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Lots of happy faces have turned their smiles upside down thanks to the cynical idiots who have portrayed clowns as evil or frightful characters, in film and out on the streets. Traditional clowns display outsized happy faces and act out the glee of innocent children. They came down to modern generations in circuses and on early children’s television shows as colorful, happy-go-lucky characters, who could juggle and do magic, jump around and entertain in a jolly manner, make characters out of balloons, and even teach kids simple lessons of life.

How very sad that the contortions of humorless cynics are busy taking away that delight from a new generation of kids, and even the adults who recall happier times, but fear those who now sometimes hide behind masks of terror.

Some of the brightest people I have known and worked with created the happy personality, engaging appearance and educational content practiced by one of the world’s best-known and loved clowns, Ronald McDonald.  They brought life to his jolly demeanor, and helped him entertain millions of kids at birthday parties, special events, on TV,in schools and hospitals and even, sometimes at McDonald’s itself.

Now, thanks to the rabble who have turned some clownish smiles into toothy glares, and even threatened people on the streets, even McDonald’s has been forced to keep Ronald at home more often. Spoilsports, nasty adolescents, small criminals and grossly-mistaken people have tried to take the clowns away from a generation that needs small jolts of simple joy and happiness more than ever.

I was lucky enough, some forty years ago, to have been part of a group that put special places of comfort and relief for parents of seriously ill children on the map of America and around the world. They are called Ronald McDonald Houses. How did they get that name? Not because McDonald’s, as a major financial supporter, had recommended the name. Because one of the volunteers thought that the happy environment conjured up by association with Ronald would give these houses an upbeat and hopeful image. The image was a happy one, and kids being treated for serious illnesses could get a smile when they heard their parents or siblings were staying at Ronald McDonald’s house, and even visit them there.

Two generations ago, my family owned part of a circus, and my Dad and Aunt had circus horses to ride, and clown culture was part of family life. My own professional life was filled  with creating events and materials full of upbeat clown content: Ronald McDonald Shows, including school safety and environmental lessons delivered by Ronald, working with the talented comedians and others who trained and motivated those who played Ronald McDonald, naming a major national and international children’s charity after that very clown — Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Today, the explorers of artificial intelligence are creating human-like exteriors for robots, so that people will find it easier to interact with them. A clown face is but an exaggeration of a smiling human, designed to elicit a big smile in return. Anything else is not a clown, but someone’s dark dream. I say, “Bring in the clowns, the real clowns, and let’s smile again!”

I met George Romney not long after the 1987 President’s Volunteer Action Award went to McDonald’s Ronald McDonald House program, a network of homes away from home near children’s hospitals,  to assist families of seriously ill children, and staffed and supported by teams of volunteers. McDonald’s president went to the White House to receive the award from President Reagan and George Romney, founder and chairman of Volunteer, the nation’s leading volunteerism organization, later merged in the Bush’s Points of Light Foundation.

Romney senior scheduled a trip out to McDonald’s headquarters in the fall of 1987, to meet with our president, Ed Rensi, with my boss Dick Starmann and myself to “discuss possible volunteer programs you could build onto your Ronald McDonald presidential award-winning program.” Before Romney’s arrival, and he drove his own car from Detroit to Oak Brook, IL, for the meeting, I briefed Ed on his visitor. Romney was a long-standing McDonald’s fan, and company founder Ray Kroc had personally presented him with “a gold McDonald’s pass for free product” many years before. In the interim, Romney had become chairman of American Motors, Governor of Michigan, and then Secretary of Housing and urban Development under Nixon.

Over lunch at the McDonald’s Lodge, Romney assured Rensi, ” when you build a corporate public image, you help build sales.” McDonald’s discussed creating special restaurant tray liners for National Volunteer Week, the following April, as well as other supporting activities.

Romney, once a Presidential contender himself, had lost momentum to Nixon when after a briefing trip to Vietnam, he alluded to the “brainwashing” he’d received from the generals, and disavowed the war. Romney had been one of the first to resign the Nixon cabinet and distance himself from the emerging Watergate scandal.

When we met him, he was 80 years old, “but walks 8 to 12 miles a day and looks 25 years younger,” I reflected in my briefing memo. Few alive remember that in World War II, Romney was the chief spokesperson for the U.S. auto industry. Just yesterday, Mitt Romney‘s older brother recalled that Mitt was known as a boy for his amazing ability to make realistic auto sounds. With his  automotive history, no wonder George was a fan of McDonald’s drive-in restaurants.

If eating 3 times a day is a sinister idea, then the critics of Ronald McDonald have a point. But what does Ronald do? He helps parents make breakfast, lunch or dinner, or a snack, a happy experience for their kids. Most parents would say that is helpful to them. McDonald’s offers many appealing menu choices for kids and parents, along with known nutrition, portion control and quality control. Add a little parental guidance and what do you have — a Happy Meal! McDonald’s is on the upward curve in nutritional responsibility.

P.S. And don’t forget Ronald McDonald House — no one made McDonald’s build all those wonderful places, but they did just because they could. Guess that’s social responsibility in action, too.

July 2022
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