Ziggy the Clown celebrates 20 years of smiles, struggles
By BY KAYLA BELL
July 25, 2010 at 2:25 a.m.
Kimberly Rickman was eating with her family at what used to be Mr. Gatti's Pizza when she was approached with an unusual proposal.
"Ever considered being a clown?" she was asked by the happy-faced balloon maker who noticed Rickman had been eyeing her all afternoon.
When Rickman followed up on the offer the next day, she unknowingly stumbled into what would be a successful, lifelong career clowning.
At the time, Rickman was only 17. On Saturday, she will celebrate her 20th birthday as Ziggy the Clown.
"It's become a part of me," Rickman said, sitting in everyday clothes at her house in Victoria. "I couldn't imagine if I had to stop being Ziggy."
Rickman didn't have to imagine. Last year, the threat became real.
The ovarian cancer Rickman struggled to beat at the age of 28 had spread to her uterus, forcing her to have a hysterectomy in October.
Five days after the surgery, Rickman suffered a stroke that left her completely paralyzed on her right side. She's cancer-free, but has had two mini strokes since.
"I lay in my hospital bed thinking, 'Is this going to rob me of being Ziggy?' " she said of the days after the surgery. "It's such an awesome feeling, and the stroke threatened to take it away."
Through it all, Rickman said she only missed one clowning job, though.
"Canceling for the first time in 20 years was heartbreaking. I had to have a friend call and explain because I couldn't do it myself," she said.
Rickman said the even harder part was worrying about how her 11-year-old son Steven, who's autistic, would fare with her incapacities.
Rickman raises Steven on her own after losing her husband 13 years ago to a heart attack.
She said her most poignant memory from her time in the hospital came when Steven slipped his hand into hers and asked if she was OK.
"I couldn't respond to my son. That was the hardest part," she said. "That was my turning point. I said, 'I'm going to move!' "
After six months of therapy, Rickman regained most of her movement on her right side, with the exception of some arm motion and finger control. She said she just considers herself lucky she's naturally left-handed.
And when people asked her how she thought kids might respond to a partially paralyzed clown, she responded with, "Willy Wonka has a cane! I just incorporate it into my routine. He has chocolate, I have balloons."
Only with some prying will Rickman elaborate on the amount of struggles she's had to overcome in the past two decades. She prefers to concentrate on the positive and the clown character she says keeps her going.
"Society is full of meanness, hatred and cruelness. There's not enough happiness and joy. That's what I bring to kids."
Though she's quick to add, "They bring me just as much joy as I bring them."
During the past 20 years, Rickman has perfected her Ziggy routine, which boasts magic tricks, juggling (which she learned from a class at Victoria College), games, face painting and balloons.
Rickman makes more than 20 different balloon animals, including a lion design she came up with herself. Even after her stroke, she can create a dog in under five seconds.
Stephanie Garvelli has been friends with Rickman more than 15 years and helps her paint faces at livestock shows. Garvelli said the way her 5-year-old and other kids react to Ziggy is "the most amazing thing to see."
"No matter what kind of mood you're in, she makes you laugh. Even if you don't want to," Garvelli said after leaving Rickman's real 37th birthday party Sunday night.
Garvelli added she's amazed at and proud of the determination Rickman has shown throughout the last 20 years..
"She needs a Superwoman costume," Garvelli said.
Rickman plays a variety of other characters, but Ziggy is by far the most famous in Victoria.
"I can't go anywhere without someone yelling, 'Ziggy!'" Rickman said, adding that she does birthday parties for the same kids year after year.
One girl in particular has had Ziggy at her birthday party since the age of 3. She's now 11.
"I get to watch them grow up," Rickman said.
She said she's been clowning so long, it actually takes her more time to do her real makeup than the white-faced, red-lipped Ziggy makeup.
"I have to have a smile on my face," Rickman said, very literally. "I don't have a choice."