Clowning around: Elephant man builds his smile machine

Swan Bros. Circus clown rolls with elephant-themed Ford Festiva
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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Andy Swan wonders aloud these days why it took him so long to convert his 1992 Ford Festiva into a car that now gets 20 laughs per gallon. The car is an eyeball-straining, over-the-top-under-the-big-top, wonder-inducing, jaw-dropping, laughter-fuelling tribute to anything elephant-related. The dashboard holds dozens of toy elephants of all sizes and shapes. The basic gray exterior (as well as gray interior) is festooned with pachyderm paintings. The license plate proclaims the driver – wearing a fake snout on many jaunts – hearts “LFNTS.” And don’t get too close to the plastic elephant-head hood ornament. The snout – aimed strategically at a level that hits most adults’ groins – is hooked up to the windshield washer-hose and emits a stream of water bound to cause much mirth among onlookers. Swan is part of a brother-act of clowns who are set to perform for the 31st straight year at this coming September’s Gold Country Fair in Auburn. He claims to have taught more than 60,000 people to juggle and his collection of more than 5,000 elephant figures is approaching Guinness Book of World Records territory. But the car – call it an elephantmobile, if you will – is out of this world. The lovingly painted subcompact is tricked out with a loudspeaker that broadcasts the sound of a wailing elephant. “I call it my smile car,” Swan said. “Every time people see it, they smile.” The paint was applied four months ago. As far as Swan knows, it’s the world’s only elephant car. And who’s to doubt it. “I’ve always dreamed about a car like this,” he said. “The lesson I’ve learned is ‘Don’t put it off. No one is guaranteed another day on this earth.’” Swan said the car will never replace his real dream of owning a real elephant. But with an estimate of about $1 million to provide proper space, buy one of the rare pachyderms and keep it in food, it’s out of the small-circus owner’s price range. “Having a circus is a labor of love and it’s like a roller coaster,” Swan said. “One month, you’re eating chicken. The next month, it’s the feathers.” As Zippy the Clown, Swan performs with his brother, Michael. They travel from their home base in North Highlands, near Sacramento, to events around the state. Greg Hegwer, Gold Country Fair manager, said that the Swan Bros. Circus fits in nicely with plans for a children’s area at this year’s Sept. 10-13 event. The children’s area provides a carnival-like atmosphere at no cost to families except fair admission. Fairs usually rotate smaller circuses year-by-year among the many available, but Swan Bros. has become something of a tradition, with parents bringing children to experience the fun they remember from their own childhoods, Hegwer said. “Thirty-one years – that’s amazing,” Hegwer said. “The Swans eat drink and live circus.” Hegwer said he has yet to see the elephant tribute car, which Andy Swan drove to Auburn on Wednesday to pick up a discarded elephant-related banner from a larger circus that had played to a local audience the night before. But Hegwer said the funny Festiva driven by a man wearing a Horton Hears A Who headdress makes a lot of sense – in a wacky Swan Bros. kind of way. “They’re very weird dudes,” Hegwer said. “But that’s OK.” The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at