Two years ago the street mime team of Shields and Yarnell felt like a couple of overage flower children who had just heard the ’60s were over. Despite a near-cult following in San Francisco, they were ambitious and restless—and tired of performing on Union Square for coins tossed into a hat. Worse, Shields had been arrested five times as a “public nuisance,” had had his nose broken by an angry victim of his tactless mimicry and had been threatened with a knife by a black-jacketed motorcyclist. “It was hell on the streets,” recalls Robert Shields, 26 and six years younger than his wife, Lorene Yarnell. “We sized up TV and figured we could make it there.”
They washed off their whitefaces and headed south—but there was no welcome to L.A. “They all said the same thing: ‘Mimes? You’ve got to be kidding!’ ” Shields says. “Nobody would touch us. We were despondent.” Then on a hunch, Shields and Yarnell (“We sound like a law firm,” he jokes) answered an open call for The New Ted Mack Amateur Hour. Incredibly, they won over 3,000 other contestants. That led to a Las Vegas revue and—fasten seat belts—guest shots with Merv and Johnny, a front act for Mac Davis in Vegas, Harrah’s and a regular slot on Sonny & Cher. If the Captain and Tennille seemed like pop parvenus last summer, Shields and Yarnell, beginning this week on CBS, are the most upwardly mobile TV pairing yet.
Their overnight fame, of course, took a decade of discipline and more to achieve. Robert and Lorene still spend hours practicing eyebrow and even nostril exercises. To perfect his uncanny Robbie Robot ticktock character, Shields learned to go as long as three hours without blinking. (“I built up my eye muscles sitting in a chair gripping the arms while forcing my eyes open.”) Lorene has been dancing since she was 4. “If I cried or got temperamental, my mom got out the spatula and whacked me. She knew I had it and didn’t want me to give up.” Before her switch to mime, she was a chorus line “gypsy” on TV shows ranging from Shindig to Carol Burnett.
They met in 1972 when Robert and Lorene, divorced from her first husband, rock manager John Hartman, showed up together for an ABC pilot. (Two years earlier she had followed Robert around all day, fascinated, as he mimed at an L.A. fair.) When she spotted him again, she says, “I saw that magical look in his eyes. It was love at first sight. Prince Charming had come into my life.” Robert took in long-legged Lorene in dancer’s tights and “My heart went crazy. Most women thought I was weird,” he admits. “I’d break into mime and they’d say, ‘Cool it, buddy.’ They were frightened away.”
Robert and Lorene’s physical similarities are striking enough—with dark brown bobbed hair and popped-open eyes, they look, as Shields admits, “like a brother-and-sister act.” (Lorene once enhanced her androgynous appearance by tightly binding her breasts while performing.) When Robert learned that they were both left-handed, had fathers with the same birthday and were obsessed with toys, he concluded, “We were destined for one another.”
Even so, Lorene hesitated when Robert asked her to move to San Francisco. She remembers worrying, “That would mean giving up everything. He’s a street artist and isn’t making a living.” Besides, she laughs, Robert “was not the most normal person in the world to go running off with.” Upon arriving at his pad, she found “a fantasyland filled with craziness—stuffed animal heads, manikins hanging from the ceiling, a canopied bed, medieval tapestries and a huge doll collection. It was like walking into the twilight zone.” Lorene’s father, an LAPD detective and ex-boxer, decided that Robert could only be an effete oddball and kept him up sparring until 3 a.m. to certify his manhood.
From childhood on, fantasy has come naturally to Robert. Born in Burbank, he did not choose to talk until he was 5, persuading his optician father and interior decorator mother that he might be retarded. A poor student and misfit, he says he “did outrageous things to get attention,” like plucking his eyelashes (“I looked like a lizard”) and going to high school dressed as a mortician. After a series of jobs he packed off to Canada with a carnival, where he introduced his “mechanical man” act. Back in L.A. he continued the act at the Hollywood Wax Museum and rented himself out to parties as a robot butler. Marcel Marceau offered a scholarship to study with him in Paris, but Shields lasted only a few weeks. “Everybody in that school was trying to be Marcel Marceau. I wanted to develop my own style.” He eventually did on the streets of San Francisco.
Lorene was raised the youngest of seven children in the L.A. suburb of Gardena, and at 15 auditioned for the original Mickey Mouse Club (“I’m glad now that I never got it,” she says. “I’d always be remembered as a Mousketeer.”) She danced in films like Bye, Bye, Birdie and Sweet Charity and dozens of TV specials with such stars as Andy Williams, Red Skelton and Danny Kaye before taking up mime.
Though Robert carefully coached her in his art (how to eat an imaginary “peach,” row a “boat” or climb a “pole”), Lorene felt insecure for months. She finally declared, “Robert, I feel like I’m visiting here. This is not my world. I was good at what I was doing before, and I won’t be a sign-holder for you.” Her compromise was to persuade him to move to a house in Marin County (“I’m a nature person”), where she continued to practice her dancing while raising a German shepherd and a baby goat. (Their resolve to have real children has been deferred.)
These days Shields and Yarnell live near the Hollywood Freeway in a small Spanish-style bungalow crammed with toys. (“We go nuts at Christmastime,” Robert says.) They share household chores, though the demands of their new show require once-a-week help for the first time. Potentially their most important benefactor may not be CBS but director Stanley Donen, who begins shooting a film version of their lives, Show Biz, next month. Their manager already boasts of turning down $25,000 to front for Helen Reddy in Vegas, but perhaps their most satisfying moment came in April when they returned to San Francisco to play the elegant Fairmont Hotel at $10,000 a week. They can look down from Nob Hill to the sidewalks where Shields and Yarnell of an earlier age had clowned for nickels and dimes.