Sprinting to the Finish Line

Great Expectations, Great Variations

Let Me Live That Fantasy

In search of Puddles, the saddest clown of all, whose voice — along with Lorde’s music — made him an Internet star

I heard that the clown would never say a word. That he barely ever spoke, even to friends. That he chose to communicate through song, and all of his songs were sad. He was a really sad clown, sadder than all the others, and whenever he had something to say, it could only be cast through the baritone of his beautiful voice. Singing a cover of Lorde’s “Royals” had made him a famous clown, but he was still a shy clown, awkward and often timid in his surroundings. His reputation followed him like strings on balloons. He didn’t love people. He was cranky. He was sometimes hard to work with. He was known to pace silently onstage before he sang; he was known to glower; he recoiled at bright lights. He bristled at trivialities, like where to set his lantern. He had learned that to be seen in public was to make some people scared. He wore no big red nose, no goofy nimbus of hair, no long clown shoes that might make someone laugh if he slipped on a banana peel. He wasn’t just creepy, with dark eyes set off by white makeup that coated his face — he was straight-up scary, with a bald head and three black poof-balls dotting his pale white outfit, with a chiffon collar outlined in black; and he was almost 7 feet tall, and thin. No one could ever remember a time when he smiled, not even once, which can’t be said of even the most evil clown. His name — a name that evoked the last part of the rain, a word as gloomy as the clouds it came from — didn’t help.

But when Puddles the Clown sang his songs, something happened. He was no longer scary; he was no longer creepy; everything on the outside faded away. His voice was an equalizer. And a contradiction. The reason “Royals (‘Sad Clown With the Golden Voice’ Version)” was shared by millions on YouTube and so beloved at the end of 2013 was that, whenever he sang, the fear vanished, the awkwardness and the strangeness replaced by awe, because even though a lot of people are scared of scary clowns, no one is scared of someone who can sing.

♦♦♦

I heard him sing. He was standing on a bar top near a Flying Nun blowup doll strapped with a dildo. It was midnight; he was surrounded by a crowd of drunks. His head almost touched the ceiling, and he was singing the song that had made him famous. I heard him sing other songs, too, in more virtuous locales — Christmas songs, two hours’ worth, filtered through his heartbreaking timbre. I heard him sing while dads danced like dorks and while moms filmed with smartphones, and while babies wailed from beneath stroller lids and while kids climbed tablecloths and tore into presents like wolves. I heard him sing to himself. I heard him sing while people stood and chanted “PUDDLES!” while he played ukulele. I heard him sing while I held the lantern and the briefcase that he always carries everywhere, his voice melting the strangeness out of the room. I heard him sing and then watched him take pictures with children who were at first scared and then skeptical and then charmed. I heard his voice swallow someone who was singing beside him, a dude almost as tall, dressed in red velvet pants, named Really Big Santa. Puddles sang after he ate a handful of peppermints, he sang while I ate gravy and pork, and while my buddy John downed the last drops of a Genny Cream ale with a tear in the corner of his eye. He sang at a restaurant called Pallookaville, where the Christmas lights strung outside wilted in the winter Georgia heat, where the real-life Grinch petted a real-life Max, where a woman dressed in pajamas pretended to be Cindy Lou Who. I heard him sing from the speakers of my mother’s 10-year-old Gateway computer. His voice, big and deep, never ceased to be a revelation. The last place I heard him sing was from out the window of a green Subaru, missing all its hubcaps.

♦♦♦

The clown eluded me, though. Before all that happened, I waited and waited to see him.

Puddles lived in Atlanta, as I once did. But I wondered: Where did he actually live? So I went home. “What are you doing, again?” my parents asked when I dropped in before Christmas, because I hardly ever visit anymore, and because I would be crashing with them for an inestimable period of time. They asked for me to elaborate pretty much every day I was there.

“I’m doing a story about a 7-foot clown named Puddles, who has a beautiful voice,” I told them, and repeated it for two weeks while waiting to hear from him. They always wanted more — what did he sing like,1 where was he from,2 a clown — what?3 — to an incessant degree, my dad folding laundry, grim-faced and unsatisfied that this was a real assignment, my mother repeating the word “clown” so much in a confused, breathy voice that it became my “Rosebud.” My mother asked me — and I have no idea what the hell she meant — “This isn’t some heroin thing, is it?”

