Terry Cunningham left his shyness behind in high school and found a career in the Funny Business
Patti Sells | News-Telegram Feature Editor

For Terry Cunningham, known to many throughout the county as Lucky The Clown, making people laugh is serious business. Ventriloquism, a skill that often takes years to develop, came quite naturally to Cunningham, shown with his sidekick, Woodrow.
Staff photo by Angela Pitts

July 10, 2005 -- For Terry Cunningham, known to many throughout the county as Lucky The Clown, making people laugh is serious business.

In fact, Cunningham takes "clowning around" so serious that he has even attended professional clown camps in Houston, and at one time came extremely close to signing up with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. He is even a member of the World Clown Association and Clowns of America International.

"This is my passion," said Cunningham, who has been performing as a clown for more than 20 years. "It's my thing. I've got to do it, and I hope I'm doing it until the day that I die. I just love to make people laugh. I feel like it is what I am meant to do."

For Cunningham, a native of Sulphur Springs, growing up was no laughing matter, and he was far from being known as the "class clown."

"I was miserably shy," recalled Cunningham of his high school years. "I didn't even enjoy going to family reunions. I knew I had to get out of it or life was going to be miserable for me."

According to Cunningham, just before his junior year at Sulphur Springs High School, he decided to take a speech class that was to be taught by one of his favorite teachers, Lisa Lowry.

As it turned out, public speaking has been rated the #1 fear among American people, and Lowry taught the class to have fun with their speeches and just enjoy themselves.

Cunningham said he did that by approaching the podium not as himself, but as Jimmy Carter, and had the class rolling throughout his first speech.

"I discovered hiding behind a character was the trick," said Cunningham, who credits Lowry for helping him break out of his shell. "Everyone starting laughing, and I just ate it up. I loved it. From that moment on, humor was my high."

Cunningham ended up joining both the speech and drama clubs and acting and performing in plays, musicals and one act competitions. By the end of his senior year in 1982, he was named "Most Outstanding Drama Student."

"I was bitten by the bug," said Cunningham, who during that time developed ventriloquist, mime and magician acts, as well. "Anything for a laugh and the sound of applause."

After graduation, Cunningham got involved with the Sulphur Springs Community Players, and took local opportunities such as parades and festivals to walk around entertaining as a mime and doing magic tricks.

Ventriloquism, a skill that often takes years to develop, came quite naturally to Cunningham. He said when he did find a book on the subject, he discovered he was already putting into practice all that it taught. He saved up his money and bought his first dummy from a Sears & Roebuck catalog. In 1985 he was able to purchase a professional dummy he named Woodrow, and they have been partners ever since.

"My hair has gotten a little grayer and thinner on top, but he is still 8 years old and looks the same," he said of his wisecracking wooden sidekick.

"It's not hardly fair," he added, laughing.

According to Cunningham, Woodrow is a favorite whereever he goes.

"He comes to life in front of an audience," said Cunningham.

A ventriloquist is something you don't see every day, and adults as well as children often gather around to watch their act.

"I may be hired for a kids birthday party, but when I bring Woodrow out, adults come in and spend the first 30 or so seconds critiquing me, sitting back watching my mouth to see if my lips are moving," explained Cunningham. "When they're satisfied I'm pretty good, they'll relax and get pulled into the show and start enjoying it."

Bringing Luckyt the Clown to life took a little longer.

According to Cunningham, there are three types of clowns: the hobo clown, the white face clown and the Auguste clown, which uses flesh tones as a base and then exaggerates the facial features with bright colors.

"It takes a while to actually develop your clown character," explained Cunningham, who chose to be an Auguste clown. "A clown's make-up is just like a fingerprint."

Cunningham said it was during a Sunday afternoon drive, listening to Paul Harvey tell the tale of a lost dog with only three legs and a broken tail, that he decided what his clown name would be.

"I was listening to him tell this story and thinking I felt very much like that poor little dog, when he said, ' ... and the dog's name -- Lucky,'" recalled Cunningham with a laugh. "So that's how I got my name -- Lucky the Clown."

In his 20 years of experience as a clown, Lucky has only had to cancel one time, said Cunningham proudly.

But he had another close call on July 9, 1991, when he was scheduled for a birthday party at Ken's Pizza.

"My wife woke me up in labor, and we had to rush to the hospital around 1:30 in the morning," he recalled.

As the labor wore on through the early morning hours, Cunningham said he was undecided as to whether he should cancel or not, but held off and was able to make the 2 p.m. party. However, as soon as he finished his performance he rushed back to the hospital, not even bothering to change out of his clown costume.

"I was just so excited," said Cunningham, who said its not every day a newborn is photographed in the arms of a clown.

According to Cunningham, his son Joshua grew up thinking it was normal to have talking dummies around the house and a father who could juggle. At 13, he is now getting in on the act and enjoys assisting his Dad at various events and will soon be learning the tricks of the trade.

Cunningham, now a single father, makes his living driving for North East Texas Opportunities and volunteers his time as the children's pastor at First Assembly of God. He said that being a clown has never been about money.

"It's all about the hugs, the handshakes and the smiles," said Cuningham. "I've always loved children, and it's hard being a kid today. They face so many things such as abuse, neglect, absentee parents -- not all grown ups take time out for children. And children's problems are just as big to them as adults' problems are to adults. When I can go in as Lucky the Clown with a 45-minute act and help them forget those problems for a little while and just let them laugh and clap their hands and be a kid, then I feel like I've done a great thing. Children can make you old before your time, or they can keep you young forever. I prefer the latter."

It's been said that "all the the world is a stage" and for Cunningham that is true. Performing at birthday parties, summer library programs, vacation bible schools, hospitals, nursing homes, street corners and local festivities such as parades and festivals, he has made it his business to put smiles on people's faces.

"Anytime I can gather a crowd, I'm putting on a show," said Cunningham, who has adopted the old gospel song "Give the World a Smile" as his theme song. "When I'm gone, I want to be remembered as someone who made people laugh."

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