SUNSET — By day, she was mild-mannered Gayle Cook.
But at night and on weekends, Cook harbored a not-so-secret identity: that of the wild and crazy Fifi the Magic Clown.
For 33 years, the Sunset woman faithfully entertained at birthday parties, family gatherings and various other celebrations, tying animal balloons, performing magic tricks, and just generally amazing and entertaining folks with her humorous and logic-defying magic-clown act.
Naturally, over the decades Cook amassed an impressive arsenal of magic/clowning paraphernalia. Like a hand guillotine. A sword-through-the-neck trick. The circle-square illusion. She’s also got production boxes for rabbits and doves, production pans for flames, changing bags, and all kinds of balloon pumps — from hand pumps to electric pumps.
And lots and lots of how-to books. She has books on how to build props, collector’s books on some of the great magicians in history, and blueprints. And books on ballooning.
“I’ve probably got 100 different balloon-tying books and videos,” Cook told the Standard-Examiner recently.
Her inventory of clowning and magic props goes on an on.
“So many,” she says. “So many.”
Cook estimates the worth of her Fifi the Magic Clown prop collection extends deep into five-figures territory.
“I know I’ve invested well over $50,000 in props and magic over the years,” she said. “It’s not worth that now — but it would be to someone.”
That’s right, Cook is now looking to bequeath her extensive magic and clown collection to just the right person, or perhaps organization.
“I retired in 2013,” Cook said. “I kept thinking I should sell all this, but I just couldn’t do it. … But now, it’s time to find somebody else to love it.”
After talking it over with her husband, Cook said donating the collection is the right call.
“My husband knew it was one of those tender things, and that I didn’t want to just sell it,” she said.
Although Cook says clowning is “not his thing,” her husband has been incredibly supportive of her avocation. He’d drive her around to gigs, and she says the people would call out, “Mr. Fifi! Mr. Fifi!”
Indeed, when the couple got married — she met him when she was in her 40s — he offered, “Why don’t I dress up as a clown and we’ll do our engagement photos as clowns?”
“That was his idea,” she marvels. “And that’s the only time he has ever dressed up as a clown.”
Cook warns would-be recipients that obtaining the props is the easy part. Mastering them is another story.
“It takes an effort,” she says. “I bought the props, but you have to study and practice, in order to get down so quick and easy the sleight of hand and misdirection that magic requires.”
Still, for the right person, it might end up being a godsend.
“It could change a person’s life,” she said.
Cook knows whereof she speaks. She was just 23 years old, working in a dental office, when a sales rep walked in and tied an animal balloon for her.
“I said, ‘That’s the neatest thing I’ve ever seen,” she recalls. “My whole life I’d never seen a live clown, just on TV. So the sales rep told me, ‘Buy a book and learn how to do it.’”
That’s all it took.
Cook went out and found a book. And started practicing.
Over the next three decades, Cook built up to doing as many as 400 shows a year, tying dozens of balloons at a clip. She’d book as many as two or three shows on a work night, seven to 10 shows on Saturdays.
And as for that sales rep? The two of them would become fast friends.
“He used the balloon to try to see my boss, and it worked,” Cook laughs.
With her donation, Cook is just looking to pay it forward. It might be an adult or child who is going through a rough patch, and this gift could help them.
“I can’t tell you what a blessing this was in my life,” she said. “It’s hard to part with it, but I have great memories. I’ve just got to hope it makes a difference in someone else’s life. It changed my life, and for the right person I think it can change their life.”
Cook says the props she has aren’t just the dime-store magic tricks.
“A lot of clowns do slapstick magic,” she said. “I did some pretty heavy-duty magic.”
For those interested in receiving Cook’s prop collection, she invites them to write her an email and explain why they think she should give it to them, and what their hopes and plans would be for it. Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There’s one bag I’ll keep,” Cook said. “It’s my tiny little performance bag.”
But other than that, she’s giving it all away. However, she also stresses that the recipient must take it all.
“If they’re going to sort through it, they’re not going to sort through it in my garage,” she said with a laugh. “And this will take a truckload to move. This is not something that fits in someone’s trunk.”