Yes, he was real, guys. Puddles was a local phenomenon, and an Internet sensation, but he was also a very large mystery. To find a clown, you have to find a guy who knows him, and I met Mike Geier through his website, simply by Googling “Puddles the Clown.” Mike responded that he knew Puddles and spoke about the clown in the third person, even though there was a picture of Puddles on Geier’s website, which is how I landed there. He told me if I wanted to see Puddles, I would have to be patient. That he, Geier, would notify me, not Puddles, probably out of the blue. I watched “Royals (‘Sad Clown With the Golden Voice’ Version)” over and over. I watched an interview with Puddles on a local Atlanta station, the only TV interview that exists, and the clown never spoke — he just walked on the sidewalk carrying his suitcase and lantern, wrote his answers on scraps of paper, and sat there frowning the whole time with what looked like a painted tear rolling down his cheek. At the end of the segment, he stood up and started to sing. Then, without a word or a tip of his little gold crown, he walked out.

Mike said Puddles randomly showed up at different places, at bars and on stages and at restaurants and at Waffle House, that he liked the warmth of people sitting together and sharing that golden light. So I offered to meet him at any of the million Waffle Houses within driving distance.

I got a text from Mike, one night at ten: “Puddles has a mission for you. He asked me to contact you: Tomorrow night … we rage!”

Then: “No go. Location was compromised by itchy characters.”

♦♦♦

Then, the corn dogs. Fourteen inches and thick with jalapeño batter. We were eating them, and drinking green-apple sodas, and taking shots of hot chocolate with rum. Me and Mike Geier, sitting at the long wooden bar at Pallookaville, a circus-and-clown-themed establishment in Avondale Estates, Georgia, a suburb about 10 minutes from downtown Atlanta, nearly a week later. He was telling stories about Puddles. And each time I swiveled my head, I saw some new, wondrous thing that took my mind off the conversation, like a monkey smiling at me on the ceiling, giant plastic ice cream cones, framed pictures of Colonel Sanders, big clown faces, walls full of toys, a replica Creature From the Black Lagoon head on the bar. Mike was nearly 7 feet tall and bald, with a strangely familiar, rich, low voice, a row of perfect teeth — the kind of guy who shaves his head with a razor, leaving the shadow of a full head of hair, because being bald is part of a performance.

“Where is Puddles from?” I asked, feeling small enough to be a child sitting at Big Mike’s knee.

“River City,” Mike said in his deep voice. “Yeah … River City, I think.”

I asked where River City was, and Mike just shrugged.

“Where did you meet him?”

He chewed on a tater tot.

“Halloween. At the Star Community Bar [in Little Five Points, in Atlanta]. That was ’98. I was down there, working the bar, listening to the jukebox. It was Ray Charles singing ‘Hard Hearted Hannah,’ and Puddles walked in the door. He was wearing overalls that day, or coveralls. And this big, nutty tie. I guess it was his Sunday-go-to-meetin’ outfit. It was more of a refined look then.

“Sat at the bar, wanted soda water. He was just aloof. Like, you know … what else you gotta be? Giant clown comes walkin’ in. If anyone’s allowed to be aloof, it’s that guy. I just played it cool. I figure, sometimes a guy wants to come in and chill out, you know, and not cause a ruckus. That’s the kind of place it was, an old-man bar. Don’t bother the guy, he wants to sit here and look at his drink. You see those guys in bars, looking at their drink, figuring out what their next move is — thinking, I wonder what she’s up to. It’s been 20 years since I saw her. Whatever.”

Why doesn’t Puddles talk?

“Well, he talks … but just a tiny bit. He chooses not to. Another thing I’ve learned from Puddles is a lot of people talk too much.”

