Sherr and David Shepard, a.k.a. “Carlee and Charlie,” show off their grins in front of “Otto,” their traveling clown car. (Staff photo: Laura Williams)
ALBANY — Sometimes clowning around does pay off.
That’s certainly been the case for Sherri and David Shepard, otherwise known as professional clowns Carlee and Charlie. They may joke around for a living, but they’ve never taken any craft more seriously.
This week, Albany residents will have a chance to see the pair’s antics in person when the Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars comes to town. Performances are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Exchange Club Fairgrounds, 810 S. Westover Blvd.
In its 129th year of production, the Cole Bros. Circus is the largest and longest-running tented show in America. The family-friendly event features a variety of animals, acrobatics, dancers and, of course, clowns. If you’re one of those Albany residents who spotted Carlee and Charlie’s clown car, dubbed “Otto,” rolling around town this week — your eyes weren’t playing tricks on you; it’s the real deal.
Sherri and David spend 9 1/2 months of the year on the road as they tour all over the country, but call Sarasota, Fla., home between events.
“You have to have a special relationship to make this work,” said Sherri about her and David’s life on the road. “With work and constant travel in our 40-foot mobile trailer, we don’t often get much alone time. But we try to do something to make each other laugh every single day.”
When asked how they made the decision to pursue clowning, David pointed to Sherri as the instigator. “She made me do it,” he laughed.
Sherri was working as an early-childhood educator in Sarasota when she discovered the art of clowning during a visit to a circus festival with her preschool class. Nearly 20 years later, she and David have never regretted the steps they’ve taken in those oversized shoes.
According to tradition, all clowns are born on May 1, and a beginner clown is known as a “First of May.”
“My first time out as a clown, I was greener than green — a ‘First of May’ one minute after midnight,” David said.
“My son and I went to the local mall and began juggling. A little girl, about 6 years old, just ran right up to me and gave me a big hug. Afterwards, I heard her tell her mother, ‘Mommy, I hugged a clown today!’
“That’s when ‘Charlie’ was born.”
The Shepards have since specialized in entertaining at schools, day care centers, churches, parades, birthday parties and community events before joining the Cole Bros. Circus family.
But don’t get the wrong idea that their work is easy.
“A lot of work goes into being a clown,” David said. “This craft is not just about the look; it’s about the heart.”
Sherri agrees. “When people hear that we’re attending a clown convention, they say, ‘Oh, that’s sounds like fun!’ It is fun, but people don’t understand how much work we actually do there. We’re up from 5 a.m. until midnight attending workshops, meetings and learning different skills. This is a craft where we never stop learning.”
“We need a vacation after we get back home,” David said.
As for their show, Sherri and David keep things fresh, entertaining and family-friendly. According the David, “Carlee and Charlie” present a bit of a history, vaudeville style.
“We have a bit that we do with a giant telephone — one that has an actual cord. The kids nowadays aren’t used to that. They’ll say, ‘What’s a telephone booth? Oh, yeah — it’s that place where Superman changes clothes.’
“We want to make the show something everyone can enjoy,” David said. “Yes, our main focus is the children, but we want to keep the adults’ attention as well, so we’ll throw in some clean one-liners that only the adults would understand.
“For example, at one of our school visits, we explained to the kids that most of the elephants in the show are female because, ‘girls are easier to work with; boys are just so much harder to train.’ Every teacher in that room was nodding their head in agreement.”
“We adapt our shows to fit our audience. I’m always seeing what’s current and looking for new ideas to incorporate into our show,” Sherri said. “But we find that kids still love the classics — ‘Snake In A Can’ and the spinning plates are perennial favorites.”
Throughout the show, Carlee and Charlie also show off the circus animals.
“Circuses sometime have a bad reputation of being a place where animals are inhumanely treated,” David said. “I can promise you, that is not the case with Cole Bros. Any circus organization that has those kinds of problems aren’t in business anymore — it’s impossible under the strict regulation of today’s USDA and animal welfare laws.
“In fact, that’s one reason why we don’t have smaller animals like hamsters in our show. The coverage required for maintaining them is just too complex to make it feasible. We heard of one instance in another circus where a magician pulled a rabbit out of his hat as part of his act. There was an organization that got wind of it, and by the time it was all over, that magician had to jump through a bunch of hoops in order to formally create several different official plans of protection, including a fire escape plan, for the rabbit.
“Imagine if we had a flea circus,” Sherri joked. “How would we ever keep up with the certification for all of them?”
“I think people should think about this logically,” David said. “If I’m going into a cage with a bunch of tigers, does it make sense that I would beat them into submission beforehand? In the end, a tiger is going to do what he wants to do.
“We use repetition and reward when training the animals — and a lot of positive reinforcement. We use the same techniques that people use when training their dogs or their children.
“Our animals are extremely well cared for,” David said.
One of those animals in the Cole Bros. family now includes Hugo, a baby elephant who is sure to be a treat for attendees.
“He is so cute — he looks just like Dumbo, except without the big ears,” David said.
Sherri and David are award-winning members of several professional and educational clown organizations, and David founded Circus City Clowns, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering and preserving the art of clowning while providing low-cost entertainment to other nonprofit agencies. They have four grown children and one grandchild.
“The hardest part of about this job is the traveling,” Sherri said. “We don’t have a permanent address, so we can’t get mail and we miss seeing our granddaughter, but we love what we do.”
David agrees. “The joy we see on the kids’ faces makes it all worth it.”
No, the Shepards aren’t looking back. With ever-present smiles on their faces — painted and real — “Carlee and Charlie” climb into “Otto” and take off down the road for their next adventure — always ready to make another child smile.