Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Shields and Yarnell

If you asked Joe Blow from Idaho to name a famous mime, I bet he couldn't do it. If he could, it would probably be Marcel Marceau, who brought pantomime into American homes as a guest on various variety shows in the 60s and 70s.

If Joe Blow from Idaho were required to name TWO famous mimes, I bet he couldn't do it. If he could, that second name might likely be Bill Irwin, though his style of pantomime is much closer to classic clowning than the style of Marceau; since Irwin has matured into a fine interpreter of Edward Albee's work, that guy from Idaho might not even know that Bill began his career with physical shtick.

But if Joe Blow from Idaho were required to name a famous mime TEAM, he could only shrug his shoulders. Or name Shields and Yarnell, two of the unlikeliest TV stars of the 1970s.

They began their careers quite separately. Robert Shields was spotted at the Hollywood Wax Museum by Marceau himself, who offered the young mime a scholarship to study with him in Paris in 1970. After learning all he could from the Master, Bobby returned to the states, becoming a street mime in San Fransisco. It's said he was the second most popular tourist attraction in the city, right behind the streetcars.

Lorene Yarnell, meanwhile, was pursuing a career as a dancer (Gene Kelly was particularly impressed); she appeared regularly in the television chorus of the variety shows headlined by Carol Burnett and Dean Martin.

Shields and Yarnell met when appearing in the chorus of Fol-de-Rol, a TV special produced by those wackos Sid and Marty Krofft in 1972. Lorene followed Bobby back to Frisco, and they formed a professional and personal partnership, passing the hat in Union and Ghirardelli Squares. They married in what now seems a fairly precious way, but in the Godspell-tinged 70s must have seemed a good idea: they donned band outfits and mimed their vows in full white-face.

In 1975, they headed to Hollywood. With Yarnell's specialty in dance, and Shields's in mime, the two made a nice variety act team, and they had a natural chemistry which was very endearing to watch. They landed as a regular act on The Mac Davis Show, and once Mac bit the dust, they were snatched up by Sonny and Cher. At that time, television variety shows did not rerun their episodes; when their seasons ended in June, their timeslots were filled by summer replacement series. Shields and Yarnell were tagged for a half-hour slot, a mix of comedy and mime. One of their running sketches involved "The Clingers," a pair of robots living daily lives (it is said that Bobby Shields was the inventor of the robotic movement which later became a disco staple, and a major inspiration for Michael Jackson's dance moves; Jacko was a devoted Shields and Yarnell fan).

The Shields and Yarnell Show was the hit of the 1977 summer season, and CBS picked up the program as a mid-season replacement. In their infinite wisdom, the network placed the newcomers opposite the runaway hit Laverne and Shirley, and Shields and Yarnell were gone as quickly as they had arrived. They continued to offer live performances, and were headliners opposite George Burns and Frank Sinatra, among others, in the major showrooms in Vegas and Tahoe.

They had come a long way from the street corners of San Fransisco; even after their divorce in the mid-80s, they continued to perform together, though a bit sporadically. They appeared before a couple of presidents and the Queen, and counted Groucho Marx, Elvis Presley, Bob Hope, and Red Skelton among their fans. Bobby wrote a TV special for the two of them, Toys On The Town, which won the Emmy; they also hold several AGVA awards for their variety work onstage.

After their meteoric rise and decline, Bobby remarried and settled in Arizona, where he became a painter, sculptor, and jewelry designer. Lorene had a leading role in the Mel Brooks parody film, Spaceballs, playing the robot Dot Matrix (her character was voiced by Joan Rivers); she later remarried and moved to Norway, where she became a dance teacher.

It's difficult to describe the attractiveness of this couple, who worked so well together, and even resembled each other; perhaps this week's Dance Party will give some clue. Here are Shields and Yarnell on The Muppet Show:

Bobby Shields remains in Arizona, and occasionally performs solo. Lorene Yarnell suffered a brain aneurysm last week; she passed away at the age of 66.