Mike was grinning, and measuring me with his eyes. Mike knew everyone at Pallookaville. He knew and shook hands with the tatted dudes sitting at a table further down from us, and he knew the waitress in a white uniform and hat behind the bar, and he knew the manager, who on a slow afternoon was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt. Mike knew Jim Stacy, the owner of Pallookaville and the corn dog king of Atlanta, a bear of a man with overalls hiked up to his chest and a beard so wild that it looked alive, who once cooked Thanksgiving dinner for Jay Leno.

“Me trying to describe Puddles to you is like trying to [describe] the sunset,” Mike said. “Just watch the sunset.

Mike had been performing in Atlanta for years, through the guise of various characters and in various bands, first in what he described as a noir-swing band in the ’90s called the Useless Playboys. He then dabbled in the restaurant biz while also playing his music, emceed a burlesque show at the infamous Clermont Lounge, fronted his own band Kingsized, and was still playing music all over town, including some corporate gigs, playing nearly every instrument known to man. He and his wife, Shannon, had their own studio in Avondale Estates. In the Atlanta arts scene, Big Mike was known by his characters: He was Elvis and he was Kingsized and he was a naked Kabuki artist that I heard had to be seen to be believed and …

“Puddles,” Mike said. “He’s … It’s OK to feel bad about things. It’s OK to feel sad. He just resonates with people. I’m never sure when he will make another appearance. So … yeah, he just goes where things take him. You know, if you went down to the railroad yard, didn’t know anything about the train — and hopped on a train. You just go where it goes. That’s Puddles. And man, he lives in a sad, beautiful world.”

♦♦♦

A clown showed up at the front desk of Scott Bradlee’s apartment building in Astoria, Queens, probably the most frightening clown in the world. It was October, and the clown held a lantern in one hand and an old suitcase in the other. According to Scott, who was upstairs, the clown simply would not speak when addressed.4 He stared at the desk attendant, tiny crown tipped forward on his forehead. “Who are you?” the attendant asked. “Who are you here to see?” The clown — frowning, of course — pointed a white-gloved finger at a piece of paper, with the name “Scott Bradlee” written in pen. The attendant buzzed up to Scott, who was waiting. “The giant clown?” Scott said. “Let him up!” Puddles ducked his head into the elevator.

Scott Bradlee is a trained pianist and plays a variety of cover songs. He has made dozens of covers, all reimagined through the music of the past. He films the songs from the living room of his apartment, which overlooks the East River, and puts the videos online, under the name “Postmodern Jukebox: An Alternate History of Pop Music.” He wrote a doo-wop “We Can’t Stop” and a Motown take on “Roar” and “Just (Tap) Dance,” a ’40s-esque cover of Lady Gaga; millions of people have listened to these songs. Scott is the guy going crazy on the keys of the Yamaha small grand piano in the left corner of each video.

Scott first saw Puddles at Sleep No More, a show in Manhattan. Puddles ambled onstage, where he paced nervously, staring back at the crowd. The clown said nothing, sang nothing, for at least five minutes; 400 people stared silently back at him and wondered what was going to happen. “And then he started to sing,” Scott says. “He sang ‘Lonely Guy,’ his signature song; and that voice … that huge, rich, voice, coming from someone who looks so timid and scary, but him just as scared as all the people who are scared of him. The audience was blown away.”

Scott wanted to capture that experience for Postmodern Jukebox. So he reached out to Mike Geier and asked him to pitch Puddles on a cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors.” A year passed, because you have to be patient with Puddles. “Royals” was then the most popular song on earth. And because it’s a song written by a 16-year-old outsider, Scott thought, Who better to sing it than a very sad clown?5

Although it took only two takes, the video was not the easiest shoot. Puddles didn’t talk to anyone in the room, at all. Neither Scott nor the four other musicians — a bassist, a drummer, two backup singers — knew what to expect. There was something unnatural about it, about being all crammed into the living room with the clown while the light from outside was blotted by the blinds.

