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Tears of a Clown: Starbuck has lived a long life as a Baltimore entertainer

Starbuck the Clown
(J.M. Giordano)

Starbuck the clown whistles as the Inner Harbor crowds pass by. Today, he is dressed, seasonally, as a scarecrow—or a straw man, as he has it; "there's nothing scary about me," he says—with yellow paint covering his face and red patches painted on his nose, cheeks, and mouth, and blue patches above the eyes. He wears thick work gloves stuffed with straw and a floppy hat.

"Who wants to see the bird?" he asks before lifting up the hat and revealing a bird sitting on his head with a loud whistle.

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In the winter, he will become the Grinch, and during summer he is a more traditional-looking clown. But this bird gag is one of the highlights of his turn as Starcrow, the straw man. It was a gag many people missed at the Fells Point Fun Festival a couple weeks ago, before Starbuck, who goes by Mark S. Turner when he's not in makeup, was kicked out of the festival.

"I was in one spot Saturday and I even asked the guy if I could be there the second day, he said sure," Turner says. "But I guess the manager didn't like it, and instead of telling me to move they said I had to leave the whole place. I've been going to that festival for 30 years."

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The clown, who suffers from both anxiety and depression, says it took a while to get over the feeling of being expelled. "I finally shook it off and went over to the Inner Harbor and started over again."

But when he got there, a guy ran up and took his tip bucket. On Facebook he wrote that he "ran behind the guy, yoked him with my arm around the neck, choked him off the ground. He said let me go, take your tips or I'll stab you!"

Such is the life of a 21st-century clown, when, as Turner notes, there are almost no positive associations with clowns remaining. Over the last half century, the face-painted figures of fun have been replaced with more sinister associations—the figure currently creating nightmares on television's "American Horror Story," for instance.

"When I was a kid, everybody loved a clown," Turner says. Now, he often scares children and adults.

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Out of makeup, his face is surprisingly long and handsome, with the hang-dog cheeks of actor Hal Holbrook and what Turner himself calls "Bill Clinton eyes." If Bill Clinton's eyes were filled with sadness. With his sharkskin jacket and Iggy Pop hair, he almost looks like a washed-up rock star. He does consider what he does to be  an art.

Turner began his career dancing for tips in front of the bars of South Baltimore. Before long, his mother brought him to try out for the Lorenzo the Clown show, a local version of Bozo. He went on several other shows as a dancer as well.

When he was in high school, he was working as a lifeguard. He dove in to save a swimmer one day and whistled across the pool for another guard and his whistle, wetted by the water in his mouth, sounded like a police whistle. “I spit in the mirror for a month until I perfected it,” he says, and began to use it as a gimmick at parties. He first used face paint around the same period when he dressed up as Gene Simmons for Halloween. In 1977, he painted his face like a hobo when Red Skelton came through town. “He complimented me and I was hooked,” he says.

But when he finished high school, Turner discovered a new kind of entertainment: He started working as a male stripper.

“We were the first ones on the East Coast,” he says, noting that the Chippendale dancers stole his schtick. “That was 1979, 1980.” The media picked up on the act and he ended up on several different talk shows. “It was wild to get on TV and realize it was a nationwide curiosity. At that time , women didn’t see a lot of shows, so, basically Tarzan and Arnold Schwarzenegger were the only thing for women to look at. They went crazy, like steam pots blowing their tops.” 

He used humor in his act to help the women not feel quite so embarrassed, lacing physical comedy and innuendo throughout his act. "So I did burlesque routines, and I thought of things and I did intimate things and sexy things and sexual innuendo things."

In 1983 he quit dancing and began working as a doorman, or a hawker, on the Block, the notorious red light district on Baltimore Street, where he knew people from his hardscrabble neighborhood. He worked on the Block for many years and appeared in Steve Yeager's 1990's epic "On the Block." He almost tears up when he recalls several dancers who died in a fire and says that a police officer murdered another dancer and her daughter.

His whistle came in handy on the Block—occasionally the police whistle broke up a fight and the novelty sounds such as R2-D2 and laser beams from Star Wars were good for a few laughs. But Turner still had a hankering to clown.

"I put it off for a long time," he says. "I had to work six nights a week. I never even charged money. Did it for special occasions. I would just dress up and go out for the experience for myself. It makes me feel better. Entertaining others and making other people happy makes me happy."

While on the Block, Turner met beatboxer Shodekeh, who taught him to treat his whistling as an art. And, a couple of years ago, when he turned 50, Turner decided to do Starbuck full time—or as full time as possible, since it is incredibly difficult to make a living as a clown on the street, where $100 for 10 hours is an exceedingly good day.

And some days, due to his anxiety, he isn't able to go out at all. "It's like catching the bus being dressed up," he say. "You put yourself out there. Twenty years ago I was jumped. I wasn't dressed up, but all of that anxiety and that depression comes back when I'm dressed up at the bus stop. They call that PTSD now."

But it is this same putting himself out there—turning himself inside out, he often says—that makes it all worth it. "I have older friends who come down to the harbor and want to sit with me. When they come down there and they see the kids laughing and when I'm entertaining them I'm entertaining everyone around them. It's not about the money, it's not about the time, it's about that moment and that's what makes me happy, too, is the moment. It's that moment."

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