We recently connected with Dune JOHNSON and have shared our conversation below.
Dune, thanks for joining us, excited to have you contributing your stories and insights. Folks often look at a successful business and imagine it was an overnight success, but from what we’ve seen this is often far from the truth. We’d love to hear your scaling up story – walk us through how you grew over time – what were some of the big things you had to do to grow and what was that scaling up journey like?
In the entertainment business, just like every small business, my success came from the fact that I had a talent for what I was doing. I loved my clients (the families that I worked with), I practiced my skills, and I just have a knack for helping people have fun.
One of the hardest parts of expanding was trying to get skilled people to work for me part-time. It’s very hard to get good, highly qualified people, who only want to work a few hours a week. I solved this problem by training people from scratch. I started with reliable, eager young people and I trained them to do what I do (which meant writing multiple training materials, and spending the time with them to make sure that they got it. Next, another problem I had in the beginning was consistent work, because no one can get good at learning anything new, unless they get the chance to apply what is taught in class. The universe helped me with this by giving me amazing clients early on that helped me to keep people working on a regular basis.
However, the one thing that really helped me to expand, and strengthen my client base was something I learned from a book called Guerilla Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson. One of the points that stood out was that we get 80% of our profit from 20% of our clients. I looked at that and realized that it was true. Secondly, and the most important part of that equation is that once you identify that 20%, then spend most of your advertising and marketing energy towards mining those clients, and targeting your efforts to find more clients like those.
This idea really made a difference. In my business, I had clients that were hiring me to do a certain job for them (Santa during the Holiday season, or their company picnic), and they loved me as that one kind of supplier. However, when I began letting them know all the things I do all year long, those clients became multiple bookings throughout the year, not just one time a year. Secondly, they began to trust me as the go-to supplier for anything even close to the normal things I do, because the trusted that I can do EVERYTHING, or I will find out how to get it done.
There was one other exercise that I did out of that book which helped me tremendously, and that is that I wen through and listed all of the services and products that I was supplying, ran reports to find out where my profit margin was for each one, and finally which ones I enjoyed doing, and which ones I hated doing. After doing that examination, I immediately changed my advertising to reflect only those things I wanted to do (which were also the things that were easiest to do and made me the most money), and I basically stopped doing anything that I wasn’t enjoying servicing.
This is when I stopped supplying clowns. I built my business as a professional clown, I was a great clown, very talented, and I was also one of the Ronald McDonalds of the world for over 20 years. However, most people want clowns for only an hour or two, and all the parents want them at the same time. It is very difficult to take my most highly trained people and block off their time for only once on a weekend day. This was the hardest part of my job, and the area where I got the most complaints.
Plus, people don’t think of clowns as “valuable”. I found this out when I was helping a friend, who was a magician, in his office. He was supplying clowns to do magic, games, face painting, balloons, etc. and the top price he could get was $. However, at the very same time he was providing magicians who did face painting, balloons, and games and the clients were very happy to pay $$ or more. People value magicians more than clowns, even if they are doing the same things! So I changed every bit of my advertising to magicians (that can also do other skills), and stopped getting into makeup all the time. Simple.
I don’t know how all that will apply to you, but if you love what you are doing, find ways to train people to help you do it your way, focus most (60%) of your marketing on your best clients, and figure out what things you are doing that don’t make you the much money (and that you don’t enjoy doing), then stop providing those things.
Awesome – so before we get into the rest of our questions, can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers.
I am a full-time magician, airbrushed face painter, juggler, comedian, game show host, writer, and teacher. I literally started when I taught myself how to juggle the summer I was 12 after watching Johnny Carson juggle on the tonight show one night, and I said to myself, “If he can do it, then I can do it.”
I started as a professional clown at 16, and was lucky enough to get hired on as one of the Ronald McDonald’s of the world when I was 20 (which lasted for 20+ years. The whole time, I was also running my own business providing commercial and private entertainment for local businesses and families.
I wrote many books, produced videos, and created a lot of training materials, so that I could help my entertainers understand my methods, and I’m considered one of the father’s of the animal balloon industry.
