Fayetteville VA Coastal Health Care System
October 27, 2010
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - When Frank Byrne comes to work as a volunteer at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center, he never comes alone. Of course, his friends never make a move without him, so it makes sense they'd help out at the hospital as well.
Byrne's friends include a chimpanzee named Patrick O'Shaughnessy, along with a sheepdog, crow, parrot, owl and 70 other hand puppets he's collected over his years as a professional entertainer. They can be found together three days a week greeting patients, employees and visitors as they enter the building.
While the 79-year-old retired Army Special Forces Soldier and his entourage have only been volunteering at the Fayetteville VA for about a year, he's been fine tuning his act for decades. After serving in Korea and Vietnam, Byrne retired in 1974 and briefly entered the law enforcement field. It didn't take long, though, for him to discover that his true passion was for entertaining.
"When I was in the service I saw death and dying," the puppeteer volunteer explained. "I got out and went into law enforcement in the ID Bureau where I had to fingerprint and photograph dead bodies, accompany them to Chapel Hill and assist with the autopsy to keep the chain of evidence complete. I started bringing home my negativity, until my daughter said, ‘Dad, you've got to get out of that.' That's when I decided to start clowning."
His entertainment career didn't have a very auspicious start, though.
"I belonged to the Moose Club and they'd ask me to clown at pool parties and such," Byrne said. "I used to scare the kids more than make them laugh. I found out later that I did everything you're not supposed to do."
It was the advice of a true clown that helped get Byrne pointed in the right direction. He'd briefly met Red Skelton in California in the 1960s, and had the opportunity to speak with him again years later when the comedian visited Fayetteville. Byrne showed Skelton a photo of his clown persona and asked for advice.
"He told me he hoped I didn't mind harsh criticism, and then told me to get rid of the face and get rid of the costume because I obviously didn't know what I was doing," Byrne said.
After that, and with the help of a grant from the Fayetteville Arts Council, Byrne headed for the University of Wisconsin – Lacrosse to studying clowning. While there, he met many of the top clowns in the country including Mark Anthony, a member of the Clown Hall of Fame. It was Anthony who suggested Byrne try out for the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus – the "Greatest Show on Earth."
While he didn't make the cut with his first try out, he persisted and tried again the next year when the circus came to Fayetteville. This time he was accepted and spent two years with the world famous traveling show. He spent another 10 years with other circuses as a clown, magician, stilt walker, puppeteer and ventriloquist, lectured for the World Clown Association, taught at a clown school, and continued entertaining on his own as Rosie the Magical Clown until suffering a stroke in 2005 that left his right side paralyzed.
With the help of the VA medical system, he eventually regained much of his mobility, but his career as a clown and stilt walker was over. He could still work with his puppets, though, which number around 75 now.
Although he's active in organizations ranging from the Special Forces Association to his church, where he is a Eucharistic minister, Byrne still made time to help those who had helped him through his stroke. He has put on puppet shows for residents of the hospital's community living center, and decided to volunteer as a greeter at the suggestion of a friend from his Veterans of Foreign Wars post. After a few months as a standard greeter, he decided to bring his skills as an entertainer to the job. At first it was just the puppets, but he's now started dressing in character depending on the season or occasion, with his characters including a leprechaun, a pirate and – most recently – a Bavarian gentleman in recognition of Oktoberfest.
Byrne said reactions to his menagerie vary. Some people argue that the animals are real (he's studied animals' characteristics to help him make his characters move more realistically). Some have no response, but most enjoy his presence. As for Byrne, he feels he gets as much out of it as the visitors do.
"I've been doing this for so many years," Byrne said. "I probably enjoy it as much as the people who see me do it."