His calling was to the Big Top

Dean Kelley was kidnapped by clowns in Kansas City at the age of four. Well, that’s one way to describe the event — Kelley’s first visit to the circus — that determined his own career choice.

“I saw the clowns,” Kelley, 32, said. “There was something about these grown-up adults being able to run around and act silly for thousands of people. My parents said, ‘That’s cute, he’ll grow out of it.’ But I didn’t.”

Kelley is part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which will perform at Intrust Bank Arena from Thursday through Sunday. Titled the “Fully Charged, Gold Edition” tour, the circus features acrobats, jugglers, aerial acts, knife-throwing, trained elephants, a Mongolian strongman and more.

Kelley is easy to spot as the only full-blown clown in the show, but some of his most-important work is done before the curtain goes up, as host of the pre-show party. The party, free with any ticket, starts an hour before scheduled performances. It allows the audience to go backstage and onto the arena floor to take photographs, get performers’ autographs and even try on some circus costumes. Someone wins an elephant footprint and it ends with a dance party, Kelley said.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s high participation. I get to host the whole thing.”

Given Kelley’s occupation, people might be surprised to learn that he’s actually “very introverted” and has been since he was a child.

“Performing was my means to open up and let it all out,” he said.

Kelley attended the circus every year it came to Kansas City and soon started trying out comic bits himself. His parents had no connection to show business, but his grandmother, a pianist who performed frequently in Kansas City, encouraged him, he said.

By his freshman year in high school he had two booking agents and was performing at birthday parties, corporate outings and other events. He worked as an actor as well while attending Kansas City Community College.

Ringling Bros. closed its clown college in 1997, a year before Kelley would have been eligible to enroll. But when the circus held an open audition for clowns in 2002 — its first in 30 years, according to Kelley — he jumped on a plane to Anaheim, Calif., auditioned and won his dream job.

These days he travels 11 months out of the year. The current tour started on Christmas Day in Tampa — where the circus is based and rehearses — and ends in November in Bangor, Maine. Kelley has been to 48 states and doesn’t mind “calling the road my home. I can go play tourist all the time.”

Kelley described the production coming to Wichita as a one-ring, European-style circus in which the closest seat is no more than 15 feet from the stage. His bits are sprinkled throughout, from spoofing the strongman to blowing giant rolls of toilet paper into the crowd with a leaf blower.

While Kelley loves his job, he said it’s also physically demanding. He broke two ribs working on a routine where he was supposed to fall and land on a balloon.

“I want to do it as long as I can,” he said. “It’s my passion.”

The payoff, he said, is the audience’s reaction. Even in an age of attention spans shortened by a barrage of seemingly non-stop distractions, the same things still make people laugh.

“It’s fun for me to look out and see two or three generations of a family laughing,” he said. “I get to help people forget about what’s going on outside in their normal everyday lives. That’s why I love my job.”