Shields & Yarnell: The clever mime team who hit their stride in the ’70s

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Lorene Yarnell and Robert Shields - Click Americana

Mime team Shields & Yarnell gets their own TV series (1977)

By Vernon Scott – News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio) June 8, 1977

Shields & Yarnell, the enormously attractive team of husband-wife mimes, will be seen in six television hours this summer in their own series, a happy switch from guest appearances on other shows.

The two are unusual personally as they are professionally. Married four and a half years, Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell share a common show business background.

Lorene began her professional career as a dancer at age four. At 15, she was a member of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera.

Robert worked with a rock band and became a San Francisco tourist attraction, performing mime in that city’s Union Square. He eventually studied with France’s master of mime, Marcel Marceau.

The two currently share a Hollywood Hills home, but plan to move this summer if they can find the sort of house they want in Malibu — preferably five bedrooms and an all-purpose room that can be converted into a studio.

Vintage Dynamite magazine cover - Shields and Yarnell

Their needs are very special. “Home” to Shields and Yarnell is a combination rehearsal hall, living quarters and display case for their collections.

Robert is a talented ceramic sculptor. His specialties are castles fashioned from porcelain and stoneware. They stand about 36 inches high and take him three weeks to make. They are detailed and colorfully ornate fantasies, which include dragons, frogs, princesses and court jesters. There are some 30 castles on display in their current quarters.

While Robert is busy creating castles in a special workroom, Lorene is off in Griffith Park riding her Arabian show horse which she boards at a nearby stable. Once in awhile, Robert joins her on a ride through the park.

One large room of the house is devoted strictly to the couple’s collection of antique toys. It’s a child’s dream come true. They have no children of their own, but are planning a family in the next four or five years.

Arrayed in cases and shelves are row on row of dolls, puppets, cars, tin soldiers, mechanical wind-up toys, trains, pinwheels, masks and penny arcade machines, among hundreds of other toys to delight the young in heart. Many of the toys, among them a collection of jacks-in-the-box, are foreign.

“Some people don’t understand our toys,” Robert says. “They think the money and effort would be better spent on cars or stereo or something.

“We study the movements of the mechanical toys to use in our act. Anyhow, Lorene had a great doll collection when we first met, and we’re both fascinated that toys are adult things miniaturized for children.”

Shields and Yarnell c1977
Shields and Yarnell, husband and wile mimes, will be seen in their own series of six television hours this summer. Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell have been married for four and a half years, and both have show business backgrounds.

A favorite pastime is attending toy shows in and around Los Angeles. They also enjoy going to the beach on weekends, a treat they haven’t enjoyed lately.

Because Robert and Lorene do all the writing and choreography for their CBS-TV series, they work seven days a week. Even when they’re not working, the two devote four or five hours a day to physical workouts and rehearsals of their complicated pantomime acts.

Their living room has been converted into a studio with bare wood floors and mirrors in which to study their routines. Because their act is so strenuous, they each work out at a health club daily to keep their bodies in perfect trim.

They watch their diets, too. Husband and wife are both vegetarians. Robert does the cooking, and Lorene does the cleaning up afterwards.

Robert and Lorene greet the day at 8 a.m. and after a breakfast of orange juice and toast report to CBS at 9 where they rehearse until 6 p.m., breaking only long enough for a noonday salad at a health food restaurant. Their return home is occasion enough for their pets, a cat named Sadie and a malamute who answers to Atu, to come running.

Shields and Yarnell are much too busy to socialize. They seldom entertain and rarely attend parties. Both Robert and Lorene dress stylishly and expensively. Their philosophy on clothes is simple enough, according to Robert. “If you look good, you feel good,” he says.


Shields & Yarnell variety show promo from 1977


‘Robot’ couple Shields & Yarnell

By Harry Harris, Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania) June 12, 1977

Robots are rife. Television last season introduced as costarring series characters Gregory (Yoyo) Yoyonovitch in “Holmes and Yoyo” and John Haven in “Future Cop.” Among the chief attractions in the sci-fi movie hit “Star Wars” are what Time magazine dubbed “the Laurel and Hardy of the cybernetic world,” Artoo Detoo and Threepio [R2D2 & C-3PO].

Monday night at 8:30 marks the start of a six-week visit by a malfunctioning mechanized couple, the Clinkers. They’re “regulars” in CBS’ half-hour warm-weather comedy-variety series, “Shields and Yarnell.”

They’re mimed by the flesh-and-blood husband-and-wife team of Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell, who can also — as they’ll demonstrate — talk, sing and dance.

Entertainers Shields and Yarnell Lorene Yarnell - Robert Shields - Click Americana com

Most impersonators of nonhumans are robots-come-lately, but Bob Shields, 26, born Schildkraut (a cousin was the late stage and screen actor Joseph Schildkraut, “but my mother changed our name because of jokes about sauerkraut”), has been aping lifelessness since childhood.

“As a kid,” he said by telephone from California (where he had just finished a seventh show — “so we can replace anything we don’t like in the other six”) “I was fascinated by manikins.

“I stared at them by the hour. Friends said it was eerie. I’d practice being a ‘mechanical man’ in front of a mirror for hours.

“I was a strange kid anyway, very eccentric. I didn’t talk until I was 5. My parents were distressed, but a doctor told them, ‘He simply doesn’t want to talk.’

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“In high school, I’d come to class every day in a different costume. When I was called to the blackboard, I’d go into my ‘mechanical man’ act. The kids were fascinated. The teacher would throw me out on my ear.

“When I was 17, I did the act at an assembly, and the audience wouldn’t stop applauding. That’s when I knew I had something.

“One summer I joined a traveling sideshow as ‘Robby the Robot.’ For two years, dressed in a bandleader outfit, I stood outside the Hollywood Wax Museum. When a crowd formed, I’d walk inside, and they’d follow me.

