Raleigh clown helps friend fight cancer with 1,300 songs

Even clowns have sad days.

For David Bartlett, better known as Raleigh’s Mr. Rainbow, this day came in 2017 when he first heard his longtime friend and fellow clown had fallen sick with breast cancer in her home state of Nebraska.

So he sent her a text from 1,000 miles away: “Is there anything I can do?”

She wrote back right away: “Send me a song.”

So he did. Every day. For almost six years.

At 70, Bartlett has spent several decades performing as Mr. Rainbow around Triangle hospitals, festivals and churches — strumming his ukulele with a red nose and tie-dye-colored hat.

He’s one of the world’s most accomplished balloon animal sculptors, according to his website, and he won the European Ballooning Community’s lifetime achievement award in 2008. His book “The Clown Star” has been called “the new clown bible.”

David Bartlett, aka Mr. Rainbow the Clown, kisses Dorothy Pope during a performance at The Forest at Duke. Bartlett recently sent more than 1,000 songs to a friend in Nebraska, Judy Quest, aka Dear Heart, who was dying of cancer. SUSANA VERA News & Observer file photo

Dear Heart the clown

His friend Judy Quest took up clowning as as an outgrowth of her advocacy for the disabled and her work as a college counselor. As Dear Heart in a floppy yellow hat, she performed in hospitals and rehab clinics, mentoring would-be clowns in her home until she got sick.

She knew Bartlett when he trained her musical group, The Rubber Chicken Orchestra. He a talent for singing bad moods away. She already knew most of his musical parodies, including “Prostate Song,” which he sang to the tune of “In the Still of the Night.”

So when Quest asked for a song, Bartlett thought, “Heck, I can do that.”

He fetched his ukulele and sang “Honeysuckle Rose” into his phone, texting it to Omaha.

The next day he chose “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

1,372 days

And he kept up this habit for 1,372 days, pausing for a year when Quest’s cancer went into remission, then starting up again when she suggested it.

“I was hoping you’d ask,” she said.

clown list.jpg
David Bartlett, aka Mr. Rainbow, sent more than 1,000 songs to his friend Judy Quest in Nebraska while she fought breast cancer. He kept a list of all of them. Courtesy of David Bartlett

His songs were so popular that Quest shared them with her cancer support group. For years, he kept a list of everything he’d sent: “Me and My Shadow,” “It Had to Be You,” “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian …”

He sent one self-written song for Quest and her husband, Tom, which involved this exchange with the almighty:

Oh, God, why is Judy so beautiful?

And God said to Tom, ‘So you’ll love her.’

God, why is Judy so stupid?

And God said, ‘So she’ll love you.’ “

Quest died on Feb. 9, and on that day, Bartlett sent “Early Morning Rain” by Gordon Lightfoot.

But he had five more songs recorded in his phone, and he sent them along anyway.

He figures she’s listening somewhere.

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Josh Shaffer is a general assignment reporter on the watch for “talkers,” which are stories you might discuss around a water cooler. He has worked for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.

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