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Clown by

The clown had a conundrum.

Sure, he had scored an enviable role in a Las Vegas Strip extravaganza, giving him the chance to wow a well-heeled audience and secure the Holy Grail of entertainment -- a steady paycheck. After the cast of “Le Reve” took its nightly bow, however, there wasn’t much in town to satisfy Amos Glick’s artistic soul.

In New York and Los Angeles, performers seeking creative outlets have an embarrassment of options: poetry readings, performance art, guerrilla theater. Not so much in Las Vegas. Though the number of entertainers here dwarfs that of larger cities -- the Cher impersonators alone could pack a convention hall -- Vegas grew big before it grew up.

Support for the arts? Minimal. Stages willing to showcase unpolished acts? Very few. Magicians, aerialists and contortionists can earn a living in a showroom, but have few outlets akin to comedians’ open-mike nights where they can test new material or just let their hair down.

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Save the occasional post-midnight party where they performed for fellow performers, the Strip’s non-marquee talent recreated the same routines night after night after night. So Glick dreamed up a solution.

Welcome, folks, to the “OK, OK, the amos glick variety show.” (Adult supervision recommended.)

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“Raise your right arms, clutch your buttocks and throw monkey poo!”

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Sean Kempton, 38, Glick’s friend and fellow clown and tonight’s MC, is rallying the dozens of young, lithe creatures packed into the smoky Square Apple bar. Many scrubbed off their stage makeup but a few hours ago, and headed east of the Strip to this downtown hangout near hole-in-the-wall Asian eateries and a fetish shop with its own theater.

On this sultry August night, at 12:20 a.m., the crowd is primed for Kempton’s bawdy humor. The seating is so cramped, the stage so small, that it’s like telling dirty jokes to a dinner party.

When the left side of the room finishes pretending to toss monkey poo, Kempton turns to the right. His red-sequined jacket gleaming and an impish grin spreading across his face, Kempton asks the audience to mime something else.

We can’t print that something here, but the audience responds enthusiastically. Kempton and his wife, Michaela O’Connor, a 35-year-old aerialist, have helped Glick nurture his variety show for about a year. This tiny stage is where Kempton learned that his skit about getting trapped in a rocket ship and needing to urinate cracked up the audience, but his riff on speed-walking bombed.

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That’s the value of experimenting before a live crowd. “I could see why it didn’t hit,” he says, “so it was very successful even though I failed.”

The mega-productions offered on the Strip tend to showcase breathtaking precision and daredevil stunts, but few artistic risks. “Avenue Q,” a musical with sex between puppets and tunes such as “The Internet Is for Porn,” won several Tony Awards but closed at Wynn Las Vegas after nine months. “Hairspray,” whose leading lady is a man in drag, lasted less than four at the Luxor.

Since the opening of “Le Reve,” also at Wynn, some of the darker and stranger elements of the aquatic production have been scrapped. Out: the female divers with fake baby bellies. In: ballroom dancers choreographed by a guy from “Dancing With the Stars.”

At the Square Apple, by contrast, envelope-pushing is embraced. At past shows, a contortionist named Lady Labella twisted herself into new pretzels, and a man donned a lucha libre mask for a comedy routine (though Glick quashed his efforts to mix balloons and sex jokes).

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Tonight, two straight-faced male gymnasts, in gold makeup and gold Speedos, do a balancing act that includes suggestive poses they could probably never get away with on the Strip. The audience howls.

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Not long after Kempton gives the audience more unprintable commands, Glick, 42, bounds onto the stage in a white tuxedo and black bow tie reminiscent of his clown costume in “Le Reve.”

Glick moved here in 2007 from San Francisco, where he had performed in political comedy and improv groups. He arrived with a six-week contract for “Le Reve” and no guarantee of an extension. “What a great little adventure,” he thought.

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Since then, Vegas has grown on him, though frustratingly. There wasn’t really anywhere he could tinker with new routines.

“Every performer needs an outlet,” he recalls thinking. “Like, ‘I’m an acrobat and I’m going to sing a song.’ You need to try out things and see where the audience goes nuts.”

