By By Leiti Hsu, 17, Whitney HS
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Blowing bubbles is part of Dean Kelley's act as Deano the clown in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Photo courtesy of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Dean Kelley knew he wanted to be a clown by the age of 4, when his grandparents took him to his first Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

"The clowns ran out doing all these flips and one came up to me. It looked like they were having a great time," said Kelley, who just turned 23 in late August.

So his grandfather took him to his first clown class when he was in fifth grade, picking him up after school every Tuesday and driving him to a local vocational college for three hours of "The Magic of Clowning." It taught him everything from finding a character to makeup to juggling and magic skills.

For one of his birthdays, he got a bunch of magic tricks. His family thought, "Oh that’s cute—he’ll grow out of it."

But instead, he’s grown into his size-60 blue Converse sneakers, big yellow wig and the accompanying duty of making people of all ages smile. Now, he clowns with the 133rd edition of The Greatest Show On Earth as Deano (his clown name).

"Clowning in the Ringling Bros. is like the Rolls Royce of clowning. You can’t get any bigger than that," he said.

"I think this [job] is amazing. The kids have looks of ‘Wow’ on their faces. What makes it even cooler is when you see the adults with that look too," said Kelley, noting that he sometimes encounters people in their 60s telling him, "This is my first circus."

Kelley got his chance when the Ringling Bros.’s weekly newsletter announced that there would be an open call for clowns in July 2002. This was the first open call in 30 years. The Kansas City, Kan., resident found out there wasn’t a tryout location any closer than Anaheim so he immediately made travel arrangements.

There he performed a skit about a persistent fruit fly interrupting a man’s picnic and endeared himself to bigwigs like circus director Phil McKinley. He was the only one chosen out of 12 other Ringling Bros. hopefuls.

The first thing Kelley did after finding out that he’d landed the coveted spot was call his family. After all, it was they who supported him in every way—his grandmother has been his seamstress and designer since age 13—even if they sometimes wondered whether he could make a living out of clowning.

Before he signed with Ringling Bros., Kelley got gigs through word of mouth or an agent. He was mostly hired for corporate events (ranging from employee Christmas parties to product promotional events for companies like Kraft and Hallmark). He’d do anything from juggling on stilts to riding unicycles.

Sometimes Kelley would perform one-hour magic acts at kids’ birthday parties, followed by balloon animals for the guests. The gigs paid $125 an hour, though they were just a side thing. He gave 20 percent to his agent and most of the rest went toward buying more balloons and new wigs, props and makeup.

By day, Kelley was a performer at a kids’ science museum in Kansas City. As a "citizen" in an interactive pretend "city," he walked around on a big ball and played different characters for the 30-minute walking tour.

He Entertains Millions

Now Kelley is doing a little more than making a living. By the end of the 50-week season, he will have toured 45 cities, given 500 performances and cheered up 5 million people.

The schedule is grueling and "sometimes I really don’t want to be there doing the show at all," said Kelley. Yet he reminds himself, "These people have never seen it before and they’re paying full price so I’m gonna leave all that backstage [and] focus on the audience."

Other physical rigors include staying alert at all times onstage and backstage to avoid injury. "The animals sometimes will get spooked by the music and will start kicking. I almost got kicked by a camel a couple days ago," he said.

There’s one more reason why Kelley is cautious around the camels—they spit. "It smells and it’s sticky and it hasn’t happened to me but I’ve heard horror stories."

The biggest perk of the job is getting to see the country’s landscapes by train, he said.

Like with any career, reaching success means doing your homework, said Kelley, who extensively researched the costume and makeup styles of Ringling Bros. clowns. He bought and studied the glossy, collectible programs and condensed 30-minute videos of each yearly edition of the show. His other main tool was the library where he found clown videos, which he took notes on.

He also found practice for the circus stage on the theatrical stage in high school and college, performing in some professional theaters before landing a spot with Ringling Bros.

"Performing in a theater is a lot harder because it’s more intimate. It’s on a more one-on-one basis as opposed to one person for a thousand people," Kelley said.

But most importantly, he says, don’t back down. "People will try to bash what you’re doing. Especially in high school—I was kinda the oddball in high school."

Kelley admits it can get lonely on the road, but he keeps in touch by phone, e-mail and a laptop.
Besides, he’s got a home away from home with his colorful comrades. "We call our private place—it’s basically a dressing room—Clown Alley. It’s where the magic happens, where we put on our costumes and do our makeup."

Yes, makeup.

"I always say, ‘I get to put on makeup every day and get paid for it,’" Kelley says.

He quickly adds that his mom has a different take on it. She says, "I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be buying my son makeup."