Sunday, June 15, 2008

Woman dons clown makeup for smiles

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

Knock. Knock.
Who's there?
It's a woman. It's a clown. It's both.
She's Buttons the Clown - the star of the Buckholts Cotton Festival and a frequent entertainer for dozens of community groups.
She's also Ruth Rolston of Temple, according to her driver's license.
But don't get confused. Buttons is Buttons, and Ruth is Ruth. The persona of Buttons is more than Ruth wearing make-up.
'You become the clown,' Ms. Rolston said, describing her transformation from Ruth to Buttons. 'You can't just put a costume on and say you're a clown. You have to have something on the inside, something that gives life.'
Nurturing that something, that inner clown, is no trivial task. Even though she's a veteran clown of more than 20 years, Ms. Rolston still needs some preparation time before she trades her nostrils for a red, squishy nose.
'You have to get into character, like an actor does,' she said. 'It takes me two hours to put my make-up on, and the whole time I'm doing that, I see Buttons come to life. And then I am Buttons.' But Buttons is by no means dormant when the clown outfit is in the closet.
'Oh no, Buttons pops out every now and then,' Ms. Rolston said, hinting that the perpetual jokester is a regular feature of her conscience.
Buttons has been known to crack jokes while Ms. Rolston's at work. A retired Scott & White nurse, Ms. Rolston says she puts in hours at the hospital when it's short staffed.
'I'm serious when I need to be, mind you. If the situation calls for it, then I'm all nurse,' Ms. Rolston said. 'But sometimes Buttons has fun with the patients.'
As an example, Ms. Rolston talked about patients who ask for the results of their tests or scans.
'They'll always say, 'What does it say?' and I'll respond with, 'Once upon a time' or 'It was a dark and stormy night.''
How Buttons came to be
Ms. Rolston led a clown-free life until the 1980s.
'I was still working full time at the hospital,' she said. 'There was an activities day, and the committee had decided there would be a circus, and if you have a circus, you've have a clown.'
So Ms. Rolston and her colleagues started making preparations.
'But on the activities day, nobody showed up in costume for the costume contest,' Ms. Rolston said. 'But a little boy came and asked about it, so I ran out and got my outfit on, and of course he won.'
At that point, the Scott & White Auxiliary of Volunteers voted to develop a clown troupe and Ms. Rolston its chairwoman.
So to learn the tricks of the trade, Ms. Rolston went to a series of clown camps. She learned how to apply the make-up and how to remove it. And she learned how to make balloon animals and juggle a couple of balls.
She also studied clown history and from longtime clowns, Ms. Rolston learned how to develop a routine.
'Puns are one of my favorite things to do in an act,' Ms. Rolston said. 'But it's not funny if nobody understands it. So if you find that your material isn't working, you've got to not get frustrated and switch gears.'
The professionals also taught Ms. Rolston a few ways to relate with little ones frightened at the sight of a big, loud clown.
For scared, crying children, Ms. Rolston - err, Buttons - pulls out Charlotte the Rabbit, a soft, cute and cuddly hand puppet.
'And then suddenly it's not so bad,' Ms. Rolston said. 'The kids will talk to rabbit all day.'
After her training was complete, she returned to Scott & White and started to cheer up patients with surprise visits and balloon animals. By then, she had recruited a few other clowning associates, so there was, for a while, a Scott & White Clown Troupe. Ms. Rolston said it isn't very active these days.
Visiting the patients as Buttons the Clown was a treasured experience for Ms. Rolston.
'The clown comes in, and they smile, and they forget for a while about the pain,' she said. 'Just us being there made them happy.'
Being Buttons
There's a conversation that Buttons almost always has when her young fans want to visit.
'There's always a child who comes up and tells me I'm not a real clown,' Ms. Rolston said. 'And I say, 'Well, you're not a real kid.''
That quick one-liner, she said, is a real mind-changer.
'There was this one girl - as I was listing all the reasons she wasn't a real girl, she kept on saying I was wrong,' Ms. Rolston said. 'And then she realized that I was a real clown because she was a real clown. Then her little hand came in mine.'
Ms. Rolston sighed and smiled as she shared the memory.
Experiences like that are why Ms. Rolston isn't a clown for hire - a commercial clown who entertains at youngsters' birthday parties.
The joy that Buttons gives to others is a gift free from Ms. Rolston's heart.
'I believe in the service of it,' she said. 'I believe in giving smiles.'

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