What makes me different is that I feel that fun is valuable. Recreation is valuable. Recreation is re-creation. I work hard to find ways to bring that one product “fun” to my clients in a professional and reliable way, so that they can count on me. I am very client oriented, and I am also very hands on with my apprentices, helping them to spread fun and love in all of their work. I believe that this is very valuable, and it’s my life’s work.
We provide anything that is fun, and we do a lot of it. I do magic shows, game shows, airbrushed face painting, traditional face painting, stilt walkers, caricature artists, game masters, balloon artists, and so much more. If you are planning a family oriented promotion, company picnic, or birthday party, then I am your man.
I also invented an airbrush face and body painting system that is fast, clean, fun, and requires no skill to learn. This has been a very successful thing for me, and I’ve provided teams of artists for Netflix, Tru-TV, Coke, and Chevrolet, to name a few. We work places like the NFL Experience at the Super Bowl, Comic-Con’s around the world, and any kind of shopping center promotion you could think of.
As I have grown older, and have more things to say, I began writing in earnest. I got a Masters in Creative Writing, mainly because I have a great deal of fun and interesting stories to tell, and I wanted to write a memoir of 35 years of working as a professional clown/entertainer (and Ronald McDonald). If you are interested, my book is called “The Timing of Chicken Feathers” and it is available on Amazon now.
Today, due to Covid, we shut down for a long time, but now we are beginning to work again, a little at a time. Of course, I had to pivot and find new ways to work (Zoom shows, drive in bingo/game shows, etc.) but now we are getting back to face-to-face events.
I’m also writing many more books, and most of these are geared to my specialty, children. I’ve finished a Goosebumps like book called The Haunting of Crimson Towers, and a series of mystery books (like The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew) called The Abracadabra Club, about kids who are in a magic club that solver mysteries with the help of their entertainment skills.
If you want to read some silly, heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking stories about my life as an entertainer, or if you are looking for exciting books for your children, visit my Amazon Page at:
Let’s talk about resilience next – do you have a story you can share with us?
Picture a young family, dressed in their Easter finest, children sobbing uncontrollably while holding empty Easter baskets. Then, imagine their parents irately yelling at me for causing this despair for their children. Now, multiply that image in your mind, over and over again for almost three full hours! I have nightmares like this.
I work as a full-time children’s magician, juggler, clown, and all around entertainer; so I get to celebrate every family holiday many times throughout every year. I attend something like thirty Halloween parties, fifty Christmas parties, and maybe twenty Easter egg-hunts every year. Once, in about 1987, I was hired to emcee an Easter promotion at the Rancho San Diego Shopping center. My job was to start all three egg hunts (for three different age groups), and perform magic shows in between each hunt in order to keep the children busy, happy, and well entertained. We all looked forward to a fun-filled family event.
My client was the advertising executive for the center, and she designed the whole promotion. First, her staff spread flyers and news advertisements all over the neighborhood inviting everyone to the largest Easter Egg hunt ever (five thousand eggs)! Then, she and her helpers laid out three different square egg fields, all side by side in a dirt field next to the empty Home Depot parking lot. It was a pretty bleak place for an egg hunt, but all of the brightly colored eggs made the location much more festive and inviting. The Easter Bunny must have been very busy the night before, because there were fields of yellow, pink, green and light blue. It looked like some kind of impressionist painting… only on dirt…in a parking lot… Okay, it looked pretty weird, but it wasn’t my idea, I was just the emcee.
Each different area was supposed to be for a different age group of children, and the three squares were separated by wooden stakes about 3 feet high, with a bright strip of florescent barrier tape (about one inch wide) stretched between the stakes. The plan was for me to start the first egg-hunt (0-4 year olds) at 11:00 using the first square egg field. Then, I’d perform one magic show, and do the 5-8 year olds at noon (using the middle field). Next, I would do another magic show, and finally kick off the 9-12 year olds at 1:00 (using the final square filled with eggs). It seemed pretty well thought out to me.
