By Richard Ledbetter
If you see John Lockwood in his Sunday suit or street clothes, you may never suspect he’s been a professional clown for forty-one years, at least not until he opens his mouth. Then you can figure right quick that he is a joker that could no doubt fill the shoes of a clown, no matter how large.
At age eighty, Lockwood is still regularly applying whiteface to entertain children and adults alike. He visits nursing homes like Pine Hill in Camden and makes regular appearances in Fordyce at St. John Place retirement home and the Dallas County Library as well as conducting birthday parties for foster kids at Sunshine House. One thing that’s a given when Arky shows up; smiles, balloons and candy will be in abundance.
Lockwood told SEA Life, “I had wanted to be a clown since I was eleven in Adrian Parrish’s sixth grade class in Fordyce. When I saw the reaction I got from my classmates and teacher, I knew I wanted to give back by being a clown when I grew up. Then, after my formal education, I met and married Twila in Shreveport and pursued my career with Kansas City Southern Railway Co. We had our daughter, Paula, and life took over, putting my childhood dream on the back burner.
“I got promoted to Chief Clerk and transferred to Port Arthur, Texas. At first, I wasn’t impressed with Port Arthur but then I discovered how there are five little communities around where they have annual parades and festivals. After six years of attending parades and watching all the beautiful Shrine clowns, it dawned on me that it was time to make my own clown dream come true.
“Sitting in my office thinking about that one day in 1976, I realized I’d put off pursuing clowning from age eleven to thirty-nine. I decided it was time. While I was sitting there thinking about it, a railroad yardmaster walked in wearing high-top shoes and high-water overalls. When I saw him, I knew that was my clown outfit.
“I went home that day and told Twila and Paula, ‘I want to become a clown.’ Paula laughed and said, ‘Dad, you’re already a clown!’ That’s when I told them, ‘No, I mean a real clown in wardrobe and whiteface.’
“I bought a book called, ‘Clowns’ about the psychology of clowning. It suggested how a clown should always have his hands moving so I learned to do balloons and started giving out candy. It said use your own personality and not try to copy someone else. The book was based on three Ringling Brothers Barnam & Bailey Circus clowns; Emmett Kelly, Lou Jacobs and Alex Atler. I figured my personality was most like Atler’s. He was the clown who swept up the spotlight on the floor with a broom.
“When I began clowning, I just wanted to do charity work, nursing homes, parades and children’s homes. I was at Port Acres Elementary School in Port Arthur at the beginning of the school year doing my clown routine in one of the classrooms. A local newspaper photographer showed up and I thought, ‘I don’t have a photo of myself in clown dress working with children,’ I went up to her and asked ‘Would you please take a picture of me blowing up balloons for a couple of the kids?’ The next day, the photo of a mother with her two daughters and Arky appeared on the front page of the Port Arthur News. The photographer called me right after that saying people were calling the paper wanting to know if I would work birthday parties? She said if it was alright with me, she’d pass along my phone number. The next thing I knew, I was getting birthday party requests all the time. I only charged $35.00 per party.
“I eventually asked myself if I was a professional. According to the book, if you get your clown name published and get money for what you do, you are a professional. At the first party that I was getting paid I was nervous and excited. Before parties, I always say a prayer asking the Lord to help me do right, guide me and for the kids to love me. The book ‘Clowns’ is where I got the notion of saying a prayer. As soon as I walked in the door, the little birthday boy broke and ran to the bathroom crying and locked the door. I thought, ’What am I going to do now?’ but a voice in my head said, ‘Do what you’re supposed to do and make them laugh.’ I went over to an adult and whispered to her, ‘Whatever I do next, you start laughing. Laugh hard and don’t stop.’ I blew up a balloon and wrapped it around my arm before holding it over her head and letting it loose to spin like a hurricane. She squealed and laughed and all the kids joined her. After that, everything turned out like it should.
In a little while, the birthday boy eased out of the bathroom and every time I blew up another balloon and gave it away, he’d come a little closer. I eventually told him, ‘I can’t get any closer because I’m scared of you, but would you like a balloon sword?’ He nodded timidly. I gave him one and kept making more for the other kids. After every balloon, he’d ease a little nearer. Before the day was done, he was sitting in my lap having his picture taken. That was my first introduction to professional clowning.”
Pausing thoughtfully in his narration, Lockwood pondered before continuing his saga. “Early on as Arky, I had bought a makeup kit and was doing the best I could without any experience of putting on whiteface. Walking the route for a festival parade in Nederland, Texas. I noticed the great looking Shrine clowns following behind me but I went on with going up to kids and giving out candy. There was one Shrine clown called Hobo that had immaculate makeup and carried an Alpo dog food sack full of cereal. He’d eat hands full of cereal as he walked the parade then go up to children and offer them some. They, of course, wouldn’t take any thinking he was really eating dog food.
“About three days after that parade, I got a call from Hobo asking if I would meet him that afternoon at the Port Arthur First United Methodist Church. He said ‘You don’t need to bring anything, just show up.’ So I did. He explained that if I wanted to be a clown, I needed to do it right. He showed me how to properly apply powder over the whiteface then set it with water so it won’t run. After that, he and I became friends and worked a lot of parades together over the years.”
Lockwood shared several more stories from his clown career spanning more than four decades. “There was a real professional magician clown in Port Arthur called ‘Shaky.’ I had gotten a call from a local school asking if I could entertain 300 kids in an assembly. I told them I preferred to stick with smaller groups of twenty-five or thirty at the most but recommended Shaky and gave her his number. About a week later I got another call this time from Shaky himself asking, ‘Why did you recommend me? Do you know you turned down a $300.00 gig? How much do you get paid for a party?’ I told him $35.00. He started recommending me for smaller parties. Turning down that $300.00 job probably brought me several thousand dollars over time from all the other parties Shaky sent me.
“When I work a party, I shake the children’s’ hands and look in their eyes. That tells me if they approve or fear me. That way I can let the fearful ones warm up while I play with friendly kids. I had an eighty-five year old grandmother tell me at a party one time, ‘You’re not a clown. You’ve been here half an hour and haven’t done a single magic trick.’ Her daughter came over and told her she was needed at the dessert table. I went on with my tricks and balloons. At the end of the day, on my way out the door, Grandma stopped me again and said, ‘I need to apologize. I always thought clowns were magicians.’ She said, ‘I learned two things today, nothing can make you mad and old ladies should keep their mouths shut.’ I told her, ‘You’re right about making me mad, because if I let that happen I’ve defeated my own purpose.’
Summing up, Arky said, “When we were in Port Arthur, I heard about families going to Disney World and there was a clown there who was always leaping out from around corners scaring the kids. That’s bad and makes clowning more difficult for the rest of us. But in forty-one years, I only had two kids that I didn’t win over. And working with older folks is very much like working with children. The main thing is always getting them to laugh.”
Besides his role as Arky, Lockwood also serves as Fordyce First United Methodist Church Sunday School superintendent, sings in the choir, leads the singing in Men’s Bible Class, chairs the Men’s Prayer Breakfast and serves on the church prayer team. “I was raised on prayer,” he says.
Over the course of his impressive career, Arky has given away 10,000 pieces of bubble gum, 100,000 pieces of candy, blown up 50,000 balloons and entertained approximately 18,000 children.