Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Full Story of Joyland's Missing "Louie" Clown

Social media was ablaze with coulrophobic sentiments this week, as an odd bit of news from Kansas quickly spread across numerous outlets: Louie, a long-missing iconic mechanical clown from an abandoned Wichita amusement park, turned up unexpectedly in the home of a convicted sex offender.

The sheer unsavory weirdness of the story, complete with absurdist press conferences photos of the clown sitting to the side of a Wichita PD detective, virtually guaranteed it would gain some fairly extensive viral reach.  

"The word creepy popped up a lot," said KSN TV's Darren Dido to the public reaction seen in the wake of Thursday's news.  "It is really just a surreal story."

While Louie was instantly recognized by Wichita natives, most people outside of Kansas had no real idea who "Louie the Clown" was, but were nonetheless caught up in the bizarre circumstances and perhaps not-so-subtle undertone of associations inherent in the story.

According to state records, Damien Mayes, the former Joyland employee in whose home police found Louie following new tips on the case in recent weeks, has been serving time in Kansas Correctional facilities since his conviction in 2011 for fondling and aggravated criminal sodomy against an eleven year old child in 2008.  He now joins the ranks of more than a hundred sex criminals in recent decades who are linked, in one way or another, to clowning.  

Now, for a bit of backstory...  Joyland opened in  1948 and took up residence at its permanent location in 1949, and operated continuously as a theme park for 55 years.  According to the son of one of the original founders of Joyland, Louie, who greeted visitors near its entrance playing the park's Wurlitzer organ, was a staple there since nearly the beginning.  
Acquired at a trade show sometime in the early 1950s, Louie's association with Joyland is an inseparable part of its history.

“Louie was very important to the park and the whole atmosphere of going to Joyland, It just provided excitement instantly as you walked into this park,” Harold Ottaway told local newscasters.

Judging from the recollections of some Joyland visitors, Louie was as much a source of fright as it was amusement to many entering its gates.  

Joyland closed in 2004, just months after a girl sustained injuries falling 30 feet from a Ferris Wheel at the park.  It was reopened briefly two seasons later, then forced to close permanently by its aging owners, who purchased the park in the 1970s after meeting and falling in love as employees there in the 1950s.  It was during this period that Louie is believed to have gone missing, though it's disappearance was not public knowledge until 2010.

An attempt a a few years ago to restore and reopen the park is an inspiring but ultimately ill-fated story.  In 2011, high school student Alex East went before the Wichita City Council to appeal for help with an ambitious $10 million plan to restore Joyland to its former glory.  Rallying other volunteers to his Joyland Restoration Project, the following year East filed to incorporate the umbrella organization Project Hope as a 501 nonprofit.

In 2012, according to its Facebook page, the Joyland Restoration Project was informed by a private collector that Louie and his organ were safely intact in his possession.  However, it was known that several replicas had been made of the antique clown, and no further information materialized, leaving the disposition of Louie still shrouded in mystery.

In its first two years, the organization managed to raise only a little over $10,500 in private donations and appears to have enjoyed no real support, aside from enthusiastic lip service, from city government or other local revitalization and preservation organizations.  Hopes of restoring the park were dealt a mortal blow in May 2014, when news broke that the owners had begun donating and selling key historic pieces from the crumbling theme park.  It's merry-go-round went to a local botanical gardens, and shortly thereafter the Historic Preservation Alliance of Wichita and Sedgwick County removed several pieces of ephemera, including an animated neon Louie the Clown sign.  The society hopes to eventually exhibit these along with other items it's purchased from Wichita history at a yet-to-be-built museum.  

A month later, Project Hope announced it was disbanding, splitting up its funds into donations to the HPAWS and Botanica, the new home of Joyland's carousel.  

The salvage of some of the most historic items from the abandoned park only fueled further curiosity on the yet unanswered question: "What happened to Louie?"

Renewed speculation may have triggered some revived interest in the case by Wichita police, as Detective Lang mentioned in Thursday's press conference he'd been assigned to the case only a month ago.  Then came the first break, in the form of an anonymous phone call.  According to KWCH News, this led the detective to a Facebook post in which a woman had commented, "the original Louie is in my brother's house." 

Google Street View of the Wichita house where Louie was found
 According to Det. Lang, charges will be filed against Mayes along with an accomplice, for the theft of the vintage clown, whose value is estimated at around $10,000.  It is being returned to Joyland's owners, though the Historic Preservation Alliance, who had made efforts to locate Louie over the years, has voiced potential interest in acquiring it.  

“This would be one of the very few marquee pieces of Joyland Amusement Park.” said director Gregory Kite.

Given the circumstances of its reemergence and the identity of its thief, however, it is likely that perceptions of Louie have been altered permanently.  After all, many found the clown pretty creepy to begin with, and that was before he gained national attention for having spent close to a decade in the basement of a child molester...

In fact, almost as soon as the news broke on Thursday, a new Twitter account for Louie was born, already gaining nearly 400 followers and serving up over 200 tweets in the past couple of days.  The tone of Twitter's @JoylandLouie is predictably and decidedly... creepy.

By the way, though, as far as I'm concerned, Louie the Clown was never the creepiest thing to be found at Joyland... this thing is:

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