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Controversial Clown Gave Laughter, Life to Square

BARBARA LAMB, who offered Perry Rlickman (Perri the Hobo) her basement as a place to stay this winter, looks on at the memorial tribute that celebrated the clown’s life in front of Leo’s Place yesterday.
BARBARA LAMB, who offered Perry Rlickman (Perri the Hobo) her basement as a place to stay this winter, looks on at the memorial tribute that celebrated the clown’s life in front of Leo’s Place yesterday.
By Andrew S. Holbrook and Daniela J. Lamas, Crimson Staff Writerss

Pink high-top Converse sneakers sit next to a pair of patchwork plaid winter overalls and a skinny rubber chicken in the window of Leo’s Place.

A sandwich board shaped like a waiter holds a tattered black top hat and balances a plastic red nose.

The display at the JFK Street diner paid tribute yesterday to Perri the Hobo, the balloon-tying, whistle-blowing, sometimes pushy and off-color clown who worked in Brattle Square the last two summers.

The engineer-turned-entertainer came north from New Orleans, where in his more than two decades as a clown he made a video on how to tie balloon animals and planned to market a series of postcards.

Perry David Rlickman died last month at age 51, and yesterday’s day-long memorial at Leo’s coincided with his “jazz funeral,” a parade through his New Orleans haunts with a jazz band and honking horns to celebrate his life.

It was an upbeat farewell to the man who had been jailed for drug possession in Louisiana and lost his street performer’s permit in Provincetown for his offensive antics, retaining the counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to win it back.

Rlickman’s body was found on March 22 in the basement room where he lived in Allston. Boston police officials said they could not confirm the cause of death.

Three weeks after the hobo’s act disappeared from the streets of the Square, friends gathered yesterday to playfully share their memories of the man who loved kids, crowds and Creole spices.

A Very Strange Enchanted Boy

Over the past two years, Rlickman became a noisy, noticeable part of the Harvard Square routine.

Every morning when the weather was warm, a taxi cab pulled up in front of Leo’s and out stepped Perri the Hobo already decked out in his clown suit with his face made up.

He roamed Brattle Square for about an hour until 10 a.m., since more children were around in the morning. Then he took the T to Park Street and worked the lunch-time crowds on Boston Common. By mid-afternoon he was back in Brattle Square and stayed for as many as seven hours.

Rlickman had this routine down pat—except when it rained, he performed seven days a week—and he moved constantly to catch up with the crowds.

“He was fine as far as I was concerned because he came out and worked,” says Tom Newell, known in his political puppet show as the character Uncle Scam. “He did something no one else was doing... Most of your balloon guys sit there with a tank of air. Perri blew up his own balloons.”

Standing at one of the bright yellow counters at Leo’s, Newell tips his black felt hat and shoves it forward.

“Hold me hat,” he barks, demonstrating Rlickman’s most reliable gimmick.

“You got the hat in your hand. You’re stuck,” he explains. “Where does the money go?”

Rlickman’s beat-up, old hat, with a dollar bill stuck on the underside of the brim, was just one of his gags.

Some pranks were innocent. He kept step with people talking on cell phones and mimicked their conversations. He grabbed women’s hands, only to plant a kiss on his own arm. When women posed for pictures with him, he pulled off his nose and kissed them on the cheek.

He tied balloon animals and flowers for children, as many as 200 a day before tourism dropped off after Sept. 11 and around 100 a day since then.

Some gags were offensive. He grabbed women’s rear ends and flirted with them. He nastily told off people who didn’t give him money.

He made fun of bald men passing on the street: “It’s cheaper to buy a hat than Rogaine,” he told them.

He made fun of gays: “Are you a homo sapien?” he asked.

And he whistled—with a shrill, attention-grabbing referee’s whistle. When another street performer had attracted a big crowd, Rlickman moved up close by and started blowing.

“He pissed me off often,” Newell says, chuckling. “All the sudden there’s this whistle 10 feet away and my crowd’s gone and Perri’s sitting there doing balloons.”

