Dave Freeman of Zeigler isn’t clowning around when he encourages children to go outside.
“Go outside” is the central message of Freeman’s alter ego, Camo the Clown. Freeman, who travels about the country spreading his conservation message, recently kept scores of children entertained through four shows at the Southern Illinois Celebration of National Hunting and Fishing Days at John A. Logan College.
While every show is different, Freeman reacts to the audience and changes on the fly. The theme is children need to be outside to enjoy our natural world.
Dressed in camouflage, decked out in a green wig, Hula popper earrings and carrying an outsized rod and reel, complete with an oversized stuffed toy fish, Camo makes his appearance whistling cardinal, quail and whippoorwill songs.
He has the kids in the palm of his hand from his entrance.
“It’s like any act, you do it over and over, the better you get,” Freeman said. “I have acres of material. All I have to do is come in the day before and start going over my notes.”
Within seconds, Camo brings the kids onto the stage. He pulls out a replica cardinal or bluebird and asks kids to identify the critter.
“You get enthusiasm and they start competing with each other and lose all their fear he said. In most cases they are competing against each other, that gives them strength. I think that helps too.”
And, when someone guesses the correct answer, Camo reaches into a bucket and tosses fishing bobbers into the audience. Not a bobber to the person who correctly answered the question, but dozens of bobbers. Every kid walks away from a Camo performance with a bobber or a camouflaged necklace.
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In between corny jokes, bird whistles and tidbits of information about nature, Camo passes along life lessons in almost subliminal fashion — don’t shoot your BB gun at songbirds, respect game wardens and obey conservation laws.
“Once you are entertaining, you start paying attention to a lot of things,” Freeman said. “How to better your show or program yourself to the kids’ minds. Mr. Rogers taught such great life lessons. There are so many good people. The news just depicts the worst. I always wanted to teach those lessons.”
Watching Freeman’s energy and his interactions with children onstage, it’s difficult to believe he once considered himself an introvert. Camo was born, somewhat by accident, about 40 years ago.
“It was probably the mid-70s,” Freeman said. “I was in a bass club, the Fin and Feather Club, and they put me in charge of the kids’ games (at a club picnic). I really didn’t like to get in front of people.
“I always had critters. I normally have an amphibian and reptile shot. After taking care of the annual picnic I did a couple other shows and people started calling me. Then, I saw the Shriners at a Labor Day parade and I saw how the clowns would get the kids’ attention. I thought, I am going to be brave enough to do that.”
Camo has undergone a series of reincarnations since then, but Freeman now calls himself “Camo the Conservation Clown.”
He said there may be future changes as well. A number of recent movies have featured scary clowns, and that does create issues occasionally. However, he believes in the message and will keep performing.
Why? Freeman had the perfect answer.
“This lady, her son was in Iraq, she said I was talking to him this morning and told him where I was going and he said, ‘You make sure you look up Camo and tell him he’s my favorite childhood memory.’”