Chief funny man leads 'Barnum Bash' coming to the Assembly Hall
If you want to be a clown, it doesn't hurt to know how to dance.
Dean Kelley, 32, has reached the pinnacle of clown success as the emcee and chief clown for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' "Barnum Bash," in which he plays dancing DJ Dean.
A huge cowlick stands straight up from his bright orange wig — but don't call him a Bozo.
"Every clown is unique," he said. "I'm the clown and pre-show emcee for this show. The dance is a new part of 'Barnum Bash.'"
It is a dream come true for a former 4-year-old boy.
"I've wanted to become a clown since I was 4 and first went to the Ringling Bros. circus. After that, I was there every year; I don't think I ever missed one," he said.
After attending every Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performance in his hometown of Kansas City, he spent time with professional clowns on a one-on-one basis, learning some of the act and makeup.
He says DJ Dean is a "magnification of myself at a younger age."
Kelley took theater classes at Kansas City Community College, then became a sort of freelance clown, playing for business demonstrations and sporting events.
"I went to Anaheim (Calif.) 10 years ago," he said. "It was the first open audition for a Ringling Bros. spot in over 30 years.
"They hired me the same day."
And Kelley still can't believe his luck.
"It's awesome. It's harder to get in Ringling Bros. as a clown than to be a football player in NFL," he said.
The Ringling Bros. bio of Kelley says he is "often referred to by his peers as the Swiss Army Knife of clowns because of his multifaceted circus skills, which include juggling, stilt walking, unicycle riding, balancing and spinning objects and making sound effects."
"Clowns need to be able to do just about everything," he said.
That includes singing karaoke, playing the trumpet and bungee jumping.
The new show, led by Kelley, is based on "fresh" new dance moves, taught by DJ Dean.
At a pre-party show, visitors can learn balancing and juggling skills, meet and take photos with circus stars, and step behind the curtain for a backstage experience.
Also in the show:
— Asian elephants, 10,000-pound pachyderms, are led by trainers Brett and Cathy Carden.
— Camels, horses and ponies gather for a "hot-to-trot hoofstock presentation."
— Dogs jump, flip and jam inside the circus ring.
— The Habana Troupe displays high-flying acrobatics combined with Olympic-style flips and twists executed between uneven Russian bars.
— The Cruzado Troupe's four-person Wheel of Steel defies the forces of gravity, propelling themselves in and out of a spinning double wheel.
— Duo Fusion hand balancers, husband and wife Giovanni and Virginia, demonstrate flexibility in an exotic presentation of unbelievable symmetry.
— Anton, an eccentric comedian.
— The Ringlettes teach "children of all ages" to learn how to do new dance moves.
More information is at http://www.ringling.com/.
"This has been a tradition for more than a century. There are a lot of unique skills from the whole group on display," Kelley said.
He works with "the world's strongest man," but knows his limits.
"I'm a skinny guy, I know what the outcome would be of arm wrestling," Kelley said.
The clown, in "a long-distance relationship with my significant other," spends 11 months of the year on the road.
The "Barnum Bash" run ends next month, and he has less than a month to learn the new show, "Fully Charged."
"Our rehearsal process is about 21/2 weeks: 10-hour days, one day off," he said.
Even after years with the circus, Kelley said, he's still challenged by new tricks and feats.
"Right now, I'm doing kind of a knife throwing, only with (toilet) plungers," he said. "It's safer."
If you go
What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' "Barnum Bash"
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19; 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20; 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21.
Where: University of Illinois Assembly Hall
Tickets: $11 opening night seats still available; all other performances $15 and $25 with a limited number of $35 VIP seats