IT’S A RAINY, GLOOMY DAY IN THE resort community of Sedona, Ariz., and some drenched tourists are on their way into a local cafe to dry off. Suddenly a patron hurls himself at their feet, blocking their path. “You’ve finally made it!” he announces, before standing up and ushering his startled new friends inside. “We’re glad you’re here. Everything’s on the house.”
Actually there is a charge for coffee and pastries, but the spontaneous, cloud-lifting sideshow—courtesy of Robert Shields, one half of the popular ’70s mime act Shields and Yarnell—is absolutely free. “I’ve found that people are just dying to play,” declares Shields, still uninhibited at 45. “Everyone wants to play a little bit.”
Particularly Shields, who has made a career of frivolity. Together with then wife Lorene Yarnell, he helped push mime into the mainstream, first on a CBS variety show in 1977 and then during a seven-year run in Las Vegas—a time chronicled in Shields’s autobiography, Cats, Fish, & Fools: The Lives and Art of Robert Shields, published last November. The pressures of fame caused their act—and their marriage—to come apart, but, Shields reports, “we’re still best friends.”
Divorced in 1985, Shields and his partner, now 52 and a headline singer and dancer on cruise ships, reteamed for a 1993 national tour and a few select gigs since then, but lately Shields has less and less time to mime. Since fleeing Los Angeles for the scenic, booming artists’ colony of Sedona in 1987, he has found a new calling—designing and distributing whimsical jewelry, masks and sculptures, much of it inspired by tribal art. He opened six Robert Shields Design stores in Arizona and also runs Holy Mackerel, a company in Bali that produces some of his carvings. “I look at retail like theater,” says Shields, who began by selling his creations store to store. “I’m the Lenny Bruce of retail.”
Reinventing himself has never been a problem for Shields. The youngest of three siblings born to an optician and his social-worker wife in California’s San Fernando Valley, he didn’t talk until he was 4 and seldom related to other kids. “I had imaginary friends,” he recalls. “I had a great sense of pretend.” His path to mimehood began in high school, when a sideshow promoter saw him doing a robot imitation at a fair and hired him for a carnival tour.
While working at his next job—pretending to be an exhibit outside the Hollywood Wax Museum—Shields was spotted by master mime Marcel Marceau, who gave him a scholarship to his Paris mime school. Shields lasted only two weeks in the structured environment, preferring to hone his skills on the streets of San Francisco. In 1972, while performing on a TV show in Los Angeles, he met Yarnell, a California-born dancer; they married that year and became partners, appearing as regulars on The Sonny and Cher Show for a year before launching their own program, Shields and Yarnell. The show was canceled after less than a season in 1978, but the duo rebounded in Las Vegas, earning up to $75,000 a week. “That was the downfall of us,” says Shields. “The money came in, but the art stopped.”
What Shields calls “a horrible lifestyle—the BMW and everything that came with it”—also led to the couple’s breakup. After their split, “I went through a major period of womanizing,” he confesses. “Parties, starlets and Hugh Hefner’s house.” But that existence also proved empty, and he soon moved to Sedona. “Coming here freed me in many ways,” says Shields, who indulged his lifelong interest in painting and sculpting by making clay masks and jewelry.
In 1988, at a New Age drumming ceremony, Shields met Rhonda Cossman, now 40, a sculptor and clothing-store owner whom he married in 1994. The two share a quirky, secluded multilevel home outside town with their bichon frise and an array of their artwork. Indeed, making art has replaced miming as Shields’s main creative outlet. “Two years ago I gave up entertaining, except for ‘cherry gigs,’ ” he says, referring to lucrative shows with the likes of the Dallas Symphony that he performs on rare occasions with Yarnell. The other exception: mood-enhancing outbursts directed at unsuspecting Sedonans as well as at his appreciative wife. “Robert,” says Rhonda, “is a blessing to this planet. He’s such a kid.”
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Sedona