On an average day, dancers arrive at Tommy The Clown Academy at least three hours before showtime. They paint each other’s faces in the bathroom, the front room and in the dance studio as they chatter about weekend plans and the big event they hosted in July.
“I like being a part of this team because it’s fun and it’s like a second family to me,” said Kaylie Murray, known as Blossom in Tommy and the Hip Hop Clowns.
Now a 27-year-old company, Tommy and the Hip Hop Clowns is an entertainment group that tries to do good for the community by taking in kids ages 10 and up and giving them guidance and something to do to stay out of trouble.
The group, which has 15 dancers, does freestyle hip-hop to mixes created by a member of the team. The dancers all have nicknames, which either they came up with or somebody else chose for them.
The company is run by Thomas Johnson, also known as Tommy the Clown, who advertises and trains for the business — and always makes sure his dancers’ grades are high.
“The climate of this movement is important because it gives children, people and kids an outlet,” Johnson said. “It gives them a sense of direction where they can do something that’s creative and express their talents and energy on the dance floor.”
People throughout Los Angeles can watch Tommy and the Hip Hop Clowns freestyle as they jump into the splits and wave their arms around at birthday parties, weddings and celebrity events.
“My favorite part about my job is creating smiles and laughter where they don’t exist,” he said in an interview. “I like to create an atmosphere of joy, entertainment, laughter, energy, and it makes me happy to see people happy.”
In some neighborhoods — including South Los Angeles and Gardena — seeing them is a regular occurrence. But the group has performed as far away as San Bernardino and Palmdale.
This year, Tommy and the Hip Hop Clowns hosted “Battlezone,” a local event in July attended by groups from around the world where kids battle each other using different styles of dance, including krumping and cheer. Celebrities, including rappers 1takeJay and Joe Moses, came out to judge and perform this year.
Tommy and the Hip Hop Clowns also perform at events hosted by community organizations and the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Parade, which help raise its profile.
The group makes connections by talking with kids in the audience so they can feel comfortable and be reminded that they’re better than what society says they are, Johnson said.
“I used to always see him at the King Day parade,” said Danielle Miles, who dances for Tommy the Clown and is known as DanniMac. “I had him for all my birthday parties and now I’m part of T squad.”
Amid all of the performing, Johnson also makes sure that the dancers are doing well in school and are not affiliated with gangs by checking their grades and talking with them. If dancers do have bad grades, he helps them seek support.
He also stays in contact with teachers and parents as needed, and makes sure the dancers spend time together nearly every day so they won’t be out doing things that can put them in a difficult situation or hanging around with the wrong crowd. He takes groups of them with him every Sunday and Wednesday to Church of Apostolicity in South Los Angeles.
His biggest goal is to keep kids from L.A. away from violence. Dancers like Bernard Sears Jr., known as BZ, have seen that.
“[The dance group] helps a lot of kids stay out of trouble,” Sears said. “It keeps the kids busy and it gives them something to look forward to. It helps motivate the kids and give them opportunity they never had.”
Sears remembers Mother’s Day in 2018 when 15-year-old La’marrion Upchurch, known as Lil BZ in Tommy and the Hip Hop Clowns, was shot and killed while walking home with four friends. His family and friends were devastated.
“I’ve seen lots of violence and people lose themselves to the streets after not being a part of this brand,” Sears said.
Johnson started the group in 1992 when interest sparked after a coworker found out he was looking into clowning and asked him to come to her birthday party as an entertainer. He stayed there for three hours and, after he left the party, he remembers telling himself that this was what he wanted to do for a living.
His start wasn’t easy. He rode around in his green car stopping at different parks and birthday parties unannounced to perform and hand out flyers.
“People used to laugh at me and think I was crazy,” Johnson said. “I always remembered Jesus was on my side and I was excited about who I am. I loved how I touched people’s lives and how I took control of the parties that I pulled up to.”
After a while, people started asking him to perform at different events and his name started to get recognized in the community.
But Johnson hasn’t always done everything alone. He has help from Sears, who started out as one of his dancers and has been working with him to promote his brand for more than 14 years.
“We had to strategize and focus to make this brand big,” said Sears, who creates the mixes used in performances. “We had to make our visions come alive and now this is a validation of our success.”
Editor’s note, Aug. 4, 2019: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Thomas Johnson’s last name.