Don’t tell Robert Shields there’s no business like show business. After starring on a network TV show, headlining in Las Vegas, befriending legends – and making America confront its love/hate relationship with mimes – he built Robert Shields Design into a Sedona success story precisely because in his mind marketing his art was exactly like show business. Learn how to connect with your audience, and selling buyers on your designs is simply another opening, another show. Ultimately, Robert Shields Design – including his flagship store on Hwy 179 near the Y, three other area locations, and a new outpost in Phoenix – put the lie to the idea there are no second acts in American life. Now, he’s out to show third acts aren’t out of the question either.
Act I came in the 1970s. Teamed with then-wife and performing partner Lorene Yarnell, the pair brought mime – and its essence of physical comedy and clowning – to the peak of pop culture consciousness. But don’t think being a mime means Robert Shields doesn’t love to talk: During a recent chat, he would barely pause and rarely sit still, making our meeting feel more like a private performance. To make a point, he’d gleefully bolt out of his chair, demonstrate a physical comedy move, fold to the floor like an accordion, bounce up to tell a joke from his new stand-up comedy act and, ultimately, prime us for the first reunion of Shields & Yarnell in five years (eight since their last local performances as a duo) at Mingus Union High School in Cottonwood (June 10, 11 and 12), and the Scottsdale Center for the Arts (June 17).
In anticipation of this event, we sat down with Robert to talk about his show business career, and what to expect when he and Yarnell get together for these increasingly rare shows – Lorene, now remarried, lives and teaches dance in Norway, Robert says, so their opportunites to perform together are limited.
The streets of San Francisco were Robert Shields’ first big stage. He had studied mime at Marcel Marceau’s school in France, wound up in the Bay area and honed his act, which became a Union Square sensation. “When I was performing in the street, it was so magical,” he recalls. “I can’t explain it, it was just something that was really solid. And I got recognition for it right away.”
One San Franciscan who caught the buzz was film director Francis Ford Coppola, who had just made The Godfather, and had returned to his hometown to shoot his brilliant if less well-known follow-up, The Conversation. The movie begins with a shot of Robert doing his act in Union Square. “He [Coppola] came down to talk to me and said, ‘I’m going to put five cameras on the top of that building and I am going to shoot you.’ Five cameras! The first thing he said to me is, ‘How do you see all of this?’ I thought that was amazing.” But also an education. “I was kind of upset when we went to the actual opening of it in Oakland. We shot for four days; I thought it would be more of my act. I was 19 or 20, what did I know? It is a striking opening scene.”
The Conversation may be a cinematic landmark, but for Shields, a part on a long-forgotten TV special called Folderol was much more important: It was on the set of that production he met Lorene Yarnell. “We just fell in love instantly,” he says. “We were both Aries; our father and mother were born on the same day; we’re both left-handed. We have the same number of letters in both of our names. It was destiny.
“She is an incredible dancer and clown,” Robert says, but “she didn’t know mime at the time; I trained her. Mime is a very difficult art form, if you do it right. She worked at it for hours. We were probably among the first people to buy a video camera. It was an expensive piece of equipment, but we managed to get one for doing a gig. She worked every day watching tape [of me] to copy my moves.”