The gags worked. Rlickman’s formula was roughly “a buck a balloon” plus more money for other tricks. On an ordinary day, he earned $200 to $400, not as much as jugglers, but a good haul for a street performer.

Being a clown gave Rlickman freedom, Newell says, and he often talked about his free-speech rights.

Many friends also say that Perri the Hobo read people well and could gauge their reactions.

“He crossed the line often but never crossed the line with someone who wouldn’t put up with it,” Newell says. “He never walked up to a woman and grabbed her butt who didn’t smile. He read people well. He knew whose butt he could grab.”

Another Brattle Square street performer, 77-year-old singer Bill Hamill, also defends the man he calls a “champeen clown” against the judgment of detractors who felt the act went too far, too often.

“It wasn’t him who went over the hill. It was the people with their shallowness and nitpicking,” he says. “You shouldn’t judge a man like that. You should look at the man in an overall way... That’s the way I thought of him.”

Though more than 20 years his junior, Rlickman impressed the older man with stories about the places he had been and his many adventures.

“He taught me the street smart stuff,” Hamill says.

And the first lesson of street smarts was that “the masses are asses.”

“In other words, he could go up to them and get money from them like that,” Hamill explains, snapping his fingers. “They don’t know how to say no. They don’t have the integrity... He taught me how easy it is to exploit the masses.”

In return, the singer befriended the clown. When Rlickman was looking for a new place to stay, Hamill even found him a low-rent basement room through a landlord he knew in Allston.

Packing up a little before 6 p.m. Tuesday, Hamill stands on Brattle Square in his sandals, green pants and faded red and orange striped shirt, his pitch pipe tied around his neck with fishing line.

Mention of Perri the Hobo has reminded him of something, and he grabs a black leather pouch off the back of his bicycle.

“I got it right here,” he says, opening the bag and leafing through his well-worn sheet music. “I just sang it.”

He arrives at a 1940s tune called “Nature Boy” that was first made famous by Nat King Cole. The song reminds him of Rlickman because the clown’s stay had been “short and sweet.”

There was a boy

A very strange enchanted boy

They say he wandered very far, very far

Over land and sea,

A little shy and sad of eye

But very wise was he.

“That was him,” he says.

No Place for Perri

Rlickman was born in Bluefield, W. Va., in 1951, to a Jewish doctor and a musician who fled Germany during World War II. One of seven children, Rlickman joined the Marine Corps after high school and served in Vietnam.

He married in 1971, had two boys and went to work as an engineer in South Carolina and Houston. But the life of pushing paper and punching clocks didn’t agree with him. On a family trip to New Orleans in 1979, he noticed the street performers.

That Halloween, Rlickman dressed up as a clown and won $400 at a local Houston bar. Inspired with plans for a new life, he divorced his wife and moved to New Orleans in 1980.

New Orleans resident Rick Delaup first noticed Rlickman in the late 1980s, drawn to the rough demeanor and incessant whistle of the clown who performed in the French Quarter’s Jackson Square.

On Delaup’s website, Eccentric New Orleans, which features the city’s least conventional people and places, he has posted a lengthy profile of Rlickman, based on a series of interviews.

“He was unlike any clown that I ever knew,” Delaup says. “It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to see him sitting at a bar with a beer in his hand in full clown makeup.”

Rlickman’s problems weren’t limited to alcohol. In 1991, he was arrested with 17 pounds of marijuana in his box of props.

Delaup says he was intrigued by the image of Rlickman blowing balloons for children in Jackson Square while selling drugs.

“I thought that was kind of an interesting contrast,” he says.

Rlickman served a total of seven-and-a-half years in jail on two separate drug incidents. After his final release, he and Delaup met for drinks about once every month.

Rlickman talked about his plans: he wanted to market himself more, maybe with his own postcards.

But the New Orleans heat made business slow during the summer. In an attempt to keep himself employed and out of trouble, Rlickman headed North.

