Francesca the Clown dies at age 78

Published 10:14 am Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Maria Dorrell of Franklin holds a photographic portrait of Francesca the Clown, who was her mother. M. Frances Davila died Friday at East Pavilion. STEPHEN H. COWLES/TIDEWATER NEWS


FRANKLIN—Maria Dorrell smiles as she talks about how people would recognize her mother, Martha Frances Davila, as Francesca the Clown.

Even years after being retired, they would stop Francesca on the street and reminisce about the parties where she entertained.

Davila died Friday in East Pavilion nursing home. She would have been 79 on Feb. 10. A memorial service was held Tuesday at Franklin Congregational Christian Church, where Davila was a member.

“The service was awesome,” said Dorrell, 58, of Franklin. “We filled the church.”

“She loved clowning, and was good at what she did,” Dorrell continued. “She was always a people person from the word go.”

When Davila wasn’t a clown, starting in the late 1970s, she was an operator with C&P Telephone Co. After retiring, Davila operated Francesca’s Unique Touch floral and gift shop in Suffolk for many years.

Dorrell and daughter, Melissa Shearin, couldn’t remember the motivation for the avocation.

“I don’t recall why,” said Shearin of Suffolk. “I just knew she did it.”

The family that clowns together stays together, and even Davila’s husband, Joseph, got into the act as Jo Jo. Dorrell followed suit as Balloons the Clown, and her son, James Stephens, did it for a short time as Jimbo.

Although Shearin and her sister, Heather Miller, never donned big red noses, they remember their grandmother fondly.

“I took a moment in the living room after she died to remember three key life lessons she taught me,” Shearin said. “To have unconditional love no matter how far apart you are from someone. Take time to make memories. Don’t ever burn bridges because one day you will need them.”

“She did a lot of charity work, putting smiles on the faces of children, especially the handicapped,” said Miller of Virginia Beach. “She was awesome. I’m really going to miss her.”

Davila passed the craft along to other people.

“Many years ago she taught me how to be a clown,” said Gary Williams, also known as Smiley the Clown.

The Suffolk resident had been playing Santa Claus, but was looking for something else.

“We used to do skits together and go to clown conventions,” said Williams, 68. “She was a good person to be around.”

When Darlene Keyt, fair coordinator for the Isle of Wight County Fair, worked for the Downtown Suffolk Association in the late 1980s, Davila had her gift shop then.

“She was a very vivacious, happy and loving person,” said Keyt. “I considered her a friend. She was a very giving lady.”

In addition to regularly entertaining at the Peanut Fest, Francesca was seen a few times at the Franklin-Southampton County Fair.

“They were very nice to the kids,” said Sandy Heeren, fair treasurer. “They loved her.”