All of the children were dressed in their Easter finest. There were little babies in white Easter Bunny footie-jammies (with bunny ears). There were at least 40 little preschool girls dressed in pretty pink and sky-blue dresses, with yellow accents, new shoes, and beautiful Easter Bonnets on their well brushed hair. Even the little boys were all wearing brand new completely clean white suits, except for those who had already hit the ground once or twice. I called together the first set of 100 or so little children and their parents and started to explain how the process would work and which egg field we were going to use for the preschoolers. My plan was to start the festivities out by saying something like, “Okay, if you’re all ready to start the egg-hunt, then first here are the rules we need to follow…” But, before I even go the words out of my mouth, the little kids made a mad dash for the eggs!
What I learned that day is that 0-4 year olds don’t wait for directions, and once it gets started, their parents are no help at all!
Within 5 seconds, the whole set of children were on the eggs like a bunch of crazed shoppers on Black Friday.
The process spread exactly like a wild fire, burning the eggs up as the wave of children scorched through the field in one big wave, leaving nothing but dirt and devastation in their wake. As with any other Easter egg-hunt- it was over in seconds. In less than a minute the whole square was completely wiped clean of eggs. But the devastation didn’t stop there. The sweet little children became a plaque of egg-eating locusts, devouring the next two egg-fields in their path without a moment’s hesitation. When I saw the group going for the second egg field, I knew we were in trouble. I began yelling, “Stop…Help… Moms and Dads please stop your kids!” In less than three minutes, it was all really over and 5,000 eggs were in the hands of the little people!! I’m sure that it was their best Easter egg-hunt they’ll ever experience!
We tried to convince the parents that we needed to get some of the eggs back from their little egg-parasites. “Please,” I pleaded with the parents, “Is there any way you can talk your kids into helping us with the older children’s egg-hunts. They’ll be so disappointed…Please!?!” I’ve never seen a group of parents and children disappear so quickly. The parents packed up their strollers and egg baskets, and headed for their cars like it was a three legged race. You could see on the faces of the children that they knew that they had been naughty…and they were waiting for someone to make them give up of their loot, but very few of the parents did. In a period of about ten minutes, it was all done. Everyone was gone and we were left standing in an empty parking lot completely barren of eggs, with nothing but a strip of dirt covered with the occasional candy wrapper and a bunch of shattered egg shells (from being stepped on). Those of us involved in the promotion were completely “shell shocked” to say the least. Normally, when something goes wrong at an event, there is some way to fix it. You know…you improvise, you adapt, and you overcome (which is my personal motto and, by the way is also the Marine Recon motto). We knew that there were another 100 or so families heading towards us, looking forward to the 12:00 Easter fun, with many more to follow! But Party City didn’t even exist in 1987. This time, there just wasn’t time to get pre-stuffed Easter eggs in less than an hour, so we were left with nothing.
For most children and their parents, the community Easter egg-hunt is a very exciting time, and it’s the anticipation of the egg-hunt that is most of the fun of all (because the actual egg-hunt only lasts a few minutes). Parents dress up their children, and plan to get beautifully sweet photos and memories of the event. Unfortunately, I spent the next two hours telling family after family that the eggs were all gone. One blond little girl named Allie looked at me with the most beautiful smile (front teeth missing), and I watched as her face first transformed as if squashed by some kind of super-gravity, and then over-filled from the inside with gallons of water, leaking out from everywhere. She turned to her dad sobbing, “But…you promised…Easter eggs…then grandma’s house…. Daddy, YOU PROMISED?” Her reaction was one of complete disbelief, as if someone had just stolen her cat. She was crushed. Her father turned on me and started yelling, “How could you do that to her? To us? And more importantly, what are you going to do about it?”
Over and over again, I told a story that no one wanted to hear. In fact, most of the kids cried, and almost all of their parents yelled at me (as if I had personally planned the devastation). There was not one person who wanted to stay and watch my magic show. I’d have to say it that, as an entertainer, it was the worst event that I’ve ever been involved with. For the first 10 minutes, the kids got to have the happiest Easter Egg-Hunt ever. Then, for the rest of the day we all experienced an Easter Armageddon, filled with sadness, tears, anger and disappointment.
