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Clowning Around with Dan and Janice Priest

No kidding: It's a laugh-out-loud life for this dad and mom of southeast Michigan – who are clowns (and real) parents of four

This story appeared in the April 2011 print edition of Metro Parent.
Left and top right photos by Kristen Hines

What has 60 fingers, 12 eyes, six red noses – and is a barrel of laughs?

A family of clowns, of course! But seriously: There's Derby, Lovely and their four kids: Twinkle Twinkle, Lemonade, Wacky and Buddy.

And, if you visit their Rockwood home (look for the green minivan with the "REDNOSE" plate parked outside), you just may leave with a pile of balloon critters, a neon-orange tiger face – and a big smile.

It's a simple trick, really.

"If you treat the adults like children, and the children like adults," explains dad Derby, aka Dan Priest, "you're fine. Everybody's happy."

For Dan and wife Janice (she's Lovely), that's what their full-time funny business is all about. As 2clowns.com, they face-paint, balloon-twist and spin magic all over southeast Michigan, from parties to preschools, restaurants to retirement homes –Tigers, Lions and Red Wings games, too. Combined, the duo's logged 40 years of clowning mileage – nine as 2clowns.com – and some 25 competitive awards.

About Dan and Janice

(aka Derby and Lovely)

Oh yeah: And they have at least 800 really cool balloon sculptures up their sleeves.

"Working with Dan is just a blast," Janice says. "He's a great clown, wonderful husband and loving father."

So go figure they met on blind date – set up by a standup comedian. Over dinner at Wendy's, the pair quickly hit it off. Dan charmed with a balloon bouquet.

The only "flaw"? "She had tendinitis and I had a wart!" Dan quips. Their circus-themed wedding had balloon centerpieces and a popcorn wagon. During the garter toss, Dan pulled out 22 feet of crepe paper from under her dress. And Janice's jumbo clown shoes were her wedding gift (no joke: the handmade footwear runs about $400).

Dan's definitely the guffaw guy. Growing up the oldest of seven in Grand Rapids, he slyly reports being "the power behind the throne" – "the instigator," Janice clarifies. Dan got hooked on clowning while juggling at MSU, eventually working with the Royal Hanneford Circus. As an "Auguste" or pink-face clown, Derby wears minimal greasepaint, a shaved head and oversized duds.

"I'm a little louder, more talkative," says Dan – who got his name from his knack for hat tricks. "More wacky, as it were."

Really, neither one was a class clown. "I was always quiet and reserved," says Janice, a Westland native and youngest of five. The U of M-trained opera singer began tagging along on Dan's gigs, helming kids' karaoke.

"I kind of home schooled clowning through him." She's a "whiteface" – delicate and precise, with a blue wig and patriotic color motif. "Lovely is just a friendly person."

Janice's Favorites

In a happy twist, their brood inherited funny bones, too. Not surprisingly, they had happy babies – and "super cheerful toddlers," Dan grins. For giggles, he'd exclaim, "Who wants – a paper cut?!'" Ecstatic, the kids would yell, "I do, I do! Pick me!"

Today, Sarah, the oldest, is sharp jokester. Sam's picked up juggling and action-figure balloon making. Little Steven and Shane have plucky personalities to match. The kids even performed as "Junior Joeys" in a circus competition last year.

Now, the fam doesn't hang around home in costume – but there have been post-show dinners in face paint. Events are pretty sweet, too. Like Shane's super-hero birthday party. Or their themed family Halloween costumes: They've gone as monsters, the Wizard of Oz crew and even The Incredibles (with two Dashes).

And yes: "We go shopping in face all the time," Dan says. He's done magic with pipes at Lowe's and stopped for photos in Kroger. "It's great marketing!"

Besides being business buddies, mom and dad team up to home school, too. Dan has two science-related degrees; Janice is a former office manager. Naturally, their extra curriculum includes "classic comedian studies."

"You know how little kids might watch Barney over and over again?" Dan asks. "For us," Janice says, "it's the Marx Brothers."

The clowning-parenting combo does offer perspective. Especially encountering 50 to 200 kids a day. But usually, Dan confides, crying children aren't the trouble.

Dan's Favorites

"If the parent would back off, we could win over any child," he says. In two decades, they've seen it all. "Don't be scared!" is a common "sabotage."

"You're telling (kids), 'This is scary. Use your willpower,'" Dan explains. Both he and Janice are sensitive to wary children, letting them observe the fun, first. By the end, Dan says, "They're always the ones who are holding onto my leg. They don't want me to go!"

And that's the payoff: Delighting a tyke. Coaxing a grin from a jaded teen. Or making a mom's day by giving her butterfly eyes.

"It's kind of like going for your workout," Dan says. "You may not want to go out, you may be tired. But you come home – "

" – and you feel better," Janice finishes. "The happiness, it just reflects back."

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