Florida business owner Richard Levine spent countless days traveling with his late father-in-law and business partner, Jack Kline, on what they’d call “clown hunts.” They would cruise in a mobile home around Florida and across the country hunting down an assortment clown figurines, costumes, paintings and more, which were a lifelong fixation for Kline.
When “Clown Jackey” Kline died in 2010 of complications from lymphoma, Levine inherited his colossal haul of more than 13,000 pieces of clown memorabilia. Now he must decide how he can fulfill his father-in-law’s dream of a big museum for the thousands of paintings, puppets, costumes and tchotchkes he spent decades collecting.
“This was a dream he followed for 50 years,” Levine told ABC News. “He had to build this museum. He had to build it and open it up as his dream.”
Levine, 58, met his wife in 1975, and soon after he began working for his father-in-law’s company, Waterboy Sprinklers in Davie, Fla. As their relationship grew and Levine was handling more of the business, Kline was able to take his fixed-up 1973 mobile home and travel across the country to seek out his beloved clown treasures. Levine often accompanied his father-in-law on the quests.
“On one trip we pulled off I-95, went to a flea market and were walking through pigs and chickens and goats. Once he spotted a clown, he’d yell, ‘There’s a clown there,’” Levine said. “When we got back to Florida, I couldn’t’ get out of the motor home, it was so stuffed.”
Kline even dressed up as a clown and would entertain kids at hospitals. Eventually, he had amassed so much memorabilia that he was able to display his collection at his own storefront museum in Winter Haven, Fla., which he named Clown Rushmore.
The collection includes an early painting of legendary French actor and mime Marcel Marceau as Bip the Clown, and an Emmett Kelly portrait that Levine says is worth $25,000. It also includes about 1,000 clown dolls Kline had made in his image, of the 30,o00 he had produced.
At one point Kline had entered negotiations with the city of Tampa and even had a deal cooking in Vegas to expand the museum into a larger city.
“The man never quit,” Levine said. “He was persistent, he had this dream and he bought it to life. He sunk his entire life savings into the museum. It never panned out the way he wanted it to.”
Kline was a continuously active man who, when he got sick, still worked until the final day he was able, Levine says. When he died two years ago at 81, his clown memorabilia was left to his widow, but the cost of storage was staggering. Levine knew that if he wanted to save the collection, he’d have to act quickly.
Driving back and forth between Ft. Lauderdale and Winter Haven six times in a 30-foot truck, Levine hauled the stockpile, which he estimates at a $250,000 value, and now has it set up in a warehouse also housing his company’s sprinkler equipment. To this day, he is still making new discoveries.
“This is since January, and I’m still opening up boxes, and going into shock. ‘What the heck were you thinking of, Dad?’ I’m still amazed,” he said.
Levine says that he is now faced with a decision on exactly what to do: give the clowns away, sell them or recreate the museum that was the lifelong goal of the father-in-law he says was more of a dad to him then his own.
“I wish I could carry on the museum to keep his legacy going,” he says. “It brings a tear to my eye. … I’d love to see that Jack Kline’s legacy lives on. He was a great man, a great father-in-law, and a great grandfather. I couldn’t ask for a better father-in-law.”
For now, Levine — who is also a stand-up comic and even dons a costume to clown around himself as “Clown Richie” — has a sizable portion of the collection displayed in his warehouse. He also enjoys giving out clown figurines to children, charities and friends.
“Not only do I like to make people laugh, I like to do good deeds for people. If I can just give away stuff to kids all day long and make a living. … I just enjoy making people laugh,” he said. “It’s the most fun thing there is.”