Puddles was so tall that it was almost impossible to fit him into the frame of the camera. Scott used the widest lens. And there was an actual discussion among the musicians about where the lantern and suitcase would sit and not block anyone’s head. Puddles put his suitcase on top of the bass drum, and his lantern on the piano, as though he couldn’t care less. The microphone, with its large diaphragm condenser, had to be pushed precariously to the very tallest setting. There was some nervous laughter. Puddles sang, then, in his dramatic baritone. Even before the last note cut out, he picked up the lantern and suitcase and left abruptly, frowning. And that’s just how it happened. He was gone.

“It was scary,” Scott says. “Just a giant clown, capable of anything. He seems like he just doesn’t really understand the world, and is lost. I think him storming out is his way of showing confusion.”

The initial response to the video was: giant clown — funny. But upon closer inspection, people heard the song, and it began to register; anyone could latch on to some part of it. Maybe the sadness, maybe something else. “Even people who are afraid of clowns, and don’t like clowns, see humanity in him,” Scott says.

In his haste, Puddles left a box of tissues behind.

♦♦♦

The story goes, there used to be this weird old house in the Cabbagetown neighborhood of Atlanta, a house that was tilted, a house with a mirror for a roof, not a single right angle in any of the rooms. One of Puddles’s neighbors couldn’t be sure, but he swore the house moved three feet closer to downtown Atlanta nearly every year. Because the roof was a mirror, helicopters and airplanes refused to fly above it. This was a strange situation for the people on the street to deal with, but they made the best of it — sometimes avoiding the house at all costs. Puddles played music at odd hours, and the sound would envelop the other houses like a film. The music was always loud — curious choices, like funeral dirges in the morning. When he did go outside, he raked his leaves and mowed his lawn with a shriner’s cap tipped on his head, grimacing at the children.

The guy telling me this is named Dave Willis,6 who says he used to be Puddles’s neighbor. Dave, aside from being a concerned father with children growing up next door to a big scary clown, has written for Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Squidbillies.

“I would come down and knock on his door,” Dave told me in a phone interview. I could hear laughter in the background. “And I’m very sympathetic to artists trying to live their life, you know, but I have to put my kids down to bed. And he’d come to the door in greasepaint, in a onesie with giant pom-pom ball buttons, and I would say, ‘Could you please turn it down?’ And he would make that sad, frowny face. You know what that means. He was disappointed. Usually he would turn it down a little bit.”

Puddles never talked. Although Dave never had a conversation with his neighbor aside from telling him to turn down the music, he did somehow communicate with Puddles enough to get him to perform in a series of Aqua Teen Live shows a few years ago, as an intermission act. Shows in New Orleans and New York and Philly. Puddles would throw bananas at a lady in a bikini, just hurl bananas everywhere. He’d play the ukulele and sing the hell out of “Lonely Guy.” After the song, he’d go out into the crowd and lay a big, fat tongue kiss on someone. The crowd would explode.

Dave moved from the neighborhood. Puddles moved from the neighborhood. “Condos now,” Dave said.

“Puddles is a big part of Atlanta,” he said. “If he moved to New York or L.A., he would just get pigeonholed as one more freak. I think Atlanta is vastly underrated; if you don’t live near here, don’t understand it, you might think that it’s just a place with an airport that gets you en route to somewhere else.

“Aside from the fact that it doesn’t have an ocean, I think Atlanta has an awesome creative community, lots of musicians and writers, and a specific point of view from a lot of different people. Puddles is one example of that. He can just go to a street corner, turn on his little old suitcase with speakers, and perform. And it’s like … you know, and I’ve seen him do it. And I’ve seen him get arrested. Well, no, but I’ve heard tell of it.”

Back when they were living next to each other, Dave used to stare at Puddles staring out at him from his downstairs window. After a while, Puddles would close the invisible drapes.

♦♦♦

Hoping to set up an interview, I kept texting with Mike. But it was leading nowhere, though he was a nice guy. It didn’t feel like there was any Puddles in my future. A week passed, maybe more; the days ran together. I was living with my parents, remember, so essentially I was, like, 16 again. I’d been forced to borrow my dad’s Toyota, and to stare at the ancient pictures of myself wearing high school ties and too-big shirts and all my shitty art they still had framed on the walls. Puddles had bailed a couple times, I can’t even remember why. I only wanted to meet him. Two weeks had bled together, and everything had started to become so horrible.

