After 42 years in costume, Penny Byrd – a.k.a. Popo the Clown – will retire after the Tuesday Night Farmers Market on August 8, where she will be honored. Here she talks with The Sun’s Anna Pier about her start, life as a beloved clown and her impending move to the north coast.
Did you always want to be a clown?
As a little girl I was alone a lot, but I was not sorrowful. I always had a sense of humor. Still, I didn’t have the self-esteem to know what I wanted to be. But I had the fortitude to leave it all behind. As a teen, I thought I wanted to be in the medical field, and began classes, but soon realized that wasn’t for me. Alta Bates Hospital was offering a class on Laughter and Healing, taught by three ridiculously funny male clowns. I became friends with them, and eventually went to the San Francisco Clown School.
How did you get your character?
I developed it from Popo the Clown at my childhood birthday parties at Fairyland in Oakland. While I did a copyright search about the name, I went ahead and started working as Henny Penny Popo. I did gigs at hospitals in SF. Everyone calls me Popo, even my husband of 51 years.
Talk about your career.
First I had the Diablo Valley Balloon Company, delivering singing telegrams with a Champagne Balloon Bouquet. In my heyday, in the ‘90s, I would do three shows a day. And I was a competition clown in Las Vegas. I went harlequin style, very European. My costumes were extraordinary, with satin, sequins, tulle, made to order. I always won. Now I do parties, events in the Plaza and other towns, and Farmers Markets here, in American Canyon, Napa, SF, Kenwood.
How about any anti-clown sentiment?
I decided to put to rest the beautiful face I had created, and feature my character in non-white face. Friendly, no big mouth, rosy cheeks, no big nose, round glasses. It made a huge difference in our business. There was a time when I was just killing it – doing three shows a day in different cities. A lot of people don’t know that this is a living, a profession. It’s how I paid for my daughters’ prom dresses, our family vacations. I used to do the Career Day at Sonoma High, but they stopped inviting me because all the kids wanted to come to my presentation.
What’s it like, being a clown?
No matter what’s going on in your life, as soon as it’s showtime, you drop it. You don’t cancel on kids. It’s my own little world. It’s very therapeutic, it frees me up. I’m happy that I’ve been strong enough to keep going, even in my 70s. I’d rather be at a children’s party than a concert. I don’t do “adulting” – my husband takes care of the business. I’m 72, and I don’t think it’s going to happen – “adulting,” that is.
After so many years in Sonoma, you must meet parents you knew as children?
I’ll hear, “You did my party when I was six. And now here’s my five-year-old son.” People tell me that all the time. High points? I’ve done more than I ever thought I could do in my life. The hundreds and thousands of little kids I’ve helped. Some I’ve adopted along the way, been a mentor to. I made Joy Boxes for kids who are sick. Little toys, puzzles, crayons and coloring books. For older ones, nail polish, teen magazines, books. I took stuffed animals to the hospitals, and to the Sheriff’s department for children who were in a difficult situation. This entertainment business has been so good to me, so there’s no reason I can’t give back. I don’t know if anyone will take over the Joy Boxes after I move.
Challenges along the way?
A big disappointment was the Party Barn, in the old Granary on 8th St E. I started it after years of people asking where they could take their child for their birthday. I had so much help from friends and family. The Sabatinos painted a wonderful mural from on Gayle Manfre’s sketch. We had corn pits, a slide. But I didn’t have the means to keep it afloat with the money I was making at parties and events. After a year, I had to close it. But when parents are too busy to do a party, they call me. Popo to the rescue! Parents tell me, “I have no time.” That’s the quote of the age.
Your work is so interactive. How did you do in the pandemic?
Well, when I got vaccinated and boosted, I tried doing parties, with everyone masked, me with a clear mask. What saved me was my Grateful Hearts yard signs. Out of plywood, in many sizes, I painted them and wrote sayings like “Thankful” and “Let it be.” I advertised a pop-up yard sale on Facebook. Couldn’t believe it, I made $600 in three hours. I kept the business rolling, promoting it on Facebook and selling from my yard. All with no interaction – people paid by Venmo or in cash, on the honor system. Later I painted some with the Ukrainian flag, and some for Pride.
You’re retiring on August 8. What’s next?
Moving to Trinidad or McKinleyville, right on the ocean. I’m going to miss this Tuesday Market. It has such a great vibe. Big line of children for face painting. So much of what I do is about helping children. I am going into comedic dollmaking, “The dolls of odd humanity,” with braces, with breathing tube, fat,scrawny, one leg shorter, kinky hair, thin hair, bald. But not sad. Everyone is important enough for someone to make a doll like them. Little souls that no one would think to make a doll of. And I want to say that I leave this business with a heavy heart because of all the autistic children.