The Mising Clown

by Steve Mobia


Gary Warne had been dead for three years and many in the Suicide Club had moved on with their lives — the pranks, street theater, and urban explorations faded into the background of daily life.. But for a few of us, there was a lingering yearning for more.

In early October of 1986, I got a call and then later a ride out across the Golden Gate Bridge to Kirby Cove. Elaine Affronti and Jean Moshofsky from the old club were planning a Halloween tribute to Gary Warne. You see, there was this French movie by Louis Malle called My Dinner with Andre. The entire film was of a conversation in a restaurant where two very different individuals discussed the meaning of life. One of the described incidents told by Andre Gregory involved a mock funeral where people would be individually buried alive for a period of time. Elaine and Jean thought this experience would be a great initiation for the burgeoning group I had just heard about. Since at first no one had thought of a name for the group, they used the heading “Rough Draft” as a placeholder. Later the name settled on became “Cacophony Society,” although Rough Draft continued as title of the newsletter announcing the events.

The Clown at Midnight

Gary Warne had written a description of a Lon Chaney interview which depicted the “clown at midnight” as the essence of all horror. Elaine and Jean pointed to me: “We want you to be the clown.”

Their event was to be called “My Dinner With Gary.” The initial idea was this: the group would be led to an actual law office (Elaine was a lawyer and had access to such places), where individually, each would fill out an official “will.” Then the groups of people would be shuttled across the bridge to the old beachside bunkers at Kirby Cove, where they would descend a hill and each would be disrobed, bathed, dressed in a shroud, and then carried on a stretcher into a concrete chamber where a funeral would be held — including an individual eulogy based on the contents described each person’s will. After the funeral, the body would be placed from the stretcher into a coffin and the lid nailed shut. The coffin would then be carried by pallbearers down into a dank vine entwined chamber, covered in shoveled dirt and left alone for 20 minutes. Afterward, the lid would be pried open by a gravedigger and the newly resurrected would be led to a circular brick tunnel through which a bonfire would be seen on the beach at the other end. After all the people assembled around the bonfire, a lone figure would peer down at them from a distant hill. This figure would be “the clown at midnight.”

“Sounds great,” I said, rather bemused at their ambitious undertaking, “but I don’t have a clown costume.” I also stressed that to pull this off they’d need many people to assist. Elaine and Jean assured me they’d have enough help. I suggested that I’d rather work on the funeral and burial music and assist with the resurrection.

The month went by quickly and it was startling to get a call from Elaine, who reminded me that Halloween was fast approaching. Though it had rained that week, Halloween night was uncannily warm and very dark from the new moon. I arrived at Kirby Cove to see only Jude, Elaine’s son, and his friends setting up tents for the disrobing and bathing. The concrete entombment chamber was prepared and I had brought a recording of quiet distant bells to play for the buried. Upstairs, Tom Spears, the undertaker, had done a great job with the chapel. The bunker walls were covered with graffiti over the years and now flickering candle-filled luminarias lit the shadowy forms (including a rather large scrawled “Satan”). Sentimental organ music echoed through the interior. Tom would later get the wills and prepare his eulogy for each with his characteristic panache.

Finally, two pine coffins arrived. Empty, each one weighed 150 pounds or so. But who was to carry them down the steps and into the chamber, once bodies were inside? Well, various assistants started arriving. Most had no idea what they would be involved with. There were these three French guys I hadn’t seen before, who thought they were going to a Halloween party. Little did they know they’d be spending the night struggling with coffins. I forgot to ask them if they’d ever seen My Dinner with Andre.

This was hardly a party. The whole mood of the event was somber and introspective. Not being a party guy, I very much enjoyed this alternative to the typical Halloween drinking fest. But the assistants had other ideas.

After the first few bodies exited the funeral parlor, it was clear that we had logistical problems. The four pallbearers standing with a coffin between them could not fit through the chamber door. It was hastily decided that the coffins would not be carried downstairs but placed just outside the chapel: much less effort, but it afforded the newly resurrected a glimpse “behind the scenes” that bothered me. Later, the French pallbearers went “on strike” and we had to recruit the newly resurrected to labor with the coffins of the dead. This made the final walk through the tunnel to the beach a bit awkward — who was to stay and help and who got to walk through the tunnel? I had dressed in my grandfather’s red robe and guided some with a lantern to the tunnel. But once through it and onto the beach, they were left standing in the dark — we didn’t have time to build the bonfire and the clown never materialized.

Despite my own misgivings about the organization of this initiation, it apparently worked for many who participated. I even heard that some broke into tears while filling out their wills. The whole event lasted until 3am.

After all had left, I packed my equipment, hoping someone would return to help me carry it. Alone, I wondered the deserted beach, thinking of Gary and what he would‘ve thought of this.

I grew tired and laid down in one of the coffins. It was an exhausting experience to process that many people (I think there were at least thirty). It was surprisingly comfortable inside the pine box, and I drifted off quickly.

A loud clang woke me up before dawn with a strong wind blowing through the bunker hall, slamming the heavy steel doors. It was pitch dark. A large animal of some kind was snorting outside my coffin and I pulled the lid over me for protection. To scare it off, I slammed my fists on the wood and yelled. Then silence outside. After waiting a few more minutes, I slid the lid open, sat up and grabbed a nearby flashlight. I had imagined Gary Warne standing by the bunker entrance wearing a clown costume and I’d say he was late. But the chamber was empty except for whirling leaves carried by the breeze.

Steve Mobia, 1977

Steve Mobia, 1977