In June 2000, he arrived in Provincetown, Mass., on the ferry from Boston and started working in Lopes Square, a spot just off the piers frequented by tourists heading into town.

He entertained in front of the Ben & Jerry’s and other shops near the piers, joining guitar players, jugglers and other street performers in the artsy, nonconformist Cape town of about 3,500 residents.

At first, tourism officials welcomed Rlickman. Hotel owners let him come and drink beers at the end of the day. And soon he also entertained in front of Town Hall.

He never talked. He just kept whistling—the loud, piercing, annoying whistling that went on for hours. Kids flocked to his show, and he earned hundreds of dollars a day.

He never talked, that is, except when he had been drinking—and then he became “lewd” and “horrid,” according to Candice Collins-Boden, executive director of the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce.

“When Perri was sober, he was fine. When he was not, he was not. He was an embarrassment to the town,” she says. “While he was here, he was more drunk than sober. It was not a good image for our families.”

Complaints started coming into her office, which overlooks Lopes Square. She went outside to watch his performance and found him making sexually suggestive remarks to teenage girls. In a town with a large gay population that prides itself on its “No Place for Hate” initiative, he ridiculed gay couples as they walked by.

No one documented the incidents until Collins-Boden sent a letter to the chief of police, who revoked Rlickman’s street performing license before the next tourist season.

With his livelihood threatened, Rlickman contacted the ACLU.

“I’m not sure why, exactly, or how he knew about us,” says ACLU staff attorney Sarah Wunsch. “All sorts of people approach the ACLU.”

Wunsch wrote a letter to the police chief, arguing that freedom of speech mandated he reinstate the clown’s license.

“Offensiveness is not grounds for interfering with freedom of speech,” Wunsch says. “There was nothing about his expression that took it outside the First Amendment.”

Though authorities decided to reinstate the clown’s permit in June 2001, he left Provincetown for Harvard Square.

When he showed up at the Cambridge Arts Council to apply for his Square street performer’s license, Rlickman warned Cambridge officials that his act had gotten him into trouble before.

“People had said some rough things about not appreciating his style,” says Mary Ann Cicala, who oversees street performer permits. “I can definitely say that I think he went through a bit of culture shock in traveling from the southern states to the northern states.”

He demonstrated his signature move for Cicala, grabbing her hand while kissing his own arm. The move was surprising, she says, but not offensive.

And when he was granted his permit, she says, Rlickman did not receive any complaints as significant as the ones in Provincetown.

“We heard everything from a storeshop employee calling us to let us know that the whistling was driving him crazy, to those that loved his balloon creations and found him to be a riot,” she says. “He definitely was recognized, let’s put it that way.”

Clowning Around at Leo’s Place

No sooner would he step out of the cab in front of Leo’s at 7 a.m. each morning than he would start whistling, waiting for owner Raffi Bezjian to open the restaurant.

Bezjian admits he was a little annoyed by the noise when Rlickman first walked into the small restaurant two years ago in full costume.

But as the weeks passed, he grew accustomed to the clown’s gruff demeanor, his balloons and his lewd jokes.

“After a while, I just got to know him,” Bezjian says. “There were a lot of sides to him.”

At Leo’s Place, Rlickman found an unlikely set of friends, who say the clown’s death has left them unsure whether to laugh or cry.

“When Raffi told me on the phone, I couldn’t help smile,” says local artist and Leo’s regular Ara Azad. “You just can’t take a clown’s death seriously.”

Indeed, the mood in the restaurant is light on Tuesday as Bezjian and his brother, Richie, jokingly remember the clown’s routine.

They recite his meal order by heart.

For breakfast, it was Creole coffee with grits or blueberry pancakes. He’d stop by again at around 10 a.m. for a bottle of Coke and then return for lunch at 2 or 2:30 p.m.

For dinner, Richie Bezjian always cooked the clown’s meal with Creole spices.

The Bezjian brothers are from Armenia, and their cooking did not always have a Cajun influence. But this winter, Rlickman became homesick for the flavors of New Orleans, so they surprised their friend with Creole coffee, grits and Creole seasoning.

