That whole thing about running away to join the circus, the line used in every big-top story, makes it sound like an escape from something. Or a last resort.
That’s not it at all.
Ask Dean Kelley, a clown who can balance all manner of items, including a full-size bicycle, on his chin. Takes practice, but he does it to make people laugh. The “Swiss army knife of clowns” just flat-out wants to perform.
And ask Andre McClain, once a cowboy performer who now has his dream job as a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey ringmaster. His million-dollar smile makes you smile.
McClain and Kelley — hometown guys — will be here for the five-day run of Ringling’s “Built to Amaze” tour starting Wednesday at Sprint Center. They didn’t run away from Kansas City to the circus. But they embraced the circus, and the circus embraced them.
They will be among 110 performers from 17 countries, plus 95 exotic and domestic animals, in town for the 143rd edition of the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
The circus will feature the Tower Tumblers, a troupe of aerial athletes from Ukraine who perform on a three-story translucent tower, and award-winning animal presenters Alex and Irina Emelin.
Kelley, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., and went to Piper High School, wanted to be a clown since he was 4. He never grew out of it.
In middle school he hoped to take a community college clowning class, but he wasn’t old enough. So his grandfather signed up and took Kelley along to observe and learn.
Twelve years ago, after acting in area theaters and taking clowning gigs wherever he could, Kelley headed to Anaheim, Calif., to audition for Ringling. It was the circus’ first open call for clowns in 30 years. He was offered a contract that day.
Kelley had plenty to learn, but that was OK with him. He didn’t mind the grunt work as a First of May, the term for a novice performer.
“We had a large pie fight in the show, so guess who got to clean that up?” he says. “The new guy.”
Except for three years when he worked at Florida theme parks, Kelley has been with Ringling ever since, always practicing and expanding his “skill set” — particularly the physically demanding parts.
He’s a juggler, stilt-walker and unicyclist. He rides elephants. He gets thrown into an oven and comes out a pizza. He climbs to the top of the tent rigging and rappels down.
“It can be a little creepy up there,” he says, “especially when the rigging starts to shake.”
Circus patrons will know the otherwise blond Kelley by his orange clown hair with the skinny, highly vertical sprout.
“It helps me stand out. Clowns are going to be coming at you from all directions,” he says about the show. “It’s completely immersive and interactive and crazy fun.”
Kelley, 34, has no plans to take root somewhere. In fact, during his time in Florida he actually missed the touring, a new city every week.
“Home is the road,” he says. “I’ll do this as long as my body will let me.”
The path to the circus was curvier for Andre McClain. In fact, the 37-year-old had never been to a circus until 13 years ago.
McClain grew up at 59th Street and the Paseo, not exactly horse country, but he worked at a horse stable as a youngster and even rode his horse, Storm, to school at Paseo Academy.
He watched cowboy entertainers like Rex Purefoy and taught himself rope and horse tricks. He performed at the old Benjamin Ranch and at the American Royal. Later he took a job with Ringling on the animal crew.
“I’m an animal guy,” he says. “It was my cup of tea.”
But it’s a circus, so horses, yes, but also elephants, camels, zebras, llamas, goats, zedonks (a cross between a zebra and a donkey) and more.
“My first love was horses, but you love them all for their different personalities,” McClain says. “I taught the zedonks a few tricks.”
He led animal performances and then became the “all-access pre-show host,” when circus-goers are invited to the show floor to meet performers, try on costumes and to learn dance moves and circusy things like juggling.
“That became my favorite part of the show,” he says.
A voice major at the UMKC Conservatory, McClain certainly had the vocal tones of a host, low and velvety. Two years ago, without auditioning for the job, he was handed a contract to be the ultimate circus host, the ringmaster.
“For five minutes I said, ‘Get out of here, I’m being punked.’”
This is McClain’s second year as the ringmaster for Ringling’s “Built to Amaze” show, introducing acrobats, comedians, animal trainers, dancers and more.
“Getting up on a high-wire the size of my thumb, I’m not going to do that,” he says. “I get the opportunity to take you on a tour of the circus.”
And by the way, he sings the national anthem every show, which is an impressive string of Star-Spangled Banners.
“Who else gets to do that? We do over 500 shows a year,” he says. “The hardest part of my job is staying healthy and keeping my voice healthy. Words can’t explain it. It’s like being in love.”
McClain also fell in love at the circus. He and Daniele Giampaoli, dancer and snake-charmer, met several years ago and will celebrate their two-year wedding anniversary in October.
“It’s a privilege and honor to be ringmaster,” he says. “I could do this for another 50 years.”
What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey presents “Built to Amaze,” the 143rd edition of the Greatest Show on Earth
When: Wednesday through Sunday
Where: Sprint Center
Tickets: Go to axs.com or call 888-929-7849.