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Clowning around: Three South Jeffco residents make work out of fun

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By Deborah Swearingen

While many don business wear and work in an office, three South Jeffco residents have traded formal attire for colorful costumes and silly expressions when they’re on the clock. The world is their playground.

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Dave Elstun, Susan Buckner and Andrea Michel work as clowns and magicians, performing at parties, schools, libraries and more. All agree that getting paid to perform is a pretty awesome gig.

‘Amazing Dave’

From the moment his uncle pulled a coin out of his 6-year-old ear, Dave Elstun knew he wanted to be a magician.

Years later, through a job at the American Automobile Association, Elstun had the opportunity to tour the state, performing a magic show that taught safety to children. That’s when he realized he doesn’t just enjoy magic, but he has a knack for it, too.

“Amazing Dave” Elstun is a performer through and through.

“I like to make people laugh,” he said. “Magic, by its very nature, can be funny just because things happen that shouldn’t be happening, and that makes people laugh.”

Elstun has a theater degree from the University of Northern Colorado and later operated a Zeezo’s Magic Castle franchise. He also worked as “Mr. Money” at The Lodge Casino in Black Hawk, was once a house magician at Casa Bonita and performed for 12 years at the Downtown Denver International Buskerfest.

But now, nearly every day, the magician is out and about performing magic for schools, parties, libraries, comedy clubs and more.

There are subtle differences in each of his shows, since Elstun performs for a fairly even mixture of adults and children. The shows are similar, but his approach changes.

For children, he is sillier. For adults, he’s edgier.

With experience, he’s learned the importance of being comfortable, having fun and going with the flow. But mistakes do happen.

“If anybody ever tells you that’s never happened to them, they’re lying,” he said. “What happens is you get pretty good at covering it up.

“Every once in a while you totally mess up. The best thing to do is just laugh it off. Make a joke about it and laugh it off,” Elstun added.

Growing up, Elstun looked up to magicians such as Mark Wilson and learned most of what he knows by reading books and trying tricks. To young, aspiring magicians, he recommends much of the same.

Take lessons, join a magic club or read a book, he said.

“These days a lot of young magicians are learning from videos, and that’s OK,” Elstun said. “(But) books have got so much more material in them.”

“Amazing Dave” Elstun can work his way out of a straitjacket and perform the linking rings magic trick, but don’t think about asking him to share his secrets.

“If I tell you, I’d have to kill you,” he joked.

‘Suz-Q-Z the clown’

As a teenager, Susan Buckner never expected she would one day be a clown. But when she attended a high school reunion, her classmates weren’t surprised to hear it.

“I might have been a little goofy in high school,” she said with a smile.

“The thing about clowns … it’s just a bit of an exaggeration of you and who you are,” Buckner added.

It began years ago when a friend asked her to face paint at a party. Buckner fell in love with entertaining and began learning how to perform magic and make

balloon animals.

Twenty-five years later, and Suz-Q-Z is still clowning — and doesn’t have plans to stop.

“It keeps me young,” she said.

Though she initially had big plans to create three separate shows and alternate between them, Buckner’s mentors encouraged her to keep her shows consistent.

“Kids watch Disney movies over and over. They want to see the same thing,” she said.

One of her fonder memories was attending clown camp at Medicine Hat College in Canada and bringing her father along as a guest. There she learned from professional clowns and had the opportunity to perform in the streets with her peers.

Prior to camp, Buckner said her father was skeptical about her career choice. On the drive to Canada, he was embarrassed to tell people they were on the way to clown camp. But on the way home, his view had completely changed.

“On the way back, he’s like, ‘My daughter’s a clown!’” Buckner said. “He realized it was really an art. It was really cool.”

As Suz-Q-Z, Buckner wears oversized overalls, colorful shoes, pigtails and some makeup. Her own children approved the look.

Being a clown is hard work. She works every weekend and frequently during the week, too. But for Buckner, being a clown is all about the joy she is able to bring to those in the audience at her various performances.

“You just have to have a passion,” she said. “I just think I should pay them for letting me come see them. You know what I mean? I feel guilty getting a check from them.”

Andrea Michel

Andrea Michel isn’t a one-trick pony. She is a clown, a magician, a face painter, a juggler, a caricature artist and more.

That’s part of what she loves about her job as a performer.

“There’s kind of an endless ability to adapt to different audiences or different situations,” she said. “Obviously, I’m drawn to the arts. … There’s lots of different artistic opportunities as a clown that you can enjoy and kind of express yourself through.”

From a young age, Michel knew she wanted to act. She attended theater school at the New Actors Workshop, worked as a staff performer at Casa Bonita and spent time in New York City, auditioning for shows and performing on weekends.

After moving back to the Denver area, she worked to get her business off the ground and began working gigs as a clown. Michel face paints at local restaurants, entertains for corporate events and performs for birthday parties.

Sometimes, particularly in the busy summer months, Michel spends so much time as a clown, she forgets when she’s in costume and when she’s not.

She recalls a time in the grocery store when she saw a group of young children smiling at her, and she began making silly faces back.

“Then, I realized I’m not even dressed as a clown,” Michel said, laughing. “I think there’s a certain clownness that stays with you. It’s like, you’re not wearing the costume, (but) you’re still a clown.”

Some people — both young children and adults — are scared of clowns, but Michel wears a colorful smock and hat, minimal makeup and says she has a very non-threatening look.

Plus, after years of experience, it’s easy to pick up on the warning signs.

“I’m pretty good at reading the kids and getting the sense of what I can do with them or not,” she said. “It’s kind of an intangible thing. You just kind of get a sense, play it a little cautious if you think there’s any possibility that they’ll be scared.”