It’s a wonderful life

Actor Jacquie Svidran has brought costumed characters to life and played other roles on stage, big screen and television

Svidran played the role of Happy the Clown for 25 years. She has also spent 70 years performing in theater, during which time she met and worked with actors including Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Roz Russell, Jane Reeves, Jared Leto, Cameron Diaz, Kelsey Grammer and Robert Guillaime.

photo

Jacquie Svidran, 87, spent 25 years portraying Happy the Clown before retiring from the character in 1974. Her job took her to events around Washington and the rest of the United States. Now a Camas resident, she has also spent time as a stage, television and movie actress. A family member created this painting depicting Svidran in full Happy the Clown makeup and costume.

During the past 80 years, Jacquie Svidran has transformed herself into a menagerie of unique and memorable characters.

On stage she has played roles ranging from a jovial Catholic nun to a Jewish matchmaker to Queen Victoria.

Television audiences in Alaska knew her as “Mother Moose,” a role that required her to wear a 75-pound puppet head.

“I had a brake cable inside that I pulled to make the eyes roll, and these bosoms were as big as basketballs,” she said, describing the costume. “I could only wear it about 15 minutes, then I’d have to take it off and rest.”

In the movies, she has portrayed a bag lady and a mourner at a funeral. Those small movie roles included scenes in “Pandora’s Clock,” with Richard Dean Anderson, “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” with Martha Plimpton and “Prefontaine” with Jared Leto.

Then there are her portrayals of Happy the Clown and Pheobe the Good Fairy, which gave her opportunities to bring smiles to the faces of children and adults.

And she’s got an animated story or two, or three, or four — and sometimes a joke — to go with every single one of them.

“I get goose pimples when I tell these stories,” she said.

Growing up in Poulsbo, Wash., Svidran often hammed it up for neighbors, as well as family members and friends. She remembers putting on “performances” at her grandmother’s house, which had a parlor room that could be separated from the rest of the house by a door. It provided the opportunity for the perfect dramatic entrance.

“I would dress up, and go to the neighbors’ and they didn’t know who I was. They would just love it,” she said. “I would dye my hair with all of these colors. My mother would have a fit.”

Svidran performed in her first play in 1933 as a first-grader, landing the lead role in a production of “Little Red Riding Hood.”

It was special for many reasons to the young girl, who due to a pigeon-toed gait had to wear orthopedic shoes.

“All of the other kids always got to wear cute shoes. So for that play, my mom bought me a little pair of patent leather Mary Janes,” she said. “That was very special. And that was during the Depression, so to get an extra pair of those, that was important.”

That role inspired her pursuit of others, and Svidren went on to perform in hundreds of stage productions in Northwest theaters including the Poulsbo Players and the Jewel Box Theatre in Poulsbo, Driftwood Players in Edmonds, Bremerton Community Theatre in Bremerton, and CSTOCK in Silverdale.

She played Yente in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Billie Dawn in “Born Yesterday,” Penelope “Penny” Vanderhof Sycamore in “You Can’t Take it With You,” Ouiser Boudreaux in “Steel Magnolias” and Mrs. Brady in “Inherit the Wind.”

Svidran, now 87, can quickly recall many of her roles as if she had just stepped off stage moments ago.

She spontaneously transforms herself into the characters she has played, recalling some of her favorite lines.

As Yente: “So they’re just children, they’re playing. But what are they playing?”

As Billie Dawn: “Would you do me a favor, Harry? Drop dead,” which she follows with a deep, jovial laugh.

And as Ouiser: “Oh! He’s a real gentleman! I bet he takes the dishes out of the sink before he pees in it!”

Two kind hearted characters that remain closest to her heart, and who are probably closest to her own personality, are Phoebe the Good Fairy and Happy the Clown.

It all began one day when she was playing the Easter bunny at Seattle’s Northgate Mall in the 1950s. She was approached by Joanie Wills, then known in Seattle as “The First Lady of King TV.”

“She asked me, ‘Would you like to be a clown? I said ‘yes.’ And away we went,” Svidran said. “Nothing could hold us back.”

Dressed in full clown makeup and shiny, satin pastel-colored costumes, for 25 years Svidran performed with Happy Party Clowns, a Poulsbo-based business started by Wills (now Joanie Schendl) that hired out actors dressed as clowns for parties, business openings, parades and other special events.

“I lived in that world for 25 years,” Svidran said.

It was a magical world that gave her the opportunity have once-in-a-lifetime experiences including riding in a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade with Bob Hope, taking a picture with Bing Crosby that was published on the front page of The Seattle Times, performing at a birthday party for the son of Washington Gov. Dan Evans, selling candied apples at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, and traveling to Mexico City to visit an orphanage.

During one event, Lloyd Nordstom, founder of Nordstrom department store, presented her with a magnum of champagne.

“To the prettiest girl...no, to the prettiest clown in Seattle,” he said, then pausing for a moment to reconsider his words. “To the best clown in America... no, to the best clown in the world.”

She retired from portraying Happy the Clown in 1974, when she married Arthur Svidran and decided she preferred to not work. He asked her to marry him on their first date. They will celebrate 40 years of marriage this year.

“Oh yes, it was difficult to give it up. Happy the Clown made many people happy,” she said. “I’ve always been a giver. But what I get back from the giving that I’ve done – it’s unbelievable.”

Svidran also portrayed Phoebe the Good Fairy, who became one of the most popular characters featured at Bremerton’s annual Festival of Trees — a fundraiser for Harrison Hospital Foundation. Her white dress consisted of dozens of yards of tulle, and she carried a rhinestone wand. She was often told she resembled Glinda from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Children and adults alike would ask her to grant wishes.“I would tell the adults that there’s three things I can’t do,” she said. “I can’t make fat girls skinny; I can’t put hair on bald-headed men; and I can’t help people win the lottery. But I’m really big on love affairs and three-quarter ton trucks.”

Today, Svidren has put away both her clown costume and rhinestone wand. She and Arthur — known affectionately by the local neighborhood children as “Jacquie-O” and “King Arthur,” and are happy living in their cozy home near Goot Park. They moved to Camas several years ago to be closer to family.

Svidren said she has no interest in returning to performing.

“I’m in the third act, and there’s no curtain call,” she quipped playfully.

But the memories, pictures and tales of a life filled with unique and memorable characters and experiences remain.

“It’s been a wonderful life — I can tell you that for sure.”