Cathy Higgins

cathy.higgins@ albanyherald.com

ALBANY -- For Dean Kelly, being a circus clown is the greatest job on Earth.

"I get paid to throw pies at people," the 29-year-old said in a recent telephone interview.

For several years the Kansas City, Mo., native has been clowning around with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which makes its way to Albany next month.

He does so with the comedic alter ego, "the Dean of Dorks," who sports suspenders, glasses, squinted eyes and a bushy wig.

"He's very nerdy," the clown said.

It's a job Kelly dreamed about since childhood.

"I didn't grow out of it," he said.

Maybe that's because Kelly had the support of his family to pursue the unusual career.

"My grandparents kind of pushed me toward it," he said.

After all, circus life is in Kelly's blood.

"I've learned recently that on my father's side, my great-great-great-uncle was a trapeze artist," he said.

With his circus pedigree and family support in tow, Kelly spent his life looking forward to the day he could attend the famed circus' clown college. Unfortunately, the college closed in 1997.

"When I found out the clown college closed, I was devastated," he said. "I thought, 'What am I going to do now?'"

So Kelly sent Ringling Bros. audition tape after audition tape of his clowning antics.

"I sent in my fair share of tapes," he said.

It was all to no avail. Then, while surfing the Internet one day, Kelly found an announcement stating that the circus was having an open-call audition for clowns.

"It was the first open-call in 30 years," he said.

Kelly answered that call, and his clowning career began.

"I was very fortunate," he said.

But it's by no means an easy way to make a living.

"Being in the circus is the hardest work you'll ever love," Kelly said.

For instance, he has to always be aware of the risks.

"There are some times when circus performers do get hurt," Kelly said.

As a clown, that not only means doing comedic acrobatics, but also being on stage with other acts. So Kelly has to be aware of potential hazards, such as the danger of getting stepped on by circus animals.

"You always have to keep your eyes and ears open," he said.

However, that's not what Kelly finds most difficult about his chosen profession. Instead, it's another concern, altogether.

"The traveling," he said.

Kelly and his fellow 25 performers, along with just as many crew members, get from one place to another by hitting the open road.

"We travel by truck and trailer R.V.'s," he said, explaining that sometimes troupes also travel by train.

With those journeys come encounters with fans of the big top, as well as animal-rights activists opposed to the use of animals in a circus. An example is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' recent complaint to The Herald that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey animals are mistreated.

"The Washington Post just broke the story of shocking never-before-seen photographs that were provided to PETA by a former Ringling trainer," stated PETA representative Jessica Zalaznick via e-mail. "The photos reveal frightened baby elephants at Ringling's breeding center as they undergo abusive and barbaric training methods to make them perform in the circus." According to a Dec. 16 Washington Post article, the organization and circus are at odds over accusations that elephant calves are abused into performing, with one being so severely injured it had to be euthanized. But a Dec. 31 article from the Associated Press stated that after the PETA sued Ringling Bros. under the Endangered Species Act, Ringling Bros. was not found to be at fault.

Although he doesn't work directly with animals, himself, Kelly discounts such claims from PETA.

"From what I see, the animals are very well taken care of," Kelly said. "They get full meals and snacks."

But the professional clown said he understands the concern that PETA and other animal-rights activists have.

"They want what's best for the animals," he said. "So does Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey."

The show that Kelly and his troupe members are bringing to Albany, deemed "Illuscination," is a stop in a two-year tour across the country.

"We just opened three weeks ago," he said.

Along with circus acts Ringling Bros. fans have come to expect, "Illuscination" will feature magician and illusionist David DaVinci, who will perform a variety of illusions, as well as an attempt to escape a straightjacket while suspended three stories in the air over a den of lions.

"He performs some amazing stunts," Kelly said.

This is far from the first time Ringling Bros. has come to the Good Life City, as the troupe has visited Albany every other year for several years.

It's also a return trip to Albany for Kelly.

"I have been there before, in 2004," he said.

According to Kelly, each performance will last about an hour. But the fun will begin beforehand.

"An hour before each show, we'll have an all-access preshow where people can interact with the performers," he said. "They'll learn some circus skills."

Circus performances will be held 7 p.m. Feb. 2 and 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Feb. 3.

Tickets are $15 with a limited number of $25 VIP seats and $30 VIP floor seats. They are available at the Albany Civic Center box office, Ticketmaster or by visiting www.Ringling.com.