Although Raffi refused to try the grits, he says, the Creole clown was thrilled.

“He was like a seal basking in the sun,” he remembers. “We joke that after eating he was a more well-tuned, oiled machine on the streets.”

The grits and Creole coffee have now run out at Leo’s, and Richie plans to set aside the rest of the spices in memory of his friend.

On good business days, the clown would replace whatever music was playing with Louis Armstrong and ask Raffi to count the one-dollar bills he had accumulated. Often, he remembers, the act could bring in $50 in only a few hours.

“He was a master,” Raffi says. “He looked at being a clown as a business.”

While waiting for his dinner to cook, Rlickman would sometimes step outside, start whistling and tipping his hat. By the time his dinner was done, he’d come back nearly $10 richer.

When the restaurant was busy he’d pitch in, helping to clear plates or scrub down the tables, and sometimes he would even bring in tourists to eat at the diner. The clown, who Richie Bezjian describes as somewhat of a food connoisseur, particularly loved the fresh berries he cooked into his pancakes.

“He was a walking advertisement for me,” the chef laughs. Yesterday, in memory of his friend, he wore a pair of black and white checked pants the clown had given him as a gift. During the winter, Rlickman wore a matching pair under his costume to keep warm.

Rlickman remained in costume for his meals and would simply take off his large red nose when he wanted to chat.

In fact, the first time the clown walked into Leo’s Place without his makeup, it took Raffi Bezjian a few minutes to recognize his friend.

“I said, ‘Put your mask back on, you’re ugly,’” he remembers joking. Rlickman responded with a deadpan: “I know I’m ugly.”

Bezjian’s favorite photograph captures Rlickman about to shake hands with W. Mitt Romney outside the State House, teasing the gubernatorial candidate about whether a clown like him could get a job in Romney’s administration.

Rlickman’s signature is scrawled across the photograph, above the words, “Leo’s Diner did not endorse Mitt Romney but did endorse the clown!!! (Perry the Hobo).”

Bezjian peers at the photograph, which generally hangs on the restaurant wall. He misses the sight of clown, he says.

“He was so colorful,” Bezjian says, comparing the clown’s attire to the American flag.

Bezjian stops talking for a second to pound on the restaurant’s front window. Azad is sitting on the ledge outside.

The artist first met Rlickman at the diner this winter, and the two quickly became friends.

“He’s a clown,” Azad says, laughing. “How could you not be friends with a clown?”

Tears For a Clown

On Father’s Day last year, Perri the Hobo grabbed Wendy Appel’s hand. That was the usual routine.

But then, Appel recalls, “he looked at my hand and said, ‘I can see you’re not married.’”

He asked her to have coffee with him and offered to carry the bundles she was hauling to work. She declined.

Three weeks later they met again. Again he asked and she said no.

More weeks went by before the moment in late July when they truly bonded, the day when Rlickman had sudden health trouble and Appel drove him to the VA Hospital in Jamaica Plain. During the three-and-a-half weeks he spent there last August, he called her from the hospital several times a day.

The telephone relationship developed into a romantic relationship, which lasted for several months, and the two remained friends until his death.

The fluke of being around when he needed to be driven to the hospital made the friendship seem to Appel like something that was meant to be.

“We had a spiritual, karmic connection,” she says. “There’s no question in my mind about it. It was karmic.”

He made “instant connections” with people, she says—not just with a few friends but with many strangers every day. She echoes friends who say he was a master at reading people and their reactions.

“He was very spiritual,” she says. “He would know who he could stop, who he couldn’t stop, who to stand in front of, who to let walk by.”

She recalls fondly that he liked tying balloon swans, because swans mate for life.

Being a clown was also something for life, she says. When Rlickman was found last month, he was still dressed in his suit, make-up and shoes.

“He wanted to die as a clown,” she says. “We had talked about that. And he did.”

In the nine months that he stayed in Barbara Lamb’s basement, the landlord grew close to Rlickman and his “Louisiana charm.”

