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Paul V. Coates--Confidential File

October 11, 2007 |  4:29 pm

Oct. 11, 1957

Paul_coates It's long been said that the funniest clowns are the saddest, and the saddest are the funniest.

So I guess there's a pretty good chance that it's true.

Yesterday, a very funny clown came to my office. It wasn't the first time he'd come. But it was the first time in quite a while.

His real name is Bert Whitson.

But all his friends in Pershing Square refer to him as "Popeye."

He was smiling.

"Been riding my bike all over town looking for you," he told me.

We shook hands like old friends and he sat down.

"I'm in the hole right now at four eating places," he started. "I owe maybe a hundred dollars."

He opened his cavernous, toothless mouth and laughed. "But don't get me wrong," he said. "What I want is a good job. That's all. And you know what I've decided?" I said I didn't.

"The entertainment field. That's where I belong. I know you don't just go busting into it, so I'm prepared to do it gradual.

"Start out, maybe, by getting into the studios as a maintenance man. Be good experience. I'll get used to the crowds that way."

He laughed again. The sound was like something you'd expect to hear from a rather frantic chicken.

He went on:

1957_1011_whitson_3 "I got a tuxedo and a clown suit. I had a hula skirt out of French silk, but it got burned up on me. I got a stovepipe hat and my red, white and blue shoes. Painted them myself."

Popeye tucked his lips into his mouth until his nose touched his chin. He removed his pith helmet and scratched vigorously at the top of his bald, veined head.

"I got more gab than Gabby Hayes," he continued, "but what I really need is a sailor suit. Then I'll get a golf ball and cut it in half and stick it in my cheek to puff it out.

"Just like Popeye."

From his jacket pocket, Popeye removed a tiny package, dressed in a Frito-chip wrapper and guarded tightly by a rubber band.

He placed it on the desk.

"What is it, Popeye?" I asked.

He opened it.

It was a harmonica.

"Only cost 85 cents," he explained. "I used to have a good one--a $21 one, but it got stolen by some Irishman.

"I know who it was, too.

"Back in the old Pershing Square before they redid it over, I used to sing and dance and play my harmonica. There was this Negro fellow with a guitar and we used to have a regular show.

"Lots of people really enjoyed it."

Popeye smiled at the memory.

"We don't have the freedom there now that we did before. Different class of people, too.

"Right after the war, it was a pretty fine crowd. But now there's a bunch of night hoodlums. Daytime people are nice, but I don't like the night people. Hoodlums," he repeated.

He leaned forward, whispering hoarsely:

"Why, one had the nerve to try and sell me dope. Imagine that?"

Popeye was tapping his harmonica in the palm of his hand.

I asked him: "Why don't you play a tune?"

He smiled. "Be glad to," he said.

He did. He played "Lamplight in the Window."

When he finished, he said, "That's an old one, isn't it?"

"I liked it, Popeye," I answered.

"A real nice song," he agreed. "I know a lot of them old ones.

"But I suppose," he added sadly, "if I really want to make a go of it, I should start learning some of them new ones."