“When I drive down the street, my pickup truck turns into the Clown Motel whether I want it to or not,” says Bob Perchetti, the mild-mannered and benevolent 81-year-old owner of the Clown Motel. He is the hospitable face of one of Nevada’s creepiest attractions: “America’s Scariest Motel.”
The lobby houses 700 clowns of every sort – porcelain figures, stuffed dolls, oversized Ronald McDonalds and glass collectibles. Perchetti has workshopped the Clown Motel into a destination for adventure-seekers and clown-curious tourists. They get the opportunity to overnight in the brown-carpeted rooms, lie in beds with polyester floral sheets, and admire the clown portraits which hang above the beds as a creepy reminder that this is, indeed, the Clown Motel.
You, too, can revel in all its majesty for the bargain price of $35 a night.
Just off a long stretch of Highway 95 in central Nevada, the town of Tonopah (pop. 2,478 as of 2010) creeps up on you before you’re really ready to meet it. Concrete-grey mountains and wide, flat expanses dotted with shrubbery, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it highway town. More than once I was directed by locals to one of Tonopah’s glittering attractions: the historic mining park and the museum.
But I was in Tonopah on a mission – to brave what the legions of masochistic coulrophobics (a fear of evil clowns) and thrill-seeking travelers before me all had: a visit to the Clown Motel, a respite with a haunted past and a creepy present, and to find out who, why, and what kind of guests would willingly fork over their earnings to stay in a motel bed surrounded by clowns.
Perchetti’s own clown story began in 1994, when he purchased the motel from its original owners, LeRoy and Leona David. The Davids founded the motel in honor of their late father, and brought his collection of about 150 clowns to the place, as a way to “put them to work”. Perchetti saw the potential to develop the Clown Motel into a bucket list destination for people from all over the world.
Born and raised in Tonopah, Perchetti is affectionately known as the “Tonopah Kid.” The local sheriff knew him by name, there’s a “Perchetti Room” named after him up the street at the nearby Tonopah Station Casino, and workers at the Mizpah (Nevada’s first luxury hotel) all sang his praises. Although little has changed at the Clown Motel “since day one,” Perchetti’s unwavering dedication to its legacy grew the establishment into what it is today – featured on Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, covered by countless news articles, and sought out by the global clown community.
But it’s not all laughs. Situated next to the Old Tonopah Cemetery, many guests and employees have reported paranormal activity at the motel. Tonopah, which became famous in the 1900s as a mining town, brought workers in droves who wanted to strike it rich and cash in on the booming ore mines. But a mysterious plague in 1902 and a mine fire in 1911 that killed 14 miners filled the cemetery next door.
“I tell people the cemetery is haunted,” Perchetti says. “If you take a flashlight and go out there at midnight, you might hear or see something. It’s an asset for the Clown Motel to have the cemetery next to us.”
A turning point came this year for the Clown Motel when Perchetti finally decided to sell the property – with one stipulation. “Whoever bought it had to keep it as the Clown Motel. That was really important for me,” he said. Having spent 23 years building it up, Perchetti knew the motel’s potential as a tourist destination. “People fly into Vegas, rent a car, and drive to Tonopah just to take a picture with the clowns and then head back.”
Perchetti just needed to find the right person who shared the same vision. The new owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, started out as a sous chef at the Doha Sheraton in his native Qatar. An opportunity for work led him to Canada and he eventually ended up in Vegas, where he stayed at a seedy motel near Vegas’ Fremont Street that he would later own.
Plans were made by the new owner to change the name and erase the legacy, but something didn’t feel right. He asked himself, “Why are we buying this motel then? There are so many motels on the market.”
“We didn’t want to let go of the history,” the new owner, who I met in the motel lobby, said. Remodeling of all of the rooms and repainting of the exterior is currently underway. Future plans include a clown museum, complete with a souvenir shop and themed coffee shop, where visitors can get a caffeine fix – essential for the lack of sleep they may have encountered due to supernatural activity during their stay. Commercially, it’s a win-win.
Although Perchetti’s dreams to put in a clown-themed restaurant and miniature golf course never materialized, the new owner is taking up the mantle. They’re interested in “carrying the legacy up to a different scale. We’re not here to make money.”
As for Perchetti’s take? “People from all walks of life come through the door. All it can do is get bigger and better.”
Alex, 35, and Alexandra, 32
How long have you been staying at Clown Motel?
Alex: Two days. I’m from Tonopah. We came down for a date weekend to spend some time by ourselves.
Alexandra: We heard about how creepy everybody said it was and haunted. I was like, “Let’s check it out!”
Alex: When I was little, my mom used to work here. I know Bob [the owner] pretty well.
So is this a good date spot?
Alex: It’s not that it’s romantic… We can get away from everybody. We need to do this once in a while.
Where do you live now?
Alex: We came [to Tonopah] last year to visit my mother in July and haven’t left. We got stuck. We’re just building our lives back up again. I brought [Alexandra] here in high school and 14 years later, I brought her back. I’ve loved her ever since.
How long have you been together?
Both: This time two years.
Alex: We were high school sweethearts. I was her first love. Fourteen years later, we both had our families and came back together. We picked up right where we left off when we were teenagers. The whole world could fall down around us, but as long as we have each other, we’re happy.
Blaire Hamilton aka Blyre Cpanx, 29
My stage name is Blyre Cpanx. I am originally from St. Louis, Missouri, but have been living full time on the road for about a year now. I do clowning, sideshow, burlesque, hoop, bellydancing – a little bit of everything, but I’m a traveling clown performance artist.
How did you get your start as a professional clown?
