‘Snowflake’ returns to Marquette, by Sara Cambensy

It’s been almost seventeen years since Don Stenglein, Marquette’s one-and-only “Snowflake,” passed away. Many in the Marquette community remember him walking up and down the streets, smiling while being consumed completely by life’s simplest moments, and not the least concerned with possessions or what tomorrow might bring.
Not everyone 0703ahsnyou meet in life has such an emotional impact on you when your paths cross, but Don did. Anyone who ever saw Don has a memory of him, and anyone who ever met him watched over him like a brother would a younger, innocent sibling.
My grandmother used to talk about Don when we would be driving home from Angeli’s or Red Owl, or after eating at The Onion Crock or Big Al’s. She would point him out to me, “There’s Snowflake out walking again.”
I was about eight the first time I heard her mention Don’s nickname—“Snowflake”—as we saw him on Washington Street outside Dick’s Family Foods. As I heard my grandmother speak, I looked out the window from the back seat of her marine blue Chevy Impala and saw him walking slowly and not very straight, wearing a long puffy coat, baggy pants with his hood pulled over his head. His head was slightly tilted, and if I had a second to look at him, I might have seen his mouth portray his signature smile in the midst of his weathered, unshaven face. I remember his nose—as big and round as a button on the end, perfect just like a clown’s.

Discovering acting during in his college career, Gayle LaJoye decided to take a summer off after his third year to study at a pantomime school in Wisconsin. Although he enjoyed his experience, he didn’t want to pursue mime acting because he felt like he had nothing truly unique to offer to the art form. Broke and a bit unsure about his next step, LaJoye decided to try the famous Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus to supplement his income and buy more time before having to decide where to go back to college.
After four years with the circus, he had earned the title of “Boss Clown,” one of the highest honors in the circus tradition. He realized that all of the clowns he was working with in the circus were younger, and that the older clowns he wanted to learn from were someplace else.
After leaving the circus, LaJoye was in a near-fatal car accident that could have left him paralyzed. Determined to be a performer, he pushed himself to return to the stage. Within a few years he was back and produced the critically acclaimed play, Too Foolish for Words. For several years, LaJoye toured the globe, promoting the silent comedy that was adored by all who saw it. However, when the production ended, he didn’t know where he would go or what he would do next.
Discouraged, LaJoye returned to Marquette around Christmas to think about his next step with acting. Like many artists, he was pushing himself to find what he was meant to do with his life. Over and over, he asked himself if acting was what he wanted to pursue. Could he make a living doing it?
As he was driving back to his mother’s house on Christmas Eve, LaJoye pulled over when he saw Don walking down the street. After all this time, there he was, still walking the streets of Marquette by himself. Having been away for a while, LaJoye suddenly remembered what it was like to come across Don. Even though he had watched him many times before, this time LaJoye focused on detail and emotion.
Perhaps because it was the holiday season, LaJoye now saw more to the man whom everyone knew from a distance as “Snowflake.” He saw the lack of companionship and loneliness of a man without a family during the holidays. He saw the innocence of Snowflake making his way down the street, staying on the sidewalk and not disrupting a single thing. This time he could observe without the interference of cars or people rushing by, and he put himself in Don’s shoes.
LaJoye took this emotional encounter and wondered if he could put all Don’s distinguishing traits into a character in a theatre production. It wouldn’t necessarily be a story of Snowflake, but a story of the thoughts and emotions he portrayed.
LaJoye knew that making a choice to be an artist is one that leaves you not knowing whether someday you could end up at the opposite end of what you worked or hoped for. Here was his chance to use his acting to draw parallels between a person like Snowflake and what everyone could understand about what is most important in life.
LaJoye began to work on the development of his character and found that all of his life experiences that left him unsatisfied were now becoming an integral part of his performance. LaJoye looked at mime as a lost art form and something new that could inspire a generation obsessed with what information was being relayed verbally through television and advertisements. He wanted to put the thinking onto the viewer through a silent show where the audience has to predict what is going to happen next.
LaJoye performed the first show of Snowflake at Kaufman Auditorium in 1992. He made sure that Don sat front and center in the auditorium and that he be the deciding factor on the show’s success and if it was to continue. When asked if he liked it, Don simply replied with a wink of his eye and a thumbs-up sign, which was all that was needed from him to know that the show could go on with his blessing. Two months later, Don Stenglein passed away.
In its seventeenth year of production, LaJoye has performed Snowflake in theatres all over the world. He is toying with new ideas for his acting career and also the possibility of retiring his performance of Snowflake. If you haven’t seen it, purchase your tickets now, as every year the performances are sold out.
Snowflake runs at 7:30 p.m. on April 5 and 6 at Kaufman Auditorium. Tickets can be purchased at the City of Marquette Arts and Culture Center in the lower level of Peter White Public Library. Tickets are $6 for children twelve and younger, $8 for students or seniors, and $15 for adults. For details, call 228-0472 or visit www.lajoye.com
—Sara Cambensy

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