LaJoye to the world

December 12, 2003

By Graydon Royce
Star Tribune

Former clown Gale LaJoye has wandered the globe with "Snowflake," a one-man show created in Minneapolis. After a 13-year absence, it returns for a holiday homecoming.

Snowflake lived in a small upstairs apartment on the main street of Marquette Michigan. He wasn't a street person, even though his means were slight and he spent most of his day hoofing along the sidewalks of the old Lake Superior mining town.

Gale LaJoye grew up in Maquette intrigued by Snowflake's journey through life. Here was an impoverished outsider who nonetheless radiated decency, kindness, and essential humanity.

His name was Don Stenglein, but everyone knew him as Snowflake "because he was unique," LaJoye said. "You could set your clock by when he would be walking in your neighborhood, everyday."

LaJoye ran away to join the circus shortly after he graduated from Northern Michigan University in Marquette and spent several years as a clown with Ringling Brothers. He then used those skills to develop his own shows, and in the 1980s, while living in Minneapolis, LaJoye found inspiration in the gentle and simple fellow who haunted his hometown.

"Snowflake" opened in 1990 at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. It was a hasty production, rough and unfinished. LaJoye took the show back to Marquette and put it away. But "Snowflake" stayed in his consciousness and LaJoye rebuilt the show and took it on the road, hoping it had modest legs. It's still running.

Thirteen years after its first steps, "Snowflake" opens a holiday run Wednesday at the Southern - its first performances in Minneapolis since its debut. It has been a long road back. LaJoye did more than 50 shows with the International Children's Festival in his first year of touring in the early 1990s. And he has taken "Snowflake" on 10 tours of Japan, performing in 280 cities and towns to enthusiastic response.

"He's as American original, a master clown in the [Bill] Irwin, Keaton and Chaplin tradition," said Peter Brosius, artistic director of Children's Theater Company, who saw "Snowflake" at a festival in Seattle several years ago and "was knocked out by it." That performance and LaJoye's many contacts at Children's Theater Company, led Brosius to send the piece on a 55-performance tour of the Upper Midwest in 2002.

It was appropriate that the CTC would sponsor LaJoye last year. "Snowflake" was born out of the theater's back shop in 1989, when LaJoye hooked up with Barry Browning, Tom Anderson and Victor Zupanc to work on this show about a friendly tramp who makes a dwelling from scraps he finds in a back alley. Through the course of 75 minutes, Snowflake befriends a doll, dreams of what a real home would be like and finds whimsy in the detritus left by others. Old beer cans and a tennis racquet become a badminton game; he makes a bed in the trunk of a Volkswagen Beetle.

"Like all great clowning, it skirts the tragic in the most profound ways in the sense that it is a deeply moving story of this outsider," Brosius said. "It opens up this spiritual and psychic space inside this character of Snowflake, not only the generosity of spirit but immense and fabulous imagination. And heart. You're just moved by the heroism of this little man."

Almost Never Happened

Shortly after LaJoye left circus in 1979, he was paralyzed with a broken neck in a car accident. For a man who had made his living through his physical ability, this was overwhelming. LaJoye was determined to return to the stage, though, and developed an idea for a story telling - just him sitting in an easy chair next to a lamp.

We will never know what might have resulted from that endeavor because slowly LaJoye's motor skills returned. Eventually, he was standing, using one arm, then another, and after three years of rehabilitation, he was back.

"I had to take out the hard physical stuff like falling, and that took awhile to develop a show without the stunts I used to do. But I was getting older anyway, so it didn't really matter," he said by phone from his Marquette home.

LaJoye moved to Minneapolis in 1984 to see what the market would bear for a former clown with a yen for putting on a solo show. His first gig was at the old Chimers Theater, performing during intermissions. The response was heartening enough that he stepped up and rented Theater 1900 in Minneapolis and put on a full-length show with Browning. Others followed, and by 1989, he began the first incarnation of "Snowflake."

Zupanc would watch LaJoye work his clown and acrobatic bits and play with the musical impulses that came forth. "Right from the start, I was always moved by some of the stuff he did - tears, laughing," Zupanc said. "I worked with Bill Irwin, and he did that, too. Gale hit me the same way. I put those men on the same plane as to how they affect people."

While "Snowflake" is based on a real person, his metaphoric ancestors are Chaplin's Little Tramp, the silent work of Red Skelton and the street person played by Jackie Gleason in the 1962 film "Gigot." In each case, these characters bare their hearts, marvel at the world's caprice and befriend children.

Christmas spirit

"It's the kind of feeling you want to have on Christmas without the Christmas connotations," LaJoye said. "It's about getting away from the material things and opening your hearts and taking care of your neighbor."

The initial response in 1990 was tepid ("a minor disaster," Zupanc said), but the spirit persevered. "Everyone who saw it felt there was something here that was pretty magical," Zupanc said. "And Gale took the time to work on it."

Perhaps the most impressive testimony to "Snowflake's" universality is its popularity in Japan. Because language is not an issue, LaJoye has been able strike a chord with people who until the past decade have not had a significant homeless population.

"I could have toured there another five years," he said, "but I just wanted to stop because people were forgetting about me in the United States, and I wanted to come back and build this back up here."

The real Snowflake died in 1992, but LaJoye has kept that spirit alive, Zupanc said. "When you see the show," he said, "you understand what Gale is saying - it's love and respect for this guy who had nothing."