There is a former clown among the residents of a Tempe retirement community who still enjoys pulling pranks: Lida Mainieri, who went by the stage name Rainbow the Clown.
Mainieri, 78, currently lives in Friendship Village with her husband John, and her storied career as a professional clown began before she even got out of high school.
When Mainieri was a child growing up in Sarasota, Florida, she was an introvert, often seen hunching her shoulders and hanging her head. Mainieri remembers once when her mother dropped her off and watched her cross the street, she got out of the car, caught up with her, and said something that Mainieri still carries to this day: “Always keep your head up.”
Sarasota was made the winter headquarters of the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1927, and many circus performers have settled there in southwest Florida.
Sarasota High School had their own circus, and when Mainieri was a senior there, she took a chance and quickly discovered how much she adored the experience, at first considering the high wire but ending up as a clown. Local professionals trained her in the art of clown makeup and physical comedy, and they even lent their costumes.
“I enjoyed it, putting on all the make-up and being a completely different person and acting wild and crazy, which was something nobody else saw me do,” Mainieri says. “I got a big kick out of that.”
As a teenager, she worked the circus crowd, playing pranks on circus-goers. She recounts one occasion performing the classic clown car act, where she and 20 other clowns pop out of an orange Volkswagen Beetle.
The car was stripped of all interiors, save the stick shift and backless driver’s seat, and the students were taught how to pile in, lying flat on top of each other without smearing their makeup. The act culminated with a bunch of the clowns yanking hard on a rope attached to a heavy occupant inside the car.
Then, out popped a chihuahua. Mainieri said, “The audience just went wild.”
After graduating, she took a break from the circus, but she still kept Rainbow’s mischievous spirit. She played jokes on neighbors, often in costume. Mainieri even crashed an accounting class her husband was teaching at community college dressed as a witch.
In 1980, she and John moved to Arizona, and a few years later, Mainieri enrolled in a clowning course at Arizona State University (ASU), now as a mother of two in her 40s.
Luck would have it that one of her neighbors had a friend who ran a clown business, and she once again took up the mantle of Rainbow, performing at birthdays and work events, putting clown makeup on kid’s faces, and tying long balloons into animals. When the owner eventually didn’t want the business anymore, Mainieri took over.
The business was one of many that fell victim to the liability insurance crisis in the 80s, where Mainieri’s premiums skyrocketed to the point where the costs of insurance outweighed her income as a clown.
Mainieri later discovered she was allergic to the makeup, which she says “kind of put the kibosh on my clowning.” Her clown gear stayed in a box in her closet for years until it was all thrown out before the move to Friendship Village.
Mainieri’s days as Rainbow the Clown may be over, having only a flower bouquet and rainbow balloon left as memorabilia, but she still carries with her the decades of fun and valuable experiences.
“Since I’ve been a clown, I’ve always been a little bit more… I don’t want to say fun to be with,” says Mainieri. “That sounds like I’m patting myself on the back. But I tend to try to be a little funnier. I can be very sarcastic at times. And I don’t think I would have done that, if I hadn’t had the experience of being someone else.”
Now in Friendship Village, she says, “I like being here and doing the things I want to do and saying the things I would like to say and just being a clown on my own.”
From an insecure kid, Mainieri blossomed into a charismatic prankster, all because she had the chance to don a costume and paint her face.