Stanley the Clown (aka Don)

The party was peaking and the dancing was wild when the clown in the middle casually smiled exposing what looked like a tiny dragon wriggling on his tongue. Stanley’s mouth quickly closed again leaving his audience staring in disbelief. What was that we all wondered? It couldn’t possibly be a real live creature, or could it? All eyes were on the same set of lips which then teasingly opened to show a very startled baby gecko………the laughter meter immediately went off the charts and I was overtaken with uncontrollable roaring guffaws. The whole party became enchanted watching the antics occurring inside Stanley’s mouth which became a legendary clowning moment. Stanley was king clown from that time forward and the merriment continued for many more years.

In the eyes of the world juggling and clowning are somewhat synonymous. As an enthusiastic hobby juggler in the early 1980’s I was looking for fellow jugglers to play with but increasingly I found myself in the company of clowns. I often travelled to Oahu and Maui and developed friendships with Benji, Jeanne, Don, and Roberto – all vaudevillian performers as well as fellow jugglers. Don had the most traditional clown character with Stanley, was multi-talented and very popular at kids birthday parties. He graciously taught me how to walk on stilts and even how to build them.  Stiltwalking then became my ticket to all kinds of professional gigs and also the gateway circus skill for most of my future HICCUP circus students. 

After I bought the jungle home we later called Bellyacres, Don was one of the first to become a member. He moved from Maui with his gnarly old black cat, a few garden gnomes, an assortment of landscaping plants and some permaculture basics. He joined three of us setting up our original camp squatting on a neighbor’s lot. We were back-to-the-land hippies living in a yurt, a tipi, and a couple of regular old ridge tents—all decked out with carpets, tables, couches, and a dresser complete with mirror. We were planning to stay and tried to make ourselves comfortable on the rugged ant-infested black lava rocks. At that time on the 930-lot subdivision adjoining us, there were only ten small rustic homes plus a few shacks and tent encampments like ours. We felt like ‘the Swiss Family Robinson runs away with the circus’.

We constructed a rustic bamboo and tarp tent kitchen so we could collect rainwater for cooking and bathing. Warm showers came from black plastic bags on sunny days and for rainy days we constructed a basic ‘native’ sweat lodge, made out of bent guava poles and old blankets. We sat up late, sharing jokes, singing songs and watching the moon in the crystal clear Hawai’ian skies as it passed through all its phases. Life was simple and good. 

Each day, we donned our army fatigues and hacked our way into the dense jungle, clearing vines and shrubs and moving rocks to make trails. We painstakingly macheted windy paths through the tenaciously tangled undergrowth so we could explore our new home. One day a beautiful grove of ancient mango trees stretching 40 or 50 feet into the sky appeared. They were so big that it took two of us with arms outstretched to encircle the trunk of the biggest. In awe of it’s majesty, we honourably named it the ‘The Grandmother tree.’ This part of our land was the oldest and had not been covered by lava since about 1780, which meant our matriarch mango was probably around 200 years old.  

Morning glory vines wrapped around most of the trees, winding up the branches and dominating the leafy canopy. Their coverage was almost complete, leaving tiny little spaces for shafts of light to penetrate. While some of us felt like we were under a sacred cathedral roof, the playful juggler spirit in us could not resist swinging on the hanging vines that stretched to the ground. We sacrilegiously played like pirates until they broke off, or we cut them down to clear a place to set up our first jungle encampment. It was magical.

Working hard in the rugged conditions, our inflated egos brought us blisters, bruises, and aching bodies. Luckily, we were young, energetic, and hugely inspired at the thought of creating our own paradise. Our appreciation grew daily for our new collective home, causing us to act more consciously and reverently than ever before in our lives. Around nightly campfires we talked ecstatically about love for our land, for our team, and for Mother Earth. While the unfolding enthusiasm for our project played a huge part, it’s also possible that marijuana, local magical mushrooms, ecstasy, the full moon, and sheer exuberance also influenced our euphoric approach to the daily challenges we faced. 

Maybe it was the silent dark nights, or perhaps the majesty of the foliage, but we all started to sense the sacredness of the ‘aina (land).  One day, I found a traditional Hawai’ian ti leaf-wrapped offering, mysteriously sitting at the base of one of our mango trees. Whoever placed it there forever remains a mystery, but our emerging tribal members considered it to be an honoured blessing from our Hawai’ian hosts giving us the approval to live there. Imua!

Our neighbours were an eclectic mixture of isolationists, minimalist surfers, secretive pot growers, and rednecks. We were initially viewed very suspiciously by all the local residents until they began attending our Club Volcano shows, held weekly in our secluded mango grove. Forever after we were affectionately known as “the Jugglers,” elevated above hippy status, and from then on they described us as their eccentric professional performer friends.

Stanley, Frans, Fritz, Benji, Henrik and Dave the Rave

Our small crew agreed that the jungle inside our kipuka should only be cleared by hand tools with the minimum use of chainsaws so that we could retain the integrity of the natural environment. As heroic and radical eco-warriors we were willing to continue suffering the painful blisters, bruises, and backaches. We successfully hand-cleared a network of small paths just large enough to accommodate wheelbarrows and hand carts for transporting cinders for the trails, equipment, and building materials in the naïve belief that all vehicles would be parked outside. We also achieved eco-idiot status by planting Stanley’s landscaping plants which included some high impact invasives like Monstera, Bromeliads and Miconia ( a real devil that has caused tremendous ecological disruption in Tahiti and also threatens the Hawaiian Islands.)

