Clowning Around

Childhood dream is KCK native's career.
Feld Entertainment

   Ever since he was 4 years old, Dean Kelley wanted to be a circus clown. As a fifth grader, the Kansas City, Kan., native went with his grandfather as a guest to a clowning class at his hometown’s Area Vocational Technical School. Now 34, he has been a clown for more than 20 years, more than half with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.


  • Because he has multifaceted circus skills, including juggling, stilt walking, unicycle riding, balancing and spinning objects, and making sound effects, he says his peers call him “the Swiss Army knife of clowns.”
  • “I’m pretty much self-taught. I had a lot of time on my hands as a kid and as an adult, for that matter. I’m constantly learning random things.”
  • “There are several aspects to my job that are absolutely amazing. One, I get to tour the country. I’ve been to 48 out of the 50 states with Ringling Bros. and have been very fortunate to have that opportunity. Another thing, I get to do what I love for a living. That’s awesome. And another amazing thing is to look out into the audience and see at least three generations of a family just sitting there and they’re “oohing” and “ahhing” at the exact same thing. I think that’s pretty cool because there are very few things left in this country for families to enjoy together.”
  • “We travel 11 months out of the year, 48 weeks. We’re in a new city every single week. A typical work week: we open on a Wednesday and close on a Sunday. On average, we’lI do about nine to 10 shows a week. We can do more. We’re contracted to do up to 13 shows. It fluctuates from city to city.”
  • “The show travels by train. It’s the largest privately-owned train in the country. Over a mile long once it’s all put together. Everybody has their own separate rooms. I have my own separate trailer. So it’s really great driving around the country in my truck and trailer. My home is the road, essentially.”
  • “We do the same show every single day, but it’s different at the same time. That’s what I like about it. Every single day the audience is different. One day I can make somebody laugh at one element, then the next day, in the same city, something doesn’t work. So I like the variety of having to try to conform to what they think is funny.”
  • His favorite trick? Balancing a huge bicycle on his chin.
  • “One of the most humbling things is when people come to the show and they say things to me like, ‘I want to be a clown because of you.’ Because I used to look up to clowns on Ringling Bros. going, ‘Ah, those guys are awesome and I want to do that.’ Now there are people saying that to me.”
  • It takes about 30 minutes to get into makeup and costume. “That’s just me taking my time,” Kelley says. “I’ve done it in three minutes before, so it’s possible.”
  • “Being in the circus truly is a lifestyle. You either love it or you hate it because it is constant.”
  • The yucky part of his job? “Avoiding the elephant poop,” he says.
  • “Anyone who’s in this show is definitely an athlete. A lot of people say, ‘Oh you’re just a clown, you just throw makeup on your face and that’s it.’ Well, no. It really is the hardest work you’ll ever love. I will perform as long as I can possibly can, as long as my body will allow me. This is my career. This is my passion. This is my love. This is what I’m meant to do in life.” 
Categories: People