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Call to Clown Around Answered

Entertainment: Kansas actor's dream comes true when he's picked to star under the big top.

July 26, 2002|STANLEY ALLISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dean Kelly has dreamed of being a clown with the Greatest Show on Earth ever since he was 4 years old, when his grandparents took him to his first circus in Kansas City.

On Thursday, his dream came true.

Kelly, 21, flew to California from Kansas City, Mo., when he learned that Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey was holding its first open auditions for clowns in 30 years.

And after a tryout at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, where the circus runs through until Aug. 4, Kelly was offered a one-year contract.

"I'm blown away," Kelly said after shaking hands to seal the deal with Tim Holst, vice president of production and talent for the circus.

"I can't believe it. It's my lifelong dream and it's coming true. It's just very overwhelming."

Kelly--who makes his living as an actor--was selected from about a dozen circus clown wannabes who juggled, flipped, flopped and performed magic in hopes of becoming part of the famous Ringling Bros. Clown Alley.

It was a little intimidating, he said, to perform in front of judges who included David Larible, star of this year's circus; Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns and produces the circus; and Phil McKinley, director of the circus.

But something about Kelly's Midwestern boyish charm, bright yellow hair and size 60 blue Converse sneakers caught McKinley's attention almost immediately. And he liked Kelly's skit of a man whose picnic is ruined by a buzzing bee.

McKinley also saw promise in some of the others, including Leo Christopher, 25, whose plaid suit, natural strawberry blond hair under a bowler hat and smiling eyes conveyed "something that kids would just fall in love with," McKinley said.

Kelly, however, was the only one offered a contract.

The circus hasn't held an audition for 30 years because it had relied on the talent that emerged from Clown College. Based in Venice, Fla., Clown College offered a rigorous 10-week training program to amateurs in juggling, acrobatics, physical comedy, gag construction and other skills.

In 27 years, the college granted degrees in buffoonery to more than 1,700 performers, including Penn Gillette of the comedy illusionist team Penn and Teller. But the college closed several years ago and Ringling Bros. producers thought the Los Angeles area would be a good place to find some professional clowns.

"We're always looking for clowns, talented performers," said Barbara Pflughaupt, a spokeswoman for the circus.

But spotting that indefinable something that makes a clown takes a practiced eye, said Larible.

"You don't learn to be a clown," he said. "You're either a clown or you're not."

Larible said he looks for spontaneity, sweetness, harmony and precision in a clown's movements.

Feld also tries to spot what can't be gleaned in a resume.

"Yes, I want them to be funny," he said, "but I try to look past the makeup to see what their heart looks like. I want people who want to make a difference in young people's lives."

Finding that blend is no laughing matter.

Kelly, the wide-eyed kid from Kansas, couldn't agree more.

He has studied clowns since he was 4, was vice president of the Clowns of America, Alley 92, in Kansas, and hasn't missed a circus in 17 years--"I have the programs to prove it."

As the hopefuls went through their gags in the center ring, McKinley cast a serious eye over the clowns and observed: "Comedy is serious business, and clowning is the most serious of them all."

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