Chicago Cobbler John Schoener Provides the Sole Support for America's Clowns

updated 06/20/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Looking for something a little different in a shoe—say, a yellow patent leather wing tip, oh, what, size 27EEEEE? Or a nice alligator, with teeth and eyes? Or maybe a pair of clodhoppers that form a heart when you press your feet together? Then John Schoener's your man.

You say you'd feel funny traipsing around in such silly shoes? Well, that's just fine with John Schoener, because this compact, dimpled 57-year-old whirlwind of energy is the country's foremost cobbler to the clowns, the Gucci of funny footwear.

His shop, a converted garage in Chicago that smells like the interior of a new Mercedes, is crowded with shoes of every style, size and shape imaginable, all suspended from the ceiling in a crazy patchwork of color. "See these?" he asks, holding up one pair emblazoned with the flag of Puerto Rico. Without waiting for an answer (Schoener's credo is: Never listen when you can talk), he continues in his heavily accented English, "So. Okay by me. It's ask what you want and you're gonna get."

No matter. His clients—who include numerous Ronald McDonalds and most of the graduates of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College—come from all over the country for the shoes, not the conversation. As Schoener modestly admits, "I make the best clown shoes in America. You can walk forever in a shoe I make."

How does one get to be a master clown cobbler? Schoener took the scenic route. After being drafted into the Croation Army at age 19, he left his native Yugoslavia and spent most of WW II in a British POW camp, where he learned English. "After war I could go back to Yugoslavia, but who wants to live Communist?" Schoener asks.

In 1948 in Austria he met and married Eva Matheis, a friend from his early childhood in Zemun. When his father (a bricklayer who was also then living in Austria with Schoener's mother, brother and two sisters) spotted an ad in an American paper from a man willing to sponsor a refugee family, Schoener grabbed the chance. "Sunday night, March 31, 1952 we arrive in Chicago. The next morning I go to the Florsheim Shoe Company and they say, 'When can you start?' I say, 'Mister, I got pregnant wife and no money. I want to go to work right away.' "

After several years with Florsheim, Schoener opened his own shop two blocks from the small flat where he and Eva raised daughters Mary and Theresa, now 30 and 25. Schoener specialized in making orthopedic shoes until a man from a magic shop brought in a pair of clown shoes for repair. "I thought, maybe this is a way to have a little fun," Schoener says. "Then in 1977, I say to myself, why don't we part retire and just have fun? I close up shop and move everything here to be with my Eva."

Schoener's shoes now go for $135 a pair, but no one's complaining. "Every time you do a parade," says Willie Dawe of Royal Oak, Mich., "if you don't have good shoes, your dogs are barking. And I mean barking. I have four pairs of John's shoes. I swear by them." Schoener's greatest challenge so far has been making shoes for a legless man. When Schoener asked why he wanted them, the man—who is now, with prosthetic legs and feet, a Shriner clown in a Colorado children's hospital—said that someday he would walk. "Those were the hardest shoes in my life to make—a man with no feet wants shoes. The customer said to me, 'Listen, this will be easy. How can you make a mistake?' "

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