete nonsense."
She watched him turn a balloon into a sword.
"He sits in the living room at night and sculpts balloons," she said. "We were at a Braves game in Atlanta and a kid asked, 'Can you make a tomahawk?' A friend from another section of the stadium called and said, 'Tell me where you are sitting. All they show on the big screen is all these kids with balloons and I know they are yours.'"
What's in a name?
John "Hip Hop" Knoepfler carries a sack of wrapping paper.
"I am a wrapper," he said. "In parades, I'll say, 'What do you want me to wrap?'"
The 50-year-old, who owns a print shop in Columbus, Ohio, likes giving back to his community.
"I wanted a character who was unique and fun," he said. His "wrapping" clown was inspired by a Justin Timberlake routine on "Saturday Night Live."
Brian Brown, of Edwardsville, in yellow and green, is a character. His clown name is "Poo Poo."
"It's a really messy story, but I will tell you a secret," he said. "Do not follow the elephants closely. Have you ever been to a circus? Everyone lines up at the back and comes down a ramp. All of a sudden, the elephants stop. You have a line of cars behind you. You can't go anywhere. Accidents do happen.
"They were thinking about calling me 'Stinky.'"
Brian competed in white face, then balloons -- he does a great Cookie Monster.
"My passion on the side is working with the Children's Dyslexia Center in Belleville," he said. "It's through the Masonic organization. Kids go there for free and learn to read and write."
The youngest and only kid there that day was James Nygard, the 17-month-old grandchild of Paul "Tiny the Clown" Hoff, of O'Fallon, and his wife, Kim.
James sat in Kim's arms, cradling an orange balloon and watching a clown a few rows back wave and smile.
"He enjoys clowns," said Kim. "I think it's because he's around them."
Kind of like his grandma.
What's it like living with a clown?
"It's been a lot of fun," she said. "He's very serious at work. He's an accountant. When he puts his makeup on, he's totally different."
During balloon competition, Michael "Buckethead" Clark, of Columbus, Ohio, twisted and turned green, yellow and red balloons into an alien. He even managed to put the face balloon inside a clear balloon.
"I take an hour a day and try different things," he said.
"I was a football player quite a few years. Now, I'm a retired firefighter. I wanted a different name. I went back to the history of firefighting. People used to line up and pass buckets of water to put out a fire. The person at the head of the line was called a 'buckethead.'"
Now, so is he.
Interested in becoming a Shriner clown? Call 618 874-1870.