It was almost as bad as the time I produced a dead bunny-rabbit in one of my magic shows…but that’s another story.
How about pivoting – can you share the story of a time you’ve had to pivot?
THE CALL AND WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
The call came at 4:01 am. I looked at the clock fist thing as I was lifting my head thinking, “Who the hell is calling at this hour?” My wife answered and I waited to hear what was up. “Yes…yes…he’s asleep in his bed,” she stated firmly. “Yes, Joshua Johnson… What? I don’t understand” she stated flatly as she handed me the phone and pleaded, “He’s trying to say the Joshua is dead!” At first, I thought she was still asleep and just didn’t understand the caller, but I could hear the alarm in her voice.
I took the phone and remember hearing myself say, “Yes…he’s my son. Yes, I did know that he was at the concert.” Then, I heard the officer say, “I’m sorry to say this Mr. Johnson, but your son has passed away.” The wave of shock and panic started immediately (adrenalin level 1000%).
I knew that I was talking to the officer, that he was giving me information, and I was repeating everything he said, “Temperature of 108°. So they couldn’t revive him. San Bernardino Morgue… Ecstasy, I see.” My stomach screamed in pain, and internally I was experiencing a lightning storm, and a desperate conversation, “Please God no. Please no!” I’d find myself picturing my son Josh, dressed in his baseball uniform, or in a suit going off to prom, or on Christmas morning…then, each image would be jolted away…vanishing into nothingness in a lightning storm of pain and confusion.
“What? Yes, I’ll write that down. Coroners number 473********????” I couldn’t think. I was trying to slow my breathing down, but the room was actually spinning (or was it just in my head). “Could you repeat that please?” I was trying to write, to listen, to function, but… No matter how fast I wiped, the tears blocked my vision. Through the salty ocean, I could see my wife react to each and every phrase. It was as if she were being beaten down by a hammer, one blow at a time.
True physical pain racked my body, and I just kept screaming and pleading as loudly as possible (all silently within my head); the rain of tears beating down on both of our faces, relentlessly. “Thank you officer,” I said as I laid the phone down and reached to hold my wife, and sob. I’ve never felt so much emotion and so much loss at the same time. It was 4:13 am.
* * *
The morning my son Joshua died, I spent the first few hours after “the call” holding my family, crying, incapable of any coherent thought—just fragments of thought mixed with shock and loss. We were all in pain, staring at the walls, crying, and it was still very early in the morning. I was worried about my son’s friend Jason who was driving back alone from the same concert in Riverside, around a hundred miles away. When he first called me, worried and shocked, I confirmed what he thought he knew; that Joshua was dead. Jason had never seen Josh again after about midnight when he went to go get some water, and Jason spent the night looking for him. Joshua collapsed sometime around twelve thirty and never woke up again. When the paramedics got to his body, he had a temperature of 108°, and they couldn’t revive him. Apparently, the ecstasy he had taken that night needed another soul to keep up its quota, and my son’s body cooked itself to death on the ground at an outdoor concert. It was actually that image that troubled me the most for months after his death…Joshua lying there, dying, alone, surrounded by thousands of strange kids who were still partying.
I tried to call Jason back, because I knew that he would be racked with guilt all the way home. I wanted to let him know that it wasn’t his fault; that it was an accident, that I didn’t blame him, and that he shouldn’t blame himself; but he never picked up my calls again that morning. I left him messages, but I guess his phone battery also died that night. Maybe he needed the drive time to live alone in his own personal hell.
I spent the next few hours, making phone calls, and delivering the “news”. I had to make the same call over and over again, delivering the “loss” to all of the people I love. I am a full-time children’s entertainer and magician, so I do magic tricks all the time, but this was like the most real and horrible magic trick I had ever done. Before…there was physical being, a radiating force of beauty, talent, humor, love, intelligence, and heart (all inside an equally large physical stature).
After I delivered the news…there was nothing. Less than nothing: a vacuum. Something completely “real” had actually vanished. The reality of the loss was so tangible; you could actually feel the emptiness of a space that once been so full. I spent a few hours delivering the emptiness and loss to all of my family and friends, and then comforting them as best I could.
