They make a pretty easy crowd, these 4- and 5-year-olds packed into a basement TV room. Hugs the Clown, bright as a rainbow in red-sequined tie and mismatched shoes, is playing them for all they're worth.
"Are you ready to have fun?" she asks. "Yeah!" they cry. And all 15 scream as the Anne Arundel County entertainer pulls a flag from a hat, waves a collapsing magic wand and shows them a bouquet of petunias that droop in her hand.
It's a private party to celebrate summer, one of about 5,000 similar gigs she has performed in her day. Now in her 25th year on the circuit, Hugs the Clown — also known as Judy Ewald, 68, a self-taught artist and entrepreneur who lives in Arnold — is one of the longest-tenured full-time clowns in the Baltimore area.
Even in the best of times, that's no small feat in a business that offers little pay and dicey job prospects. And these are far from the best of times.
"Oh, my, things have been terrible," she says, adding that her income — like that of many clowns in the area — has sunk by about 50 percent since last year, let alone from the boom time of a decade ago when "parents had a lot more money to spend."
But no clown makes it to her silver anniversary by staying down for long. After years of personal and professional turmoil, Ewald seems to give the lie to a stubborn stereotype — the happy-looking clown who's sad on the inside.
"I'm doing what I'm meant to do," Ewald says. "In this business, you have to have faith. I finally do."
The clown holds her fingers above the wilted flowers, sprinkling them with imaginary "happy water." Like magic, they spring back to life. The children squeal.
A couple of tricks
Unlike most working clowns, Hugs is a triple threat, offering a full-fledged magic show, arm and face painting (mostly cartoon characters you'd recognize) and a balloon animals menagerie about the size of the average zoo's.
She shifts from one mode to the next during her 90 minutes (fee: $250), stopping now and then to remind overeager kids to wait their turns.
"Please and thank you are the magic words!" she says.
"OK, Clown," a 5-year-old girl says. "Please!"
Things didn't always go this smoothly.
Judith Garrett was born in the Midwest, to a traveling salesman dad, who always seemed to be away from home, and a homemaker mom. They moved 18 times in 19 years. "Not exactly stable," she says.
Even when her father, John, was around, she rarely got the hugs a normal kid does. To make more time for his wife, he made Judith and her two siblings eat dinner in their rooms. He later told their mom, Shirley, he just didn't like them.
When Judith reached her early 20s, she married a soldier named Ewald who was bound for Vietnam. Twelve years, a war and two children later, they divorced. "There wasn't much intimacy," she says.
She needed some magic. She was 35, on her own, estranged from her kids and without marketable skills.
Learning over the next few years was like juggling 200 balls. She caught a few, but most bounced away. She drove a tour bus, sold Amway and Mary Kay, dabbled in low-income real estate, made picture frames, cut hair. Nothing lasted.
The New Age books she read gave no answers. Nor did the conventions she went to. "If I can do it, you can too!" the gurus shouted. The message never took.
One night in the early 1980s, Ewald decided to ditch the pressures. She and a friend bought tickets for an "insomniac tour" of her newly adopted hometown, Baltimore, and at about 2 a.m., the bus pulled up to a now-defunct landmark, the old Yogi Magic Mart. She found the magicians a strangely welcoming lot. They put on a show, even shared trade secrets.
Excited, Ewald bought the equipment for two simple tricks. She was then training salesmen for a living, and she decided to use one in her work. She'd take someone's business card, fold it behind her hand and turn it into a bouquet of dollar bills.
She's loath to explain how it worked, but the effect was … magic. "It went over big," Ewald says.
One rarely becomes a good clown overnight. If it's going to happen, it happens in fits and starts over time, more or less the way a person gains confidence. That's how it was for Ewald.
First came the apprenticeship. She met a magician at the Yogi and was drawn to his charisma, a force that seemed to fill a room. She followed him from gig to gig, helping him paint sets and signs. They bought, built and sold magic supplies. She became his onstage helper.
The arrangement ended five years later, when Ewald says she felt overwhelmed by the troubles haunting her friend. She was a middle-age woman, she says, "but I was finally feeling I was entitled to my own life and feelings."