Out of desperation, I went to see Mike perform at Trader Vic’s tiki bar late one night, during a thunderstorm. The bar was on the bottom floor of the Hilton downtown, the official hotel of the 2013 SEC championship game. A lot of drunk people there from Columbia, Missouri, and Auburn, Alabama, whooped along with as one of Mike’s many bands — Tongo Hiti — played distorted beach music, whiny guitar mixed with drums and chimes. And then moved on to contemporary fare. I was with my friends Tom and John, who are brothers, and we were eating a pupu platter and drinking $8.50 mai tais beneath huge turtle shells and tiki masks.

Mike was wearing white boat shoes and thick, cool black glasses. He walked offstage, into the crowd. He’d been standing, singing while playing the drums. For one song, he blew into a conch shell.

“Tiny bubbles … I feel fine … Tiny bubbles in the wiiiiine …” The voice was beautiful, and familiar.

Mike was taking requests. “Devil Inside.” “Dancing Queen.” “Werewolves of London.” A rendition of “St. Elmo’s Fire.” (He held out the “Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeee-yuh” so long that we stood from our booth.) A heavy-metal version of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” It was a ridiculous and immense set list. He made them all his own, sang until his baritone wiped the words away. He paused and took out his phone and started filming us, the crowd.

A lady near us, sitting with a group that seemed to know Mike, shouted: “You were abducted by Puddles!” Mike said, “I pawned the clown off on someone else tonight.”

He went up to the bar — dancing, twirling, slinking, his shaved head shimmering under the pink light.

♦♦♦

I held a small advertisement in my hands, my eyes wide. “The Official Pallookaville Really Big Santa and Puddles Pity Party Holiday Sing-A-Long Songbook.” 8 p.m., December 22, 2013. As far as I knew, the only advertised public performance Puddles had agreed to. By now, I had gone home to Indiana, tired of waiting on Puddles. Another week had crawled away. So I drove eight hours back. It was three nights before Christmas, too hot for December, and my buddy John and I waited an hour to get a table at Pallookaville.

We saw him through the window. John gurgled, “Look!” through a mouthful of poutine. I glanced up from my circus-themed menu and unclenched the mustard bottle I was holding. The clown was outside, holding an umbrella. The umbrella glistened. There are regular umbrellas, and then there was this one. A patio umbrella painted in the colors of a rainbow with a parasol big enough to shield 10 people. He carried his suitcase, and his lantern, the little blue flame cutting a path for him in the dark. He lumbered toward us. In white-and-black saddle shoes, through the puddles on the sidewalk, to the double-glass front door, that ridiculous umbrella wobbling on the shoulder of his clown suit. He was the tallest clown I had ever seen.

Pallookaville couldn’t hold anyone else, people four deep drinking chocolate milkshakes and peppermint sodas at the long wooden bar, a line of the unseated bottlenecking toward the door.

Puddles tried to enter the door. The umbrella was much too wide. He bounced off the glass, looked at the people waiting on him inside, backed up, and came toward the door again. The umbrella was again too wide. He stared at the door, then the umbrella, confused. He came forward again, no use. He had to put it down. There was a jar of peppermints on the register counter and Puddles went to them, immediately. We were sitting near the peppermints.

I turned in my chair. The clown saw me, stopped, and his eyes narrowed. He was frowning. He mimed something. I had no idea what he meant.

Staring at us, he took his briefcase and lantern to the corner of the restaurant, to a microphone stand, and on his way, he stooped at some of the tables, frowning at children. Really Big Santa was indeed really big, with a beard like a terrified animal. And then they both sang Christmas songs: “Frosty,” the Grinch song — the Grinch was there, petting little Max — and “Silent Night,” and the song from A Charlie Brown Christmas. An hour in, Santa asked everyone to stand and join in. And John and I just sat there, not taking part. Puddles walked through the crowd to us, stood before us, and mimed that we stand and sing. The whole restaurant was staring. So we got up. He was really not happy. A lady behind us, who didn’t have a table, said, “Y’all just got served.”