At about nine a.m., when I realized that I was supposed to be at work that morning by eleven forty-five, I asked myself, “Can I go on? Is that even remotely possible?” I had a special booking every weekend throughout the summer for the local horse racing season, and it was Labor Day Weekend…the last hurrah of the year. It was also a booking that I was uniquely qualified to do, because I had to do stilt walking first-to greet the audience, followed by one-man magic shows and crazy lawn games between each race. I wasn’t sure I could find anyone else to cover me. Luckily the only person who could help me, Jake Ferrin (my apprentice and my right hand man); dropped everything and he went to work for me that day. I knew that my family needed me too much, so I spent about an hour talking him through all the things he would need to do that day. And thanks to Jake…the show went on.
But the next day, I went back to work myself. I spent the whole day on Saturday, consoling my wife, crying, answering the many calls from everyone we knew, and trying to make plans (like arranging a meeting at the funeral home). Then, late Saturday night, I decided to go to work the next day. Jake couldn’t work that Sunday for me, so I knew that I had to go on. Whenever anyone asks me why, I say, “What was I going to—just sit around and cry all day”. There really wasn’t anything else I needed to do at home, so I decided to work. I knew that my wife would have the hardest day on Sunday, because she wouldn’t be lucky enough to have kids in front of her face-demanding her attention (like I would). The thing about my work is that you have to live in the moment. There’s no choice. I have to be present, with my audiences, every show—every time; and that process takes me away from any of my personal problems for a short time. Unfortunately for Bridget, she’d be at home alone with her thoughts, and that’s tremendously hard to live through.
When I arrived at the track, Kyle, the person who was in charge of picking up all of us entertainers and driving us (and our equipment) out to the infield “Family Fun Area” asked me an innocent question, “What happened with you yesterday? Were you sick or something?”
“Uhhhhh”, I wondered if I should make up some kind of white lie or should I deliver the blow, “My son Joshua died yesterday.”
“WHAT??? You mean Joshua? He used to work here doing the kids games a few years ago, right?” Like a terrible magic trick, I could see Kyle’s face go from happy, to shock, to loss, to pain, questioning, sadness, compassion, and helplessness all in a matter of seconds. That terrible magic trick worked its agony…again.
My son was a great kid who loved life, hated hypocrisy, was very creative and passionate, and had been working with me for years doing face painting, balloons, lawn games, crafts…whatever I needed that week. I knew that he was smoking pot with his friends, and we had dealt with those issues many times throughout the few years before. He had been grounded, made trips to court, attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and had just started college, and seemed to finally have a goal. He was 18, and just I assumed that he’d find his way through to adulthood, just like I had. I know now…not to assume.
I had forgotten that Kyle worked with Josh for two years in a row. So, I guess it was the right thing to do to let him know, “Yes, that’s right, my son Josh”. It was my first realization that Joshua had touched many more people than I had known, and that there were going to be many people feeling the vacuum of his passing over the next few weeks. Kyle patted me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, if there is anything I can do for you today, just let me know.” But we both knew that there was nothing he could do. People say that, and they probably even mean it sometimes, but there is nothing really that anyone can do, after the terrible vanishing trick.
As I pulled out all of my equipment and got set up for the shows, I kept looking around at all of the people going about their normal “fun day at the track” experiences. The parents were looking at the race pamphlets, picking their horses for the first few races. The staff was all busy placing their bets…so that they could get busy actually working, and the few children who were there early were wandering around waiting for the inflatable slides and moon bounces to start up so that the “Family Fun” could begin. I kept wondering how they didn’t see my internal sobbing, and hear my internal wailing. How could I possibly look normal to them? My universe was different from theirs, even though we all shared the same physical space. I’m sure that if anyone had actually looked into my eyes, they would have seen the storm raging uncontrolled inside me. But I knew better than to let that happen.
