Jerry Hager and Larry Keough met in 1975. "When we were 2," Hager jokes, with his exaggerated smile and inability to rein in hand gestures when he speaks. Hager's a mime, and even when he's not teaching the art at a college, performing for school-age audiences or writing and performing in his own plays and variety shows, he's using pantomime to animate his day-to-day conversations. It's habit.
Keough isn't quite as hand-gesture happy, but his facial expressions are just as big. Both can't help but exhibit the effects of performing for years as mimes, clowns and other characters manufactured to entertain, and both say they wouldn't, or couldn't, have had it any other way. Despite their graying hair and the regular "When's the retirement?" question coming from family and friends, the two have put together a holiday-themed variety show, "Music with a Twist of Mime," which they'll perform at Oceanside's Sunshine Brooks Theatre Dec. 20 and 21. And similar to how the twosome knew they just had to do their first show, they know this one won't be their last.
"When I was younger, a part of me was screaming that there was this performer inside of me, but I kind of kept it quiet," Hager says, sitting comfortably in the living room of his nice two-story home at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in Santee. A Christmas-scented candle burns, and the thick piney smell wraps through the wreath, tree and countless other holiday knickknacks towering around Keough and Hager. They're smartly dressed in black and navy blue, and if it weren't for the hints of over-exaggeration in their body language, the show wagon in the driveway, the clown bike in the garage