Behind the big, red nose: Meet a real clown

VERMONT — Clowns are creepy. Most of us are afraid of them, even if we don’t technically have Coulrophobia.
“I’m afraid of that kind of clown, too,” said Charlotte resident Woody Keppel, who’s been clowning since the early ‘80s. “Clowning is a misrepresented term… We’re not all the big Bozo, Ringling, scary clowns.”
So what kind of clown is Keppel? Think of him as an “eccentric character” having fun.
On stage Keppel becomes “Woodhead” — the comic side of a duo. With thick glasses, plaid pants, a flower in his hat and a crooked bow-tie, he plays off his “straight man.” For more than 20 years, that was Paul Burke, known as “Waldo” in their popular “Waldo and Woodhead” act.
But it started with a guy named Bob Berky. “He was a character clown and juggler — and he was living with my sister in New York City,” remembered Keppel. “She brought him home to Virginia for Christmas (because he was doing a show at the Virginia museum). When I saw him perform a light bulb went off… I was immediately attracted to that.”
Berky invited Keppel to a theater clowning workshop in Maine. “I thought: I’m sort of funny; I kinda have a sense of humor; maybe I’ll fit in,” said Keppel. “The camp was on this idyllic lake where we spent three weeks working on circus skills. I was the least proficient, so I had to come up with a character.”
Leaning on his music background from Virginia Commonwealth University and his six years with Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston — where he played silent comic roles alongside some of the great singers of the world — Keppel developed his characters.
“I found a straight man to play with,” said Keppel. “I saw him in New Orleans for Mardi Gras… he was tall, handsome and one of the world’s great jugglers.”   CHARLOTTE RESIDENT MARK “Woody” Keppel has been a professional clown for decades. He is leaving his mark locally this week as organizers of the entertainment ay Saturday’s Carnevale Vergennes, which will take place at the Vergennes Opera House.
Photo credit www.carltremblay.com
Paul Burke (Waldo) and Keppel (Woodhead) started their show in 1984. Together they performed in the circus, at corporate events, on cruises, at casinos and traveled to more than 30 countries. They also made movies as a team.
But all good things must come to an end. They broke up the act after 21 years, and Keppel moved on to partner with a Danish juggler, Henrik Bothe of Oregon. The two now perform as Wells & Woodhead.
Off the stage, Keppel is not a goof-ball comedian, he’s someone entirely different. In fact, Keppel turns out to be rather shy, thoughtful and eloquent. He is a transplant Vermonter who’s enjoyed a quiet life in Charlotte since ‘94, that is, until he goes on stage.
So how does he flip the switch and turn himself into a clown? “For me it’s the alter ego,” he explained. “As Woodhead, I have no fear; there’s no inhibition and I have almost complete control of my body. It’s a great vehicle for me. When I put on any costume it sort of transforms me and I get into another reality. You’re no longer the familiar you, you’re this sort of fantastical character. You have this green light to do whatever you want.”
It’s a good thing his alter ego is brave and boisterous because Keppel suffered from some intense stage fright as a kid. “When I was seven, I played in this piano concert that my mom put me up to,” he remembered. “During recital I went blank; I was over come with fear and literally became a statue. My teacher tried, but couldn’t lift me up. Thankfully, instead of spontaneously combusting, I sprinted off the stage.”
What brought him back to music and performing? What else? A cute girl.
Yup, “a cute girl moved into my neighborhood, and I knew I could impress her by playing the guitar,” said Keppel.
From there his love of music snowballed through college and continues to this day. He, Billy Bratcher (who also plays with the Starline Rhythm Boys) and Allan Nicholls play as the Hokum Brothers Band. But even as “Stick Hokum” (his personality in the band) he’s playing a character.
Developing “character, clowning, pathos, comedy, skills” are useful tools for some people, said Keppel. Which is why he’s so involved and passionate about teaching circus arts. In 1987, he and six other partners founded Bellyacres, a circus school on Hawaii. “It gives the kids something to be proud of,” he said.
Closer to home, Keppel is the founder and director of Burlington’s Festival of Fools, which celebrates 10 years in August. That’s something of a family reunion for him — bringing all his circus-art friends to Church Street. “I get to bring all these people that I’ve known for years,” said Keppel. “There’s a family of variety artists. They’re all circus veterans who work all over the world.”
In addition to his act, music and teaching, Keppel has also maintained a career in film since 1993. He costarred in the madcap family feature Ava’s Magical Adventure with Timothy Bottoms, and directed by Patrick Dempsey, and has had numerous supporting roles. Keppel’s also written and starred in four family videosand is currently co-starring in a new stage variety show called “Foolz,” which recently made its world television premier in Paris, France.
He’s also currently writing a screen play. Eleven years ago, he shot a movie at Shelburne Farms, which is the inspiration of his current film. “It’s based loosely on what happened at the farm in 1972,” explained Keppel, noting the Webb family’s financial troubles and eventual decision to found a nonprofit. The story is about a 25-year-old daughter who is estranged from her father who suffers from dementia; life circumstances brings her back to save her father’s farm. “It’s a big-hearted dramady,” said Keppel, who hopes production will start in fall of 2018.
In the meantime, Keppel will take the stage in Vergennes again this Saturday, March 4 for Carnevale Vergennes. This is his second year as director of entertainment.
“The number one joy is putting on a show together,” said Keppel. “I love being part of team effort.”
With or without his plaid pants, the flower in his hat and his crooked bowtie; Keppel is much more than a clown ? he’s a musician, a director, a teacher, a fundraiser, an advocate, a writer, a family member. And if props and a wacky personality help him share his many talents, then we’re all the better for it and can welcome this clown without fear.
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