As I set up the staging and sound equipment for my shows, I felt completely disconnected with my body. I was going through the motions, because my mind was busy elsewhere. At the track, I start every performance with an hour of walking on stilts, (dressed like the biggest jockey in the world) and greeting the guests as they came into the infield area of the track. From an entertainment point of view, my job is to welcome everyone to the track, make them feel at home, and let them know that something special is about to happen. From a healing point of view, I was forced to live in that moment, and forget my loss a few minutes at a time. Every time I said, “Hi Five,” from up on the stilts; and heard the response, “Now that’s a really high five”, I started moving back into my body a little at a time.
Next, I hopped down off the stilts, put on my referee shirt and top hat, and started my first magic show. Each show includes twenty minutes of magic, juggling, comedy, and audience participation. Luckily, my shows are like a one-man script. I know every word, and I can do them in my sleep. I know just when to pause, smell a kid’s borrowed sock (to get the biggest laugh), just before I make the red silk appear magically inside their sock. So I lost myself for twenty minutes at a time, or was it that I gained myself during that time?
Later, as I was filling up water balloons for the “balloon toss” after the sixth race, I noticed a family with three boys in ascending ages just like my three. I looked into the face of the third son (who would have been my Josh), and I started crying again…I just couldn’t stop. Luckily, I was away from my stage, and I had the water to splash all over my face (like I needed to cool off). I had to wait there for a good ten to fifteen minutes before I could compose myself. Then…I went and ran the water balloon toss game, which is always one of the biggest hits.
I found myself floating in and out of different realities. In one instance, I was doing magic, making jokes, having fun; and in another moment I was a grieving father, struggling to maintain my composure. I wanted to do that ‘horrible” magic trick. I wanted to tell everyone about my pain and my loss, and I knew (without a doubt) that they would feel it too. I felt the need to scream, wail, and sob. Instead, I ran the hula hoop contest (or whatever was next) as best I could with whatever energy I could muster. My “Show” definitely went on that day, and I believe “The Show” should go on every day…even when life throws suffering my way. It’s not that I have to keep my personal life separate from my professional life, it’s more the fact that my personal life will always interact with my professional life. For me, the show—in and of itself, is magical, healing and must continue on.
When the day was finally over, I went home and held my wife again. We had an appointment at the mortuary first thing in the morning. I think the lesson I learned from this experience is that every day is precious, very precious. Life throws pain and suffering in our path sometimes, that’s just the way of this world. I made a commitment to myself after Joshua’s death, to make the most of every moment with those that I love, right here and now. I don’t ever want to be complacent and take my loved ones for granted, ever again. The people I work for are also loved ones in my world. I work very hard to express love through my work, every day, every time. So if I had passed up this opportunity to work through love, I would have chosen suffering instead; and I would have missed out on an opportunity to begin healing.
Now, I try to live in the moment every single day, love those around me; and use my work to share love with as many people as possible. I trust the process of love (even to heal me when I need it most).
- Website: www.looneydooney.com
- Instagram: @looneydooneypro
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/looneydooneypro
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCTmEK8dz58vwRukt5hLgrug/videos
- Yelp: https://www.yelp.com/biz/looney-dooney-productions-san-diego?osq=looney+dooney+productions
- Other: My Blog: https://www.looneydooney.com/blog/ My Memoir of 35 years as a professional clown, entertainer, and Ronald McDonald https://www.amazon.com/Timing-Chicken-Feathers-Priceless-purveyor-ebook/dp/B08943NKVR/ref=sr_1_1?qid=1643135253&refinements=p_27%3ADune+Johnson&s=digital-text&sr=1-1&text=Dune+Johnson My slightly scary children’s book https://www.amazon.com/HAUNTING-CRIMSON-TOWERS-Frightening-CHRONICLES-ebook/dp/B08JKR59P4/ref=sr_1_4?qid=1643135271&refinements=p_27%3ADune+Johnson&s=digital-text&sr=1-4&text=Dune+Johnson The first book in my Mystery Books for Children series https://www.amazon.com/Desperate-Magician-Abracadabra-Mystery-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B08M46VYY6/ref=sr_1_5?qid=1643135271&refinements=p_27%3ADune+Johnson&s=digital-text&sr=1-5&text=Dune+Johnson