Astoria clown car restoration honors man's dad, long lost sister

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by Laural Porter, KGW Staff

kgw.com

Posted on July 5, 2014 at 12:32 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jul 9 at 1:26 PM

HAMMOND, Ore. -- Decades after a treasured car used by a troupe of clowns from Astoria went missing, the sons and daughters of the original clowns are rebuilding the tradition.

Those original clowns are now all gone, but the new generation is working to resurrect the old car, as well as the joyful and sometimes painful memories that lie beneath a lifetime of rust and wear.

They've transformed a garage in the seaside town of Hammond into what looks like a three-ring clown car repair shop.

Inside, there's a lot of laughter as Jeff Daly and his friends gather around the broken-down 1948 stretch Chrysler. Their mission is to get the old car running again.

Daly is a ringmaster of sorts. He has a special passion for the project that spans six decades and connects Daly and the clown car with his late father and his long lost sister, Molly.

"We all have special meanings for it," Daly said as he touched the peeling paint under the car's window. "Who would ever think a rusty old car could make people laugh and bring people together?"

His father, Jack, was one of the original Astoria clowns in the 1950s and '60s. His friends' fathers were also part of the clown group. They were civic boosters for the city of Astoria.

"You remember the stories," said Daly. "We got to ride in the car and some of us got to participate in the parades," he said.

Daly recalls when their fathers drove the car in parades around the state, promoting the town of Astoria. They also used the car to build support for building the Astoria-Megler Bridge that would connect Oregon and Washington.

The original clowns bought the car from a mortuary. It was black and they painted it yellow, then orange. More than 60 years later, all the layers of paint are peeling.

Daly picked up a chip of paint that fell on the garage floor and asked, "Anyone want a piece of the old car?"

Like its peeling coats of paint, the Astoria clown car's story has many layers that cover decades of laughter and tears.

"So, we've all joined together to bring this car back. Not to restore it, just to get it running. That's the idea", Daly said.

It's been a journey to get the Chrysler back to Hammond. Daly found it searching the web. Once it passed its heyday, somehow the car ended up in a hay field in the Central Oregon modern ghost town of Shaniko.

The owner's widow had been about to sell it for scrap metal. She sold it to Daly instead, for $750. He hauled it back to the coast and the clown car circus began.

Daly and his friend, mechanical magician Jason Banghart, had to pull off a few juggling acts to get the crusty old Chrysler running again.

It needed a new frame, so Daly donated his 2000 Ford van to the cause.

"I woke up one night and realized I don't need my van anymore," said Daly. "Jason got in here with his cutting torch and cut the van off. The Chrysler fit the wheel base, but we had to flip it backwards to make it fit."

So, they reversed it. There are two steering wheels. The original one faces the windshield and looks backward. A new steering wheel faces the rear window, looking forward.

"We all still get confused," said Daly. "We are always laughing. We go to the wrong door and wonder which is way is front and which way is back."

It's a clown car, through and through.

Lisa Hickman stopped by the garage to cheer on the project. Her father was a town chiropractor and also one of the original clowns.

"It just has so many stories," Hickman said. "So many people are attached to this funky looking car. This car is not just an automobile."

"There are so many of us who have poignant stories that are attached to this car," she added. "Molly's story is the biggest."

Molly's story is the real reason driving Jeff Daly's passion for the clown car project.

When Jeff was six and his sister, Molly, was three, she vanished.

She was born with a lazy eye and a club foot. Doctors said she had a very low I.Q. Her parents made a decision many other parents did in the 1950s. They turned Molly over to the state of Oregon. She was taken to the Oregon Fairview Home near Salem.

"I asked, 'Where's Molly? Where's Molly? What happened to my sister Molly?" Daly remembered.

His parents never told him and demanded he stop asking. So he never knew what happened to her.

Molly grew up in what was also known as "The Institution for the Feeble Minded."

Jeff's father, Jack, visited Molly for a while, when he could. But his visits became upsetting for Molly. When he would leave, the staff said Molly was inconsolable.

They told her father not to visit anymore; it was just too painful for Molly. But Jack Daly found a way to see his daughter, and that's where the clown car comes back in to play.

"My dad and the other clowns thought, if they don't know you're there, you can still go visit can't you," Jeff Daly said.

So hidden behind the face of a clown, Jack Daly and the troupe of Astoria clowns detoured the clown car to Fairview whenever they were at a nearby parade.

"It was an emotional time. They all understood the significance of it. He couldn't be there anymore, but he could go visit as clown," Jeff Daly said. "For Molly and all the other residents, it was a special time. There were people who made them laugh. There was candy and a calliope."

Fast forward 47 years. After Jeff's parents died, he found clues hidden in his dad's wallet as to Molly's whereabouts.

It took some investigating, but Jeff eventually found Molly. Fairview had been closed and Molly moved to a group home in Hillsboro, just miles from Jeff's home.

