This Clown Knows His Audience
By Heather Knight
CHRONICLE STAFF WRITER
There's nothing like a lively rendition of "Oh Where, Oh Where Can the Bathroom Be?" to warm up a crowd. That is, if the crowd's a bunch of preschoolers brimming with excitement at seeing their premier entertainer, Daffy Dave.
"Ladies and jungle gyms!" shouted the clown, juggler and balloon animal twister, Dave Mampel, as he began a recent performance at Peninsula Temple Shalom.
Nooooooo!" squealed the kids.
"Boys and gorillas! Gerbils?"
Mampel, wearing checkered pants, yellow suspenders and red Converse sneakers, stood at the front of the synagogue, joking with the kids filling the seats below for about an hour.
A house of worship is a comfortable place for Mampel, who in 1992, quit his job as the minister of the First Congregational Church of Idaho Falls. The fifth-generation minister was known for unintentional bumbling. He'd spill wine during communion, announce wrong dates for church events and was so hot on the church's ski trip, he wore just long underwear on the slopes.
"One day, my organist came up to me and said, 'You know, Dave, you're more of an entertainer than a minister!'" recalled Mampel, 38, who lives in Palo Alto.
He felt stuck in his profession, and after two years of soul-searching, decided to write poetry and sing in cafes. As he planned to move to San Francisco, a mecca for such pursuits, his congregation threw him a going-away party. There, they planted the seed for his clowning.
"They said, 'Why don't you dress up as a clown, call yourself Crazy Dave and make money off all those yuppies in San Francisco, charging them for birthday parties?" Mampel said. "I was just going to do clowning on the side to support my music. It just got so fun, I decided I had to choose. I couldn't do both, so I decided to dedicate my life to the clowning thing."
He quickly ditched the Crazy moniker and searched for something "kindler, gentler." ("I had friends named Magic Mike and Circus Sue, and I kind of liked their names," he said.)
Soon, Daffy Dave was born -- along with the silly songs, magic tricks and trademark red-and-yellow outfit. He joined the Golden Gate Clown Association and now works up to 60 events a week, charging about $250 for parties. He's invented some of his own clowning props, including magic socks and a Clap-o-Meter.
He recently came out with his first CD, "Daffy Dave: Git Down & Funny! Sing-Alongs, Stories, Americana." It features 13 original compositions and 13 parodies, such as "Don't Wake Up the Baby" sung to the tune of "Twist and Shout" and "Pharoah, Pharoah" sung to "Louie, Louie."
With a nod to the parents, it also includes impersonations of Elvis Presley on "Elvis Pokey" and Bob Dylan on "Happy Dylan." He models himself on Daffy Duck, tripping over himself and his words, all while remaining serious.
Penny Peck has hired Mampel for 10 shows at the San Leandro Public Library, because he appeals to kids of all ages, as well as their parents.
"He's very high-energy," she said. "Some entertainers go very slow, like what you see on 'Barney.' More children seem to like high-energy shows, more in the vein of Pee-wee Herman. It's a lot more hip."
One of Mampel's biggest fans, Christy Lavery, 5, still remembers being calIed up on stage to help him with a trick at her birthday party.
"He's really silly," said the Palo Alto kindergartner. "He's the wackiest guy."
Her mother, Judy, has hired Mampel for numerous birthday parties, fund-raisers and community social events. Her four kids, ranging in age from 1 to 8 years old, all adore him.
"He has an incredible ability to connect -- not just with a big group of children, but also each child on an individual basis," she said. "You're just drawn into his spell."
Mampel was born in Chicago and raised on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. As a child, he had many answers to that proverbial question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Among his dreams: a dinosaur bone collector, an inventor, a hotel manager, a forest ranger, a mountain man and a musician. But like so many family members before him, he decided to become a minister.
He studied religion and philosophy at Augustana College in Illinois, graduating in 1983. He graduated from Minnesota's United Theological Seminary in 1988. But after four years in the pulpit, he felt constrained.
His father, Art, who lives in Seattle, still remembers getting the surprising phone call.
"He said, 'Well, Dad, I'll be moving on.' I said, 'I only stayed in my first church for three years. Which church are you going to?' He said he followed me into the ministry, but didn't really want to be there," Art recalled.
When Art first saw his son's I clowning performance -- with its underwear jokes and animal imitations -- he was a little unnerved.
"I said, 'Oh, Dave, I don't want to laugh at that.' But then I saw all these little kids rolling on the floor, and I realized that's who he's talking to. I think he made the right decision," Art said.
His sister, Jeanie Swanson, said he was always "a stinker" and got into trouble a lot as a child. She's glad for his jokester ways now that he's available to do performances at her kids' preschool.
"I was surprised about the clowning," she said. "But it's really nice having someone in the business."
Despite his family's religious history, Mampel doesn't attend church regularly, but does feel connected to a higher power.
"I feel a very strong relationship with God, but it's more of a spiritual thing," he said. "I'm more comfortable speaking through my show and my actions."
Now, he finds his happiness and peace making kids giggle and singing songs like "Psycho-Chicken" and "Twinkles, Twinkies, Candy Bars." After performing, he feels "this glow" that lasts a day.
"It's almost like you feel your immune system getting stronger," he said. "The people laughing, the enjoyment, the kids -- it makes me feel so good. This clowning thing is like my medication. The shows are like a tonic for me and my spirit."