Kelly’s friend Mike is a clown. I don’t mean that as a character judgment but as a statement of fact. His name is Mike but once he puts on the greasepaint he’s Puddles. On Thursday, on the rooftop of the Prudential, with Millennium Park and Michigan Avenue for a backdrop, Mike held my wrist, gazed into my eyes, and sang me Happy Birthday to You. It wasn’t Puddles serenading me but it was pretty damn close.

Kelly, Mike, his wife, Shannon, and I left the Prudential and went for dinner at Club Lago. Mike not only picked up the check (after only meeting me a couple hours earlier) but invited me to come see his show Saturday at the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan. The only thing I could offer in return was to drive them there and back.

I pulled up at the Waldorf at 11:30am and we piled Puddles’ gear and merch into the back of the Jeep Grand Cherokee I’d just picked up downtown. We drove to Lincoln Square to hang out with Kelly and her dogs, to shop for shaving and other toiletry products at Merz and to pick up Puddles’ manager, Stuart, then we continued on to Waukegan.

I hadn’t heard of Puddles before a month or two ago when Kelly showed me some YouTube clips of him singing a song on America’s Got Talent and some other places. She had talked about her old friend Mike for years but watching him as Puddles was another thing altogether. I didn’t know what to make of it because he was a clown who doesn’t talk, yet he sings with not an ounce of irony or eye-winking involved. I had no idea what to expect from his live show.

We pulled up to the back of the theater and shlepped all the gear inside to two dressing rooms; one was for Shannon, Stuart, and me, the other, for the clown. There was a veggie tray, some beer, bottled water, and a bottle of Templeton Rye on a side table and a Kuerig coffee machine on another. An overstuffed red couch and armchair completed the furnishings. There was a concert shot of REO Speedwagon in action on one wall, along with a couple of other photos of acts I didn’t recognize. We’d been told that the theater was maintained and supported by the family behind Uline, so it was no surprise to find no shortage of paper products on hand, highlighted by a veritable pyramid of toilet tissue in the closet.

While Puddles was soundchecking, I sat in the armchair reading Tree of Smoke and chatting with Stuart, who had set up shop next to the Kuerig machine. Turns out he’s also Tom Waits’ manager, so I told him one of my all-time show regrets was not going to see Frank’s Wild Years at the Orpheum in Boston back in ’87. Stuart said that was the first tour he worked with Waits. Then he tried out a card trick on me. He’s a lifelong devotee of magic and both he and Mike are members of the Magic Castle.

A few minutes before showtime I wandered out to the lobby to take in the crowd. They’d sold 1500 tickets. Puddles’ biggest show yet. And in Waukegan of all places. A town neither Mike nor Stuart had ever heard of. (I had tried to think of the Tom Waits set near Waukegan and Stuart said Johnsburg, the town his wife was from.) The people streaming into the beautiful old theater ranged from eight to eighty. Everybody looked happy to be there and eager for the show to begin. I heard a roar from the audience behind me before even settling in my seat. Puddles was making his way down the aisle toward the stage.

He settled himself in a chair and started chewing an ever-growing wad of gum. He would take out the gum and stick it to the door of his suitcase, then pop it back in his mouth throughout the night. He never talked—communicating with winks, grunts, and gestures—in other words, being a real clown. But then he would sing and the temperature in the room would change. Whether it was “All By Myself”, “Where Is My Mind”, “Major Tom’, or any of the other dozen or so numbers, he delivered them all straight. His singing was no joke either. But then he’d finish singing and take three minutes straining his back while trying to push a plastic chair a few feet down stage.

At the end it was announced that Puddles would be taking pictures in the lobby next to the merch table (or souvenirs as Mike had insisted on calling them). The line stretched back into the theater and lasted an hour or more, but Puddles made sure each fan had a real human moment with him, even chasing a disgruntled middle-aged man outside and taking extra pictures after the man had cursed out security for trying, quite reasonably, to move him along so others could take their turn. In all, they shuttled nearly 600 people through. I was almost as impressed with his equanimity during this invasion of his personal space as with his jaw-dropping stage act.

Back in the dressing room a few minutes after the last of the fans had left, Puddles was packed back up into oversized rolling cases and Mike had reappeared. We said goodbye to the theater staff and Stuart, who was heading to O’Hare, and drove through the quiet Waukegan streets back to Chicago.

Clowns get a bum rap these days. Between the mediocre Stephen King one killing it at the multiplexes and the bumbling Bozo in the Oval Office, it’s easy to forget that clowns exist to spread joy. Go see Puddles and he’ll set you straight.