‘The Heart of a Clown’ Childhood dream leads to circus life

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

A clown’s nose gets used to certain scents, including the powerful odor of elephants, horses and camels.
“Visitors will say, ‘Ewwww. What’s that smell?’ I’m like, ‘What?’” said Dean Kelley, a clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Zing, Zang, Zoom.”
But there is a circus smell that nearly always registers with the part of Kelley’s brain where memories are stored.
“One smell that stays with me is popcorn,” the 30-year-old said a couple of hours before showtime at the BancorpSouth Arena on Thursday. “I remember the popcorn from that first trip to Ringling Bros. with my family. It’s the same smell.”
The circus made a lasting impression on Kelley when it rolled into his hometown of Kansas City, Kan., more than 25 years ago.
“I was 4 years old. I saw the clowns. There was something about that,” he said. “There was some mystique. I said, ‘I’m going to do that when I grow up.’
“My parents said, ‘Oh, that’s cute. He’ll grow out of it.’
“I didn’t.”
Throughout elementary school, middle school and high school, the dream persisted. Whenever the circus came to town, Kelley was there, watching the clowns and taking notes so he could try the routines on his own.
There was ridicule at times, but Kelley also found his goal supported in interesting ways.
A vocational school offered a clown class, but it was for adults only. Kelley was in the fifth grade.
“My grandfather took the class, so I could take it,” Kelley said.
His grandmother helped out, too. She taught him a tip that made it easier to put on his makeup. For some reason, it’s easier for a right-handed clown to put the makeup on his left eye first.
“Makeup tips from my grandmother,” he said, laughing to himself about an hour before the crowds arrived for opening night in Tupelo. “She was right, though. It saves a lot of time.”

‘An orderly dance’
The Three Stooges were an early, accessible influence, with reruns on Saturday and Sunday mornings. He also joined Clowns of America International, a group of amateurs and professionals.
“I’d watch VHS tapes and check out books from the library,” he said. “I would study in the mirror, practicing faces, anything I could do to perfect my craft.”
He also looked to the world of professional wrestling for lessons. There’s just a quarter inch of hard rubber under that ring in the center of the arena, and clowns tend to fall down.
“You can’t always have a safety mat. I would watch WWE Wrestling,” Kelley said. “Those guys are incredible athletes, and they know how to fall and walk away. What they’re doing is physical comedy. Physical comedy should be an orderly dance. That’s what wrestlers do.”
For a time, he was an actor in Kansas City, and also worked as a clown for corporate clients and the Kansas City Royals.
When he saw an audition notice for Ringling Bros., Kelley hopped a flight to Anaheim, Calif.
“It was the first open audition they’d had in 30 years,” he said.
That was 2003, and it went well.

More than makeup
His makeup and costume have changed with time. That’s partly due to Kelley’s desire to keep learning and developing his skills.
It’s also due to a central fact of a clown’s life: “Most people think you just put on makeup and ‘Poof’ you’re a clown. It’s not like that,” he said. “You have to have the heart of a clown.”
When he steps from behind the curtain to greet an audience, he’s introduced as Dean, but Dean the human and Dean the clown are different creatures.
The makeup matters, so does the orange wig, the yellow shirt with red polka-dots, the red suspenders and the oversized black shoes.
“When kids ask me about my shoe size, I tell them, ‘32P. The P stands for petite. I’ve got small feet,’” he said.
The external elements help, but the secret is on the inside.
“If you don’t have a character, you’re just a guy in a costume,” he said. “A clown needs to have a personality. You find out what that is. It evolves.”
Kelley said he’s enjoying the character he’s found after all of his experimenting.
“It gets me on posters and billboards when we go to town,” he said with a grin. “I like it.”

Kelley is the host of the “Zing, Zang, Zoom” All Access Pre-show. It starts an hour before the official showtime. It’s a chance for audience members to meet the performers and dance in the center ring, if they’re brave enough to do it.
He also performs his comedy “bits” throughout the main show. Dropped pants or a pie in the face are always funny, but there’s also a need to come up with new material for today’s audiences.
“I’ll brainstorm and see what I can come up with. Sometimes they’re great; sometimes they’re not. They’re not all gems. I know that,” he said. “You have to make bad stuff to make good stuff. That’s just the way it is.”
Comedy isn’t a clown’s only function. Kelly also serves as an ambassador between the audience and the other performers in the show.
People can relate to clowns, he said, more than they can relate to the women who do tricks in the air while hanging from their hair.
“I love to watch the audience when they pull her up – just the looks on their faces,” he said. “Some people are laughing. Some people are horrified. Some people are trying to see how it’s done. It’s awesome.”
At the center of Kelley’s clown heart, you’ll find a circus fan. He said he never misses a chance to see another circus. It’s a passion his fellow performers don’t always understand.
“For some of them, it’s the last thing they want to do on their day off,” he said.
Kelley said he never wants to get used to the sights, sounds and smells associated with the circus. He doesn’t want to forget what it means to carry on a tradition that stretches back long before he saw his first clowns at age 4.
“I’m still in awe of this job. Walking backstage before the show, I can see an elephant. How cool is that?” he said a few minutes before it was time to step through the multi-colored curtains one more time. “Every night, audiences react to the show, and it reminds you: OK, this is something incredible. It really is. I want to keep doing it for as long as my body allows. That’s it. That’s what I want.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@journalinc.com.

One last chance
– What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s
“Zing, Zang, Zoom”

– When: 2 p.m. today

– Where: BancorpSouth Arena, Tupelo

– Tickets: From $15 to $35 plus fees at box office, Ticketmaster outlets, www.ticketmaster.com, www.bcsarena.com, (800) 845-3000, (662) 841-6528

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