Obviously, we had no idea about the long-term reality of these developments, the future needs of the community, and how impractical our idealism was in many ways. But what we were very clear about was that we wanted to have a much different paradigm in the development of our land than the normal bulldozing and destruction from pin to pin, which we saw happening everywhere around us.  Little did we realize that other developers understood how the jungle had to be totally destroyed in order to create a viable living environment for human habitation. As idealistic hippy pioneers, we actually saw the jungle at that time as something sacred and naturally pristine—to be preserved at all costs. We had no idea about the implications of having wild and rapidly-reproducing vegetation all around us—that lesson came much later and remains to haunt Bellyacres residents today.  

Bellyacres 2005

Unlike other land developments, we started with no site plan at all for our 10-acre parcel. This was partly because the realtor who sold it refused to set foot on the property since she couldn’t cope with the razor sharp lava rock or the dense jungle foliage in her heels and summer frock. There were no border pins so I only had a rough idea where the property began and ended and on the ground all we could see were walls of trees and vines all around us. We decided to do our own land survey but all we had was a basic map from the County.  In those olden days, before lasers and drones, our motley crew worked to exhaustion using compasses, flags on the end of 20-ft bamboo poles, several 100-ft builders’ tapes, and rolls of coloured survey flagging. For a bunch of clowns we actually did a pretty decent job, considering the circumstances, but we later learned to our cost, that ‘approximately knowing’ where the boundaries are is not good enough for government authorities. Oops! 

We created our rudimentary site plan on a blackboard in our rustic tarp-covered camp kitchen. It was amended daily and once had to be totally redrawn from memory after a big rainstorm washed it clean. Some planning was essential so that we could take the important next step of bulldozing access roads, orchard areas and personal house sites. We had finally realised we needed to give up on our crazy hand-clearing-by-machete mania since it would have killed us all eventually and we decided to bring in the heavy-duty bulldozer equipment and save our fragile bodies. 

Stanley the landscaper

By the end of 1989, there were just three of us left working daily in our jungle home and slowly, it began to dawn on us that we had adopted a monster. Stanley, as head clown, famously understated “We’ve got ourselves work projects for the next twenty years.” It was actually worse than he predicted as we came to accept that the tropical jungle continuously encroaches with an unstoppable determination to reclaim its lost territory and return to its former dominating glory. We unknowingly had signed on for a lifetime of hard physical labour at Bellyacres, which was something we learned later was not well suited for our future geriatric juggling clowns. 

By the spring of 1990 we had created more clearings under our mango trees. I constructed my yurt and Stanley built himself a jungalow. Then three of us created a community play space using a 24′ yurt where we could hang out after work together and do what we did best. We set the yurt on a wooden deck and then added four foot high walls to allow enough clearance for our juggling clubs and other flying props, especially fire torches.

Birthday parties and all gatherings at Bellyacres were livened up by Stanley’s antics. There was rarely a dull moment when he was around and he was the master of improvisation. He also had a unique way of participating in community meetings preferring to spend most of the time outside, usually smoking. When he felt like commenting he’d speak through the mesh window and when it came to our efforts to reach consensus his tradition was to always object or abstain. I believe it was his way of maintaining his individualism while also trying to keep things light and add some humour. It seemed to work well, for him.

Stanley moved out of his tent after he built the next permanent structure at the Belly which was a pentagonal gazebo-design jungalow. His approach was to use mostly regular milled lumber and because by then we had acquired a generator to run a table saw and other tools, it was well built—with straight cuts and precision carpentry. Despite being located under dense foliage and having screen walls the ‘gecko lounge’ has provided dry accommodation for dozens of visitors over the last thirty years and still exists today.

One of the first building permits I was able to get at Bellyacres was for Stanley’s clown house, which was built  between 1992 and 1995. Two-stories high and over 1,000-square foot, Stanley occupied it while it was still under construction and eventually added plumbing, electricity, and a septic pit down a lava crack…homestead style. During these years, it became Stanley’s cave where he hibernated to indulge in his daily rituals and he sadly withdrew totally from our communal activities. While building his house he had a construction job and took a long sabbatical from working on Bellyacres. Burdened with an overwhelming amount of land maintenance (and not building a house), I found myself resenting his selfishness and lack of energy for our communal projects. Later, I saw it differently. The completion of his house plus his beautiful rock wall and manicured gardens later offered benefits to our whole group and to me personally.

By 1996 Stanley decided he needed the excitement of the life he had left on Maui and returned to his previous friends and dancing partners working again in landscaping as the “lawn ranger.” His Belly home then became available for renters and other valued members and I had an epiphany. Without his ‘selfish’ work on ‘his’ projects, I might not have had the benefits of a series of good friends and neighbours living at Bellyacres in his comfortable and very beautiful abode. With this perspective, I gained a brand new appreciation for his contribution.

Stanley never stopped coming to our annual festivals and continued with his wild antics entertaining kids of all ages. Some years later he returned to live in Puna sharing a house with Cheryl and her girls until his premature passing in 2014. Stanley the Clown now lives on in the memories of all whom he touched with his hilarious renegade merriment.


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Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

2 thoughts on “Stanley the Clown (aka Don)

  1. In many ways Don was the soul of Belly Acres and touched the heart of so many. We were both 1st year Baby Boomers (1946) and I would would often joke with him that he, not me, was the oldest member. He loved the land and didn;t want to leave much. My shop was at Belly Acres and he worked for me, making chopsticks, for many years, appreciated that he didn;t have to commute to work and could spontaneously choose his hours….

    As a clown he loved my Austin Mini Cooper. When I decided to (finally) get comfortable and bought a real car I gave Don the mini and he was a very happy clown. Later after moving to Maui, a glutton for punishment, he bought a couple more.

    As the dynamic at Belly Acres became too complex for this gentle soul he decided to move to Maui where he could be a hermit. Some of us were heartbroken to see the soul of Belly Acres leave. At that point the dream of Belly being a retirement community for the original members was shattered.

    I was blessed to have him in my life, I miss him….

    Liked by 2 people

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