He reunited with Molly in 2004, days before her 50th birthday. It was an emotional reunion that Daly, a retired network television videographer, chronicled in a 2007 documentary called "Where's Molly?"

Daly and his wife, Cindy, threw Molly her very first birthday party.

KGW covered the story three times between 2005 and 2007:

Part 1     |     Part 2     |     Part 3

Ten years later, he had big plans for Molly's 60th. That's the date he focused on. Daly wanted to have the Astoria clown car ready to go by Molly's birthday. He planned to take the car to the group home in Hillsboro.

"We are going to give Molly a ride. Horns and whistles. We'll have it all going. I know Molly will recognize this car," he said. " She won't know it was my dad who visited her. But she'll remember this car came and visited her and gave here a little bit of happiness."

First, they had to get the car running. Just weeks to go and there was work to do.

Jason Banghart got under the hood, but because with the clown car backwards is forwards, he had to look in the trunk to check out the engine. Parts of it were held together with baling wire. He scraped together a couple of wires and the engine started to fire up.

He and Daly, wearing red clown noses, jumped inside and sat on lawn chairs that served as seats as they prepared for the car's debut drive.

The other clowns lined the street, cameras in hand, waiting for it to pull out of the garage. The engine turned over a few times and then started to purr. The clowns cheered as the back of the car came out first.

It was quite a sight as it drove backwards-forwards down the quiet neighborhood street in Hammond.

"Anyone seen a good parade?" Daly called out the window.

"Yee haw," yelled Banghart.

But being a clown car, the old Chrysler had a few tricks left to pull. Just as Banghart and Daly were starting to feel more at ease behind one of the two steering wheels, the car surprised them with an explosion.

The front air bag blew up in Banghart's face. Smoke billowed around them and out the windows. They leaped out, coughing and gagging.

"Air bag, air bag. You lost your nose, Jason," said Daly.

"I think the nose saved my face from the explosion," Banghart laughed in between gasps for air. "That's why you always wear your clown nose when you're driving."

They stuffed the air bag back inside the steering wheel, tinkered with the wires some more and the rest of the clowns climbed in.

The next ride around the block went much smoother.

"I think she's ready for Molly," one of the clowns said from inside the car.

The sons and daughters of the original clowns would somehow get the car to Hillsboro for Molly's birthday party in two weeks. It looked like the plan was coming together.

But life doesn't always go as planned.

Molly's birthday came. The car was there parked outside getting a lot of attention from passersby.

"This is absolutely priceless, totally unique," said one man looking at the clown car.

"We have many memories from it," said a woman who patted the car's door.

Inside, there was music and birthday cake, and pictures of Molly as a child and pictures of her laughing at the beach with Jeff and his wife, Cindy.

But Molly wasn't there.

Instead of a birthday party, it was a celebration of life. Molly had died two weeks before her 60th birthday.

Jeff stood at the front of the church and talked about his love for his sister.

"Molly's story has deeply impacted us all for good. I believe we are a better community and even a state because of Molly and her story," said Daly.

In 2005, Molly's story helped change Oregon law. Jeff's effort to find out where Molly ended up after becoming a ward of the state prompted lawmakers to write a bill making it easier for others to find their loved ones who also had been institutionalized.

Governor Ted Kulongoski signed the bill into law, saying it ended a sad chapter in Oregon history.

At the memorial, Daly fought back tears as he remembered his sister.

"I know my dad and Molly and my mom are together wondering, laughing, about how we are going to get this car back to Astoria at the end of the day," he said.

But Molly would get her ride.

Daly walked outside with two velvet bags and a pair of boots and headed for the clown car.

Jason Banghart was behind the wheel ready for the rickety ride home, while Daly stayed behind to thank friends who came to Molly's Memorial.

"These are Molly's boots, her favorites," he said to Banghart. "They have to go backwards."

Then Daly held up one red bag then the other.

"All right, here come your passengers," said Daly. "This is my dad. And this is Molly."

He set the boots and the bags, containing the ashes of Molly and her dad, in the car and hugged Banghart.

"Which way are you going?" Daly asked. "Forwards or backwards?"

Banghart smiled, hugged his friend back and climbed in with the ashes of Molly and Jack Daly.

The car pulled out of the driveway.

"Drive carefully," Daly called out.

Molly did get her ride, together again with her dad in the Astoria clown car.

It's a car that appears to be headed backward but is really headed forward, into a future inspired by a bunch of clowns and Molly.

 

_____

The sons and daughters of the original Astoria clowns still plan to pick up where their dads left off.

They already have their clown costumes and clown names picked out. Jeff Daly will be "Snappy," a nod to his dad, whose clown persona was as a photographer.

Lisa Hickman's dad, who was a chiropractor, will be "Bones."

They plan to take the car to parades and visit nursing homes and hospitals throughout the region.

We can be sure they'll be thinking of their dads and of Molly.

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