When I did burlesque or aerials or hoop, I always did a funny, clowny type of comedy concept. Someone told me, “You always perform as a clown,” and I was confused because I never wore “whiteface,” but they were like, “no, it’s a give and take, it’s a way of communicating with the audience.” It was only when I realized I was a clown all along that I took on the face.
What are your performances like?
I perform all over the United States and beyond. As far as sideshow, I do Lego-walking, glass-walking, bed of nails… I do really silly clown striptease with burlesque. Always some sort of fun or silly aspect with it.
What sets you apart from other clowns?
While I do more traditional clown work, what sets me apart are my more sexy or subversive acts. There are a lot of people who are afraid of clowns, but there are a lot of people who have clown fetishes.
What does that entail?
It’s amusing, it can also be an opportunity. I don’t know if this is appropriate to say or not, but I’m also a dominatrix and one of my characters is actually a clown dominatrix. I definitely have clients that have clown fetishes or fascinations.
If I was a client seeking some of your clown dominatrix services, what are some of the things I could expect to do?
The last session I did, we covered his living room in a tarp. He bought probably 30 cans of whipped cream and a bunch of pie crust and fruit-filled pie. I made him get into his clown makeup while I filled up some of the pies with cream and laid them around in a big circle. He gave me permission to play whatever music I wanted, so I played some really silly stuff like Ginuwine’s Pony and I rode him like a pony. I smacked him around, pied him in the butt, pied him in the dick, and just gave him really silly clown insults while putting squeakers in his face and making him wear a clown nose. When I’m a dominatrix, I like to take on these different characters because it’s a little more interesting and personal. It’s amazing how many people are really into the clown persona.
How did you hear about the Clown Motel?
A lot of clowns and performers in the community have heard about the Clown Motel, even if they don’t know where it’s located. It’s been shared to my social media pages so many times.
Rachel Forrest, 32, and Jen Jones, 31
What brought you to the Clown Motel?
We met up in Seattle and we’re driving to Arizona. We were watching Ghost Adventures and they did an episode here and we were like, “We have to stop.” I can see what I pick up – I’m a psychic medium.
Have you picked up any paranormal activity on your trip so far?
This is our first stop, so I’ll have dinner and then if I want to open up, I can and see what I get.
How did you realize you were a medium?
It’s been since I was a kid and then I had a pretty accepting and cool mom who introduced me to a Native American elder that helped me to hone my craft as I grew up.
Robert George, 75
How did you choose to stay at Clown Motel?
I just stopped off the road. All the other motels were full up with monthly and weekly guests. This was the next place I stopped.
What were you doing in this neck of the woods?
I went to meet my son in Wells, Nevada. It’s a two-tumbleweed town. It’s a truck stop. I’ve been living in Fairfield, Idaho. I’m driving to Southern California, San Diego. I’m originally from Boston. My father is from Montreal, he’s French-Canadian, and my mother’s British. They met in Florida at a hotel where they both worked.
Are you happy? And are you married?
I’ve been married… I’m happy. I’m 75 years old, I don’t need to be married. I need to be free.
You have nice eyes.
Thank you. It’s important because I ski. I’ve been skiing since I was four years old. I work as a ski instructor in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Sarah Childers, 29, and Kaya Savas, 31
What brings you to the Clown Motel?
Sarah: It’s my birthday weekend. I wanted to do something unusual and this has always been on my bucket list. I love to do strange and unusual things. The fact that it’s next to an old mining cemetery is great. The rooms are very 1975. We just checked in. I’m glad I’m only staying for one night.
How did you find out about the Clown Motel?
Sarah: I go on YouTube and watch strange videos and this popped up. I was like that looks cool, and since we live the next state over we could make the trip.
Do you find it creepy?
Sarah: I don’t really find it creepy – clowns don’t really do it for me. People who are afraid of clowns would lose their minds here.
Kaya: I think it’s creepy when you strip away the clowns. If you were to drive by this hotel without the clowns, it’d still be creepy. The lobby is pretty cool – they have a huge collection there. Each room has a clown on the door, but there are no clowns in the room. I already challenged all the ghosts to come haunt [Sarah]. She’s the believer, I’m the skeptic.
Have you ever had a ghost experience?
Sarah: My most vivid one – I was home alone and I was washing my car. You know when a window’s really clean, you can see your reflection? There was a woman behind me. I turned around and there was no one there. I’m not kidding. I go inside, and I was home alone at the time and something touched my thigh. It was very bizarre.
Kaya: You’re always alone! Never with anyone else [laughs].
Marie Bruhn, housekeeper
How long have you worked at the Clown Motel?
Have you ever experienced any paranormal activity here?
I had one washing machine that I put all the stained things in and there was a pillowcase laying on top with two bright red stains and it didn’t bleed in the rest of the laundry. I put a lot of bleach in there too. It was a really busy day for us. I said [to the ghosts], “Get back to the graveyard, leave us alone!” Say it with authority and they’ll leave you alone.
I did have a housekeeper that had things happen to her all the time. The TV on and off, shower curtain back and forth. She’s from the Dominican Republic and they’re very superstitious. She comes into the office and said, “Marie, come bless the room!” [The spirits] like to play. They’re funny.
I don’t go walking in the graveyard. Halloween time is bad for us, because people go trampling all over and things start happening, because [the spirits] don’t like it. They don’t like people hanging around over there.
Do you find the clowns creepy?
The one that sits in the corner chair – I always say, if I come in the morning and he’s not sitting in that chair, I’m walking out of that front door and I’m never coming back!
How long have you been in Tonopah?
Thirteen years. My husband was looking for work so we moved out here and been here ever since. I hate California [where I’m from]. Too many signal lights. Once you get used to a small town, you never go back. I love it.