story by ALEX WARD photos by LILY THOMPSON illustrations by MADALYN STACK

Nick Wilkins’ father begins by placing a clown doll into a miniature house with walls that are pierced by swords. He closes the door. When the swords are removed and the doors of the house are opened, the clown doll is transformed into Wilkins, who stands inside wearing a costume that matches the doll’s.

Wilkins said he’s been fascinated with clowns ever since this magic trick he performed with his father, who is a professional magician.

Wilkins is now in his 50th year of performing professionally as Broadway the Clown.

For 50 years, Nick Wilkins, also known as Broadway the Clown, has made balloon art and balloon animals for children of all ages. Balloon-a-Gram, his business, makes balloon art for events all around Bowling Green and the surrounding region.

Wilkins was the quarterback on his high school football team. During this time, a classmate gave him the nickname “Broadway” in reference to the Hall of Fame quarterback “Broadway” Joe Nameth, Wilkins said. The name stuck, and he’s been entertaining crowds ever since.

“I try to approach it in the way of being positive and also just making people smile so they can forget their troubles for at least a moment or two,” Wilkins said. “And you know, bringing smiles to peoples’ faces is rewarding for them as well as for me.”

Successful clowning relies on many factors, Wilkins said. For him, it’s not just exaggerated makeup and big shoes.

“I think the first and foremost thing about being a clown is it comes from the heart,” Wilkins said. “So, you’ve got to be able to have the personality. You have to have a lot of patience.”

When makeup does come into play, it usually represents the type of clown being portrayed, Wilkins said. He believes the makeup should be effective while remaining simple and funny.

He said he is not an advocate of scary clowns and that clowns are made to provoke laughter not fear.

Wilkins has been clowning for decades — he even wore his clown shoes across the stage at his WKU graduation 40 years ago. His father was a magician before him, which helped Wilkins fall in love with clowning and magic at an early age.

Wilkins also gets to teach others about the benefits of clowning during summer programs for children held by The Center for Gifted Studies at WKU. He has been doing this for three decades and says that it is a rewarding experience

He said he takes a positive approach to teaching that usually prompts better results from the students when learning new things. Wilkins encourages them to say they “can try” instead of saying they “can’t” do something.

“Four years ago, I taught two classes at Western, and one was a total of 23 students. I taught 17 to juggle in 30 minutes,” he said. “You say you can do something, you’re way ahead of the person that says they can’t do something.”

Julia Roberts, executive director of The Center for Gifted Studies, admires Wilkins’ teaching style and the positive effect it has on the students.

“They just have fun,” Roberts said. “At the same time, they are building confidence — not necessarily to be clowns, but confidence in themselves as they’re learning to do new things.”

Many events take place in the classroom, from learning about the history of clowns to designing a clown face and putting on clown makeup, Roberts said. The students enjoy participating in clown activities like riding tiny bicycles and walking on stilts.

“One of my main objectives of teaching is to get them to come out of their shell,” Wilkins said. “It will help their communication skills, where they can get up in front of someone and not be nervous or scared.”

Wilkins performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, an American traveling circus company billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” After two years with the company, Wilkins said he came back to Bowling Green and became interested in the balloon industry, which is made up of small businesses that create balloon decorations ranging from animals to displays of large sculptures and arches.

He then opened a party supply store in Bowling Green called Balloon-A-Gram Co. with only a $500 investment.

“It’s branched out,” Wilkins said. “The balloon business is very rewarding, and I’ve not met anybody that doesn’t like balloons.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Wilkins said he’s had to think outside of the box as fewer events mean less demand for party supplies. Balloon decorating has played an important role in helping the business survive since not many parties have been thrown that have been large enough to require Wilkins’ services in event planning.

“Because of social distancing, we’ve been doing a lot of things that we can put in people’s yards, so they can enjoy it for a day or two or a week. It just depends on the atmosphere,” Wilkins said.

Parades, one of Wilkins’ favorite places to clown, have also been affected. Instead, he has done drive-by parades that allow people to stay socially distant from each other while still being able to have a celebration, he said.

Perseverance and endurance are terms Tay Williams used to describe how Wilkins, his close friend of nine years, has handled the pandemic. While COVID-19 has had an effect on Wilkins’ party supply business, they still find time to talk to and see each other.

“I check with Nick once a week just to see how he’s doing,” Williams said. “I was there for him to encourage and pray for each other. There was a time in my life that I was going through something very hard, and Nick did the same thing.”

Wilkins has been able to uplift Williams through his motivating presence and sense of humor.

In addition to owning his own entertaining company, Wilkins teaches clowning classes with the Center for Gifted Studies on WKU's campus throughout the summer months. The classes have become a staple for several of the summer camps held by the center.

“Clowns are supposed to put a smile on somebody’s face,” Williams said. “But Nick doesn’t even have to have his makeup on and he does that naturally.”

Alison Cash, Wilkins’ friend for 16 years, met him as the activities director at Christian Health Center, a nursing home in Bowling Green. She said that he would make balloon sculptures and decorations for the residents.

Cash said Wilkins’ positivity and joyful nature make working with him an adventure.

“One of the things that I’ve learned from him is to love other people and learn to love life no matter what your challenges are,” Cash said. “Every time you talk to him, he always has a joke.”

Within the community, Wilkins has created a name for himself as a funny person who brings joy to others, Williams said. Wilkins will always go out of his way to bring a smile to a kid’s face.

“I’m taking all this time to put this clown suit on, just for one quick balloon delivery or a 20-minute event,” Wilkins said. “But once you get it on and you realize what you’re doing, it’s actually rewarding. It’s been a good ride, and hopefully it will continue.”