So one night, after watching a friend who had been in Cirque du Soleil’s “O” play her cello at what’s now the Square Apple, he asked the managers about hosting his own variety show. (He came up with the name under duress -- a local reporter was demanding one and Glick responded with, “OK, OK!”)

After a year of shows held every four or six weeks, Glick recalls some favorite moments: a “Le Reve” wardrobe technician stunned crowds with shadow puppets and a member of the Coasters dropped in after a performance at the Sahara to belt out a few tunes. Last month Glick staged a variety show at Planet Hollywood to raise money for a scholarship fund in memory of a co-worker.

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At the dimly lighted Square Apple, barflies stumble upon the show unexpectedly -- and sometimes need to be shushed -- but many in the crowd are sympathetic mimes, gymnasts and ballerinas. And no one here gets paid.

“Who here has never worked in a circus?” Glick asks tonight, and perhaps a third of the audience raise their hands.

He calls a fellow “Le Reve” performer to the stage and asks him if it’s true he’s leaving the show to work for Cirque, whose acrobatic shows dominate the Strip. Yes, he replies. Glick asks if he’ll make more money. Yes again. Cue the song “Please Don’t Go.”

Glick launches into a routine that makes onlookers either double over in laughter or look away -- or both. He takes off his jacket. He unbuttons his shirt. He flashes red nipple covers. Their tassels swish-swish. He shimmies, and his friend’s reaction is a mix of amusement and sheepishness.

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Glick takes off his pants. He’s wearing briefs with ruffles. His bow tie is askew. He ends his mock striptease with mock shame. The audience claps and roars.

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Kempton points to a black plush curtain hung across the stage and mischievously tells the crowd: “We took that from my daughter’s room.” O’Connor hops out in a red jumpsuit and pigtails to portray a cat. A very bad cat.

The couple met at a circus in London, where they were paired as trapeze partners. Cobbling together rent from a string of theater and corporate performances, they were constantly hashing out new routines for new auditions.

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In 2004, after Kempton was hired at “Le Reve,” they moved to Vegas, where O’Connor also got a part in the show. Though they relished the performing equivalent of 9-to-5 jobs -- particularly after the birth of their daughter, Chloe, a year and a half ago -- they also yearned to try new things.

“It seems you’re either financially rich or creatively rich,” O’Connor says.

Glick’s idea resonated with them. Kempton was determined to present two new acts in each show. O’Connor, who normally dangles from a sphere high above a crowd, honed her comedy skills: “It’s easier because you’re not going to die if you get something wrong.”

Tonight, with fingers bent to mimic cat claws, she pretends to be blasted with a hair dryer and enthralled with a scratching post. She yanks a woman out of the audience and drags her behind the curtain. The woman reappears in a torn coral-colored tank top. Laughter. Still behind the curtain, O’Connor launches a hair ball.

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The applause dies down. Kempton reappears: “I married that,” he says.

He goofs off for a bit -- an audience member agrees to rub a red balloon on Kempton’s pants until it pops -- before telling the crowd that he and O’Connor will soon be leaving town. They’re moving to Australia, where she was born.

The audience cheers for them. “And you,” he says, “are in Vegas.” They boo.

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The goodbyes keep coming.

Kempton singles out a guitar player who has worked in Vegas for five years. “That’s forever!” Kempton tells the audience. The young man is moving to New York.

Then comes a hand-balancing routine, in which a bare-chested man holds handstands atop wooden blocks on metal poles. “Le Reve” acrobats and swimmers writhe through a belly dance. A rousing step-percussion group named Molodi, which has yet to be scooped up by Strip producers, brings the crowd to its feet.

By now it’s 1:54 a.m., and Glick brings Kempton and O’Connor back for a final -- really, folks, this is the last one -- farewell.

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The audience hoots and claps with more enthusiasm than even tourists on the Strip.

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

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latimes.com/columnone

Previous Column One articles

are available online.

* For more photos of performances at the “OK, OK, the amos glick variety show” in Las Vegas, go to latimes.com/performers.

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