After the show, when the music was over and Pallookaville half cleared out, children asleep on shoulders, a different woman approached. She introduced herself as Shannon, Mike Geier’s wife. “Puddles has a message for you,” she said. “Wait here.”

Puddles was in the corner, drinking a sriracha milk shake. He walked over and began miming again. We stared up at him, unsure of what he wanted. He handed me his suitcase, and he handed John the lantern, and we followed him outside, where he opened that ridiculous umbrella. We all walked beneath it, the rain thumping the rainbow stripes, to a green Subaru station wagon without hubcaps.

Puddles got in the driver’s seat. I was sitting behind him and grunted when the chair scooted back and pinned my legs to my chest. It was raining still, and he turned the wipers on and started to drive.

Clowns have a rep for being crazy drivers, which Puddles reinforced. We were on Marietta Street, headed downtown, zigging to and fro, the lights hazy and distorted by the rain on the windows. He was swerving, stopping on a dime, and Shannon, in the passenger seat, yelled, “Puddles, be CAREFUL, PLEASE!” We pulled up in a dark alley, and Puddles parallel parked.

We were at the back entrance of Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium, a famous bar where celebs play table tennis upstairs when they’re in town filming movies. Shannon and John and I walked in the back; Puddles took his suitcase and lantern and walked around front to make a grander entrance. We fought through the crowd. There was no room; people shouldered together. The owner, a guy named Grant Henry, himself a local celebrity, was wearing a velvet robe that exposed his chest hair, spilling out. Grant, like everyone else, knew Puddles.

It was the three-year anniversary of Sister Louisa’s. Grant was an artist and Ping-Pong champion, holding a regal court beside the bar. It was almost midnight. “Come on in, precious,” Grant said to Shannon.

The place was full of people in suits, people in jeans, the old and young, the beginning of the night for many of them, the night starting to spin for some, like the disco ball above the bar. John and I were standing beneath a nun doll with a dildo hanging down. Shannon said, “Puddles likes to make his own entrance.”

Puddles came in through the front door, and the crowd parted for him, with his suitcase, people grinding against him. He stepped behind the bar. “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was playing. Grant stopped the music. Puddles took an iPhone out from one of his clown pockets, but — with white gloves on — couldn’t get it to recognize the heat from his finger. So he mimed to us that he needed scissors, and Mike Geier’s wife gave him a pair, and he cut a hole in his glove.

A “Puddles!” chant broke out. The crowd quieted when someone yelled, “Shut the fuck up!” Then Puddles climbed onto the bar, stood beneath some crosses with lights. Grant said, “Give it up for Puddles the CLOOOWN!”

And he sang his famous cover in the silence, then got a round of applause. Then most people went back to whatever they were talking about, and drinking. A few came up and patted Puddles on the shoulder, Puddles frowning, but agreeing to some pictures. And then we left.

Shannon drove us home. Past Christmas lights. And a Waffle House. Past empty MARTA buses glowing from the inside. Puddles was scrunched in the passenger seat. John and I sat quietly in the back. Out of nowhere, Puddles began to sing. “O Holy Night.” He had no suitcase. No lantern. There was no shtick. It was hard to see his makeup in the dark. The green of the dash reflected onto the window, the windshield wipers squeaking against the glass, smearing the water like clown tears, and his voice, his voice, his voice! — it built and carried, and out of all the weirdness, it was the truest thing, him holding the notes out until they rattled the insides of us, and I forgot that we were with a clown, and I closed my eyes, listening, straight till we were back at Pallookaville; and even then, even after we got out of the car, and gave him an awkward handshake, and a more awkward hug, as we watched the car with the missing hubcaps start to drive away, the window was down, and Puddles had his head back on the seat, and I could still hear him singing, right then the only sound in this sad, beautiful world.

Justin Heckert (@JustinHeckert) is a writer living in Indianapolis. His stories have been published in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Journal, Atlanta magazine, Indianapolis Monthly, and ESPN The Magazine, among others.

Illustration by Tim McAuliffe.

Filed Under: Clowns, lorde, Justin Heckert, Puddles the Clown, atlanta, Royals, Team

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