There were a few inconveniences to living with a clown. The powder from his makeup kit blew all around the house, and he sometimes used the tub to take off his clown face.

But there were advantages, too, and Lamb once invited Perri the Hobo to perform at her son-in-law’s birthday party.

Rlickman grew close to the six other residents of the two-family house in Allston. He played with the dog and four cats. He told stories at the cookouts they held in front of the house.

He had “lovable sweetness,” Lamb says. “He was family. I felt very much a part of him.”

This past winter, when he lived with Lamb, was the first that Rlickman had ever stayed in the north for the cold season rather than migrating to New Orleans.

This year, when October came and it was too cold for him to blow up balloons, he asked Mary Ann Cross if he could have a job.

At the time, Cross was general manager of the Au Bon Pain in Brattle Square. Three years ago, when she and her husband were visiting relatives near Provincetown, she ran into a clown named Perri the Hobo who whistled and attracted big crowds. One time he gave her a balloon.

Then two summers ago, back at Au Bon Pain, she heard the same whistling. Running outside, she discovered that it was the clown from Provincetown. The two became friends, and she stored his drawstring bag of balloons behind the counter so he could replenish his supply during the day.

So when Rlickman asked for a job last fall, Cross gave him one.

He scrubbed dishes, made sandwiches and worked the register. When female employees had to take out the trash, he grabbed the bags for them. When company managers came to inspect the store, Rlickman would make them try to blow up one of his balloons—but puff as they might, they could never get one started.

And at Christmas time, when the store’s crew donated pastries and coffee to the Salvation Army shelter in Central Square, Perri the Hobo came along to tie balloons for the children.

He worked at Au Bon Pain until about a week before he died. With the weather warming up, he was itching to start performing again. On some days before he quit, he asked if it was a busy day and whether he was really needed.

On nights when he worked the closing shift, he just talked and talked. He told stories about Vietnam. He remembered his family and his house back in Louisiana. He talked about how he liked to cook.

Through these conversations, Cross came to realize that Rlickman worried constantly about what people thought of him. When they talked about his antics, he asked his boss whether his whistling was annoying. He asked if he had gone too far in Provincetown.

“He wanted people to care about him. He wanted me to like him, he wanted people around him to like him,” she says. “He wanted to be cared about. I think there was a lot of pain inside of him from other times.”

“Most of the clowns I’ve met are crying,” she adds. “On the outside they’re smiling but on the inside they are sad. That’s how Perri was, you know, a lost soul.”

At Au Bon Pain, many staff members cried the first few days after they learned of his death.

Over at Leo’s, even as they make final preparations for the memorial service on Tuesday, the Bezjian brothers say they cannot believe the clown had died.

“I personally believe the whole thing is a hoax and he’s going to come back,” Raffi Bezjian says.

He pauses. “He did leave us with really good memories.”

At the memorial yesterday, Chris Halliday drops off a page he had written about the friend he ate with every couple of weeks.

“We’re all clowns,” his tribute reads. “We get up in the morning, we put on our game face, pull on our work pants, slip on our shiny shoes, jump in our bank-owned cars and drive off to an office somewhere, or a store.”

The two met sitting at the window counter and talking about the weather. They met again, Rlickman always decked out in his clown get-up, but it wasn’t until their fourth or fifth meeting that Halliday first broached the topic.

Even as they continued sharing meals, Halliday never could figure out what had inspired Perry Rlickman to become Perri the Hobo.

“He liked talking with kids because they didn’t see he was a little bit seedy,” he says. “They just saw a clown.”

Halliday says he will miss the “gentle, good-humored” entertainer.

“He’d only been here for a couple of summers, but he seemed like a fixture,” he says. “I keep expecting I’m going to see him. Especially now the sun is out and there’s lots of people on the street, I expect him to come around the corner with that damn whistle.”

—Staff writer Andrew S. Holbrook can be reached at holbr@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Daniela J. Lamas can be reached at lamas@fas.harvard.edu.

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