The Astoria Clowns have been a big part of Astoria’s history since 1955. Here’s their story.
“Without the Astoria Clowns, we would not have the Astoria bridge … There’s no doubt about it.”Former Astoria Mayor, Willis Van Dusen
History of the Astoria Clowns
Story, photos and video by Jeff Daly, whose father was one of the original Astoria Clowns.
- In 1995, a handful of Astoria merchants and professional men, organized as a group of entertainers dressed as clowns. Sam Yockey, 1955 chair of the Retail Merchants Committee, entered this group in the Lewis and Clark Sesquicentennial Regatta parade as clowns. The idea originated with Charles DeFoe, secretary of the Astoria Chamber of Commerce; DeFoe was a former chamber manager in Lebanon, Oregon where members had dressed as clowns to entertain families during their local Strawberry Festival. DeFoe borrowed costumes from Lebanon in 1955 and again in 1956. By his point, many of the Astoria Clowns were acquiring their own costumes.
Members Dr. Jorma Leinassar, Harry Duff, and Sam Yockey spent long hours during the winter of 1956 learning to ride unicycles and planning gags for the group’s official debut in 1957 parades. The group of ten men chose to keep their identities anonymous while participating in parades and community events including the Astoria Regatta parade.
About the same time, in the late 1950s, Astoria leaders sought to promote a trans-Columbia River bridge to Washington. Since both the Oregon and Washington legislatures would have to agree to sell bonds to pay for the bridge, the Astoria Clowns decided to spread the word during their parade appearances throughout the Northwest.
The Astoria Clowns bought a 1948 Chrysler for $250 from a local mortuary and painted it bright yellow for traveling to parades. Local artist, Carol Woolridge painted images for the clown car, including a large clown face on plywood affixed to the top of the car and clown faces for each of the four wheels.
A picture of a bridge and the slogan “Let’s build the bridge” were painted on the car. After the parades, the clowns would change out of their costumes and meet with city officials and persons about the bridge proposal. Astoria’s Clowns even entertained members of the Oregon legislature who came to Astoria to listen to the community’s need for a bridge. Bonds for the bridge were finally authorized by the 1959 state legislature.
The Astoria Clowns were officially incorporated in 1958 as a non-profit corporation with 15 members. The by-laws restricted membership to 30 active clowns; each new member had to be elected by a unanimous vote.
Each clown was required to pay all of his own expenses and dues to support the new insurance policies, and furnish his own costume, makeup, and props. In general, participating in parades was a requirement for every member, but since members were husbands and fathers, they were expected to participate in a minimum of six out of town parades during the summer. Throughout the years, about a dozen retired clowns also attended a parade or two a year.
- In 1960 the Astoria Clowns were the first group of participants in the Portland Rose parade to perform without decorating their props with roses. The clowns continued to expand their gags. For music the clowns borrowed an antique calliope from Leonard Vernon and recruited Bill Blunk, an organist at a local skating rink, to play. The music was so well received that the clowns began searching for their own calliope. They finally found one for sale in an organ enthusiast magazine. The clowns bought the calliope sight-unseen for $1000, with ten clowns endorsing a loan at the U.S. National Bank. In order to pay the bank and cover liability insurance policy, the Astoria Clowns began to accept expense money from parade organizers. Several calliope players have performed for the group over the years, with Colleen Simonsen of Hammond being the most active player and also seamstress making and repairing the well worn costumes.
So many parades were scheduled in 1965, membership was increased to 20 clowns and then to 25 a few years later. By May 1965, the Astoria Clowns planned to attend parades in Victoria, British Columbia, Pe Ell, Washington, Sheridan, Albany, Hillsboro, and more.
In 1966, when the Astoria Bridge opened, the first day was toll free. Astoria’s mayor was the first car to cross, followed by a 1951 Dodge seven-passenger, former funeral car now painted rescue orange, carrying 15 Astoria Clowns. The next day, when tolls went into effect, member Vic Watson paid the first toll of $1.50. John Gustafson, Bob Lovell, Chuck DeFoe, and other Astoria Clowns who were among some of the earliest bridge drivers. When the tolls were removed in 1993, the clowns were present, driving their Cadillac.
A typical year for the early membership of the Astoria Clowns began with the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Portland, and included the Loyalty Days parade in Long Beach-Ilwaco, Washington, ending the 16-performance season at the Oktoberfest in Seaside, Oregon. Ever popular, the clowns traveled as far north as Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia and as far south as Reno, Nevada to publicize and share the fun Astoria offered.
In 2014, Jeff Daly, the son of an original Astoria Clown tracked down the original clown car in Shaniko, Oregon. Daly was able to purchase the car for $750 from the widow of the previous owner and towed back to the coast. Daly took the car to Jason Banghart, who owns a garage in Hammond, Oregon, to get the car working again. Banghart and Daly met frequently to figure out how to make it operational. They finally determined they could remove the car body from its rusting frame and put it on a new intact vehicle frame, his 2004 Ford E-250 van.
The most unique feature is the car body is mounted backwards, as this was the most effective way to make the stretch Chrysler fit atop the frame of a snub-nosed van. What this means is the car has two steering wheels, the original and a new one, which allows the drivers to look out the rear window when driving … always on the look for a bunch of clowns.
Driving Back In Time
The video below tells the poignant story of the origin of the Astoria Clowns, and the re-birth of the original Clown Car, and moving motivation behind the project. Video courtesy of Jeff Daly.
The Astoria Clowns Today
Sons and Daughters of an Astoria Clown are not in any way affiliated with today’s Astoria Clowns. Their group is a dozen 60 year olds with fond memories of their dads when they started the Clowns in 1955. When they heard the original clown car still existed, they bought it, brought it back to Astoria, and have retro-restored the car into an unusual vehicle. The exterior has the worn out look it has acquired after sitting in the desert for 40 years, and they modified it a little….it drives backwards! Its a clown car!
They don’t have any goals or agenda other than to have fun sharing the car and history that they remember from their childhood. The 1948 Chrysler has made appearances at the Autistic Walk-a-thon and a fundraiser for Doernbecher Children’s Hospital to help raise money for their organizations. Other events will be Relay For Life, Warrenton 4th of July and Wahikakum County Fair for the children’s day.
You won’t have any problem recognizing the Astoria Clowns. They will be in parades all summer in communities clowning around!