“It was a great way to meet girls! “Not blinking is the whole key. It took me years to develop the eye muscles [at the] back of the eye tissue, but now I can go 2-1/2 hours without blinking.”

Shields and Yarnell 1977

Famed French mime Marcel Marceau heard of Shields and offered him a free scholarship at his Paris school, but Shields, 19, stayed only briefly.

“Everybody dressed like Marceau and did the ‘wall’ thing and all his other sketches.

“There are thousands of mimes in this country, some of them brilliant, but most are trapped in material associated with other people — like Marceau or Charlie Chaplin… Marceau was annoyed, but I said, ‘Marcel, I want something that’s me.'”

Heading for San Francisco in 1970, he became a local celebrity with hat-passing performances in Union Square, mimicking passers-by’s characteristics. Because he drew large, traffic-impeding crowds, he was repeatedly arrested as a public nuisance.

In 1972, a casting coincidence led to radical revision of his routines. He was signed for an ABC special, “Fol-de-Rol” [from Sid and Marty Krofft]. In the cast was a dancer, Lorene Yarnell.

The sister of the late Bruce Yarnell, a singer, actor and TV series star (NBC’s 1961 “Outlaws”) she had danced on “Shindig,” “The Hollywood Palace” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” and in movies like “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Sweet Charity.”

“It was love at first sight,” Shields said. “The first day of rehearsal, I asked her out. She was fascinated by mime; I was fascinated by dance. “She’s a tap dancer of a rare kind, like Eleanor Powell in those old movies — a drummer with her feet. “Usually when you court a girl, you take her to dinner and make love, and then what is there? We had many, many interests in common.

“The strange thing about us is that we’re like different halves of the same person.” They’re both Aries, born in March; both natives of Los Angeles, both brown-haired and brown-eyed, both left-handed. Their fathers were born the same day. Before they met, they had the same agent and of the same friends.

Entertainers Shields and Yarnell

They affected hairstyles and shared a passion for collecting toys. “Two months after we met,” Shields said, “I suggested that we become a mime team. Ideas kept coming into my head, all the things a man and woman could do on love and other relationships between the sexes — comedy, but with built-in ‘messages.’

“We made our first joint appearance at a mostly gay theater in San Francisco at a midnight show in 1972.” She didn’t perform. She held signs. She first did mime publicly at a fair.

“To achieve technique, you have to practice hours and hours. We spend up to five hours a day doing all kinds of exercises. For the robot thing you must really work on your eyes, hands and eyebrows — left side, right side, peak in the middle.

“It’s like ballet. You have to practice constantly, without letup, or you get sloppy.”

Shields and Yarnell performed together in San Francisco for several years and were wed — in a mime ceremony that attracted national attention — in Union Square.

Perhaps San Francisco’s hottest tourist attraction, they headed for Los Angeles in 1975, seeking coast-to-coast exposure. They were not greeted rapturously. “Everybody said the same thing: ‘Mimes? You’ve got to be kidding!'”

Lorene Yarnell and Robert Shieldsat Click Americana

After winning out over 3,000 amusement park auditioners for an amateur talent program, they were signed for a Las Vegas revue, “Doo Dah Daze”; acquired TV variety show producer-director Steve Binder as manager; were introduced to national TV audiences first on “The Merv Griffin Show” and then on “Tonight,” and became “regulars” on variety series starring Mac Davis and Sonny and Cher.

Their greatest TV impact, however, came last season — on Christmas Eve — in an Emmy-winning CBS special written by Shields, “Toys on the Town.”

Set in New York’s F.A.O. Schwartz toy store, it was about two dolls granted a Yuletide wish, “to do anything you want for a day.”

Slowly becoming human, they spread joy all over the city, by doing things like letting the kids out of school. Then they went back to being robots. “It was a great vehicle for us, because we came to life.”

A mime sequence in which they sum up the Fifties in seven minutes — “buying, selling, keeping up with the Joneses” — is a highlight of “American Moments,” the Bicentennial film at Philadelphia’s Living History Center. That’s on a BIG screen.

They’re also slated to star as themselves on more usual-size theater screens in “Show Biz,” a musical based on their life story to be written and directed by Stanley Donen, whose past musicals have included “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

There’s talk of merchandising Shields and Yarnell dolls that Bob and Lorene could add to their 5,000-item toy collection.

“I thought success would come overnight,” Shields said. “I’m glad I was wrong. If it had happened earlier, it would have been only as a robot. I’d have been a flash in the pan. With Lorene, I’m much more versatile. There aren’t many things we can’t do.”

This week’s premiere will showcase that versatility in mimes, songs and dances. San Francisco’s Mayor George Moscone, who proclaimed last March at “Shields and Yarnell Day,” will introduce a Union Square-based film. Fayard Nicholas of the tap dancing Nicholas Brothers will join Lorene in pedal rataplans.

“There aren’t any ‘typical’ numbers. Skits, but no lengthy sketches — a beginning, a middle, an end, boom! and out. And no guest stars, except street performers like the phenomenal ‘spoon man’ we found in Santa Cruz, and an old man we found tap dancing on a New York corner.

“In most summer series, the star doesn’t have enough power to control content. But I’m one of the writers. Our manager, Steve Binder, is executive producer. And a good way to keep everything fresh and different is to own half the show!”


Where are they now?

Update from 2019: The duo divorced in 1986. Lorene Yarnell remarried and moved to Norway, but died in 2010 at age 66 from a brain aneurysm. Robert Shields is an active artist who lives near Sedona, Arizona. See his website at robertshields.com, and find out about his movie, “My Life as a Robot,” here and through the video preview below.


Robert Shields: My Life as a Robot (2020)

 

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