30 Years of Clowning Around
Torrance Memorial’s Clowns on Rounds delivers laughs for over three decades.
Written by Melissa Bean Sterzick
Torrance Memorial is a nonprofit medical center recently recognized as a Best Hospital for the 10th straight year by U.S. News & World Report. Members of the surrounding community have come to expect world-class health care and physician expertise. What they might not expect are clowns and a clown school.
For 30+ years, Torrance Memorial’s Clowns on Rounds program has brought trained clowns to the hospital to cheer patients with smiles and a bit of laughter. The program inspired the creation of the Torrance Memorial Clown School, in operation since 1992.
Joyce Payne is the principal of the clown school and a Clowns on Rounds volunteer. Her clown name is Joy. “The art of hospital clowning involves being empathetic with a patient,” she says. “You acknowledge their condition by meeting them where they are, then taking them to a happier place.”
The Torrance Memorial clown school is open to anyone age 18 and older. The hospital offers this service to the community once a year for a nominal fee for supplies. During the six-week course, aspiring clowns learn basic clowning, including movement, makeup, costuming and improvisational techniques.
Retired pediatrician Bobbie Adler, also known as Polka Doc, is a Torrance Memorial clown school graduate and a longtime Clowns on Rounds volunteer. “It’s amazing what putting on a red nose does. It’s instantaneous,” she says. “Once you make that transition, you are in a place where you just do what works to make another person smile and laugh.”
Hospital clowning is different from basic clowning. “Caring clowning” is a style of clowning used in nursing homes, disaster zones, refugee camps and homeless shelters, as well as hospitals. After completing clown school, graduates may volunteer at the hospital by signing up to receive additional training and joining the Clowns on Rounds program.
“Torrance Memorial is very progressive in these kinds of modalities,” Bobbie says. “They were way ahead of their time, especially for a community hospital. Back in the ’90s, pet visits and clowns were new. It was very brave. And the programs are still around.”
One emphasis of caring clowning is being sensitive to the wants and needs of the patients. “We always inquire when we first present and ask if they would be interested in a visit from a clown,” Bobbie says. “They have the option to say no. And for children, that’s especially important. I really stress their need for empowerment in that situation.”
The longevity of the clown school and the Clowns on Rounds program is a testament to its value and impact. Bobbie says knowing the hospital and physicians value her presence as a clown is very gratifying.
“There’s an inner child in everyone that never goes away. Clowns tap into that,” she says. “You never really know how much of an impression you’ve made on someone during a clown visit and how they may carry positive memories of that visit with them for a long time.”
COVID-19 temporarily closed the clown school and grounded the program. But members of the group made an appearance at the 2021 Torrance Memorial Holiday Festival and recently began hospital visits again.
“My hope is we can resume the Torrance Memorial clown school in the fall,” Joy says. “People are hungry for distraction or diversion, and you don’t have to want to perform as a clown. The course is just a fun thing to do.”