The Klown Doll Museum Will Only Scare You if You Let It

Some of you might want to keep driving.

Come on in. Nothing to be afraid of. | Photo courtesy of Corrine Janovec
Come on in. Nothing to be afraid of. | Photo courtesy of Corrine Janovec

Stretching from Boston, Massachusetts to Newport, OregonHistoric Route 20 is the longest road in the US (nickname: “Big Daddy”). It spans 3,365 miles coast to coast, cutting through 12 states. It’ll take you past the eastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park, and, if you want, the Idaho Potato Museum.

And right off the highway in Plainview, Nebraska, you’ll happen upon a white and red building topped with a red tile roof, adorned with stenciled lettering and a few painted clowns. Near the entrance you’re greeted by Stumpy, a hefty eight-foot-tall joker wearing suspenders with polka-dot pants, and carved out of—what else?—a tree trunk. This is the Klown Doll Museum. If you’re prone to coulrophobia, you should probably keep driving.

Clowns exist to spread cheer. Do you feel cheerful? | Flickr/orientalizing

The town of Plainview—population 1,398—is something of a hotspot for big feet, red noses, and probably those flowers that squirt you in the eye. They’ve been throwing some iteration of their annual Klown Festival since the 1950s, complete with the polka stylings of a costumed Klown Band.

But the Klown Doll Museum started naturally enough just a few decades ago, when a secretary at the Chamber of Commerce was gifted a clown figure. Not knowing what to do with it, she displayed it in her office window.

“Somebody noticed it and gave her another clown,” says Corrine Janovec, a volunteer at the museum since 2000. She’s talking to me from her restaurant a block away, Serendipity, where the menu is whatever she feels like cooking that day. “People then just thought she loved clowns, so she ended up with a lot.”

The museum opened in 1987, with an expansion in 2007 and another on the way. The dolls, it seems, just keep on coming. Today in the Klown Doll Museum, you’ll find upwards of 8,000 figures, from Ronald McDonald to Raggedy Ann, ceramic, stuffed, and everything in between.

The Plainview Klown Band still performs to this day. | Photo courtesy of Corrine Janovec

All the clowns have been donated, including large collections like the one gifted by retired professional clown Mattie Vanderpool, who had 1,500 sitting around in her house in South Dakota.

Janovec’s favorites are the Emmett Kelly “Weary Willie” Great Depression tramp figurines. Wanda Retlasf, a server at Serendipity and another Klown Doll Museum volunteer, favors a small figurine that you might easily pass over. “It’s a little clown that looks ceramic, but it’s made out of the ash of Mount St. Helens.”

But let’s get this out of the way: The museum is not meant to be creepy. “We don’t have any scary clowns. We refuse to put scary clowns out at the Klown Doll Museum,” says Janovec. No It, No Chucky, none of that.”

So if you get the creeps, that’s on you apparently. But you are not alone. “We have people in town who have never been in because they’re scared of clowns,” says Retlasf.

Not everyone is keen on ‘ol Stumpy, either. “Someone put a rope around him and pulled him into Highway 20,” says Janovec. “It’s amazing because it’s a big trunk—he’s very heavy. They had to have worked really hard and been really mad at the Klown Doll Museum to have done that.”

They seem fine. | Flickr/orientalizing

Apart from the Klown Doll Museum, there’s not much to do in Plainview. If you want a movie theater or a bowling alley, that’s 35 minutes away in Norfolk. Occasionally, the Highway 20 Hotrod Association will put on a car and motorcycle show. “They haul them here, they park them uptown and we get to look at them,” says Janovec. And the old 1880 Railroad Depot-turned museum currently has a display on the movie Nebraska, which was partially filmed in town.

The Klown Festival still happens every June, with parades (“This is Nebraska so there are tractors,” says Janovec), a red nose hunt, carnival games, and entertainment by the still-active Klown Band. Both Janovec and Retlasf are members. The costume is whatever suits your personality—Janovec’s is pink and blousy, with ruffles—and anyone can be a member if they play an instrument. But “if you read music, that’d be nice.”

As for the Klown Doll Museum, the place is free to enter and run entirely by volunteers, who lovingly dust the displays and sell items in the gift shop (the clowns themselves are not for sale). From Memorial Day to Labor Day, they’re open 1 pm to 4:30 pm. Otherwise, you can call and make an appointment.

“I’m always surprised to see how many people come see us in the wintertime,” says Janovec. “We try to keep the temperature lower for the utilities”—which are paid for by the city— "so we always say, ‘well you can come and look but it’s a little chilly, keep your coat on!’ And they do!”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She believes clowns mostly have good intentions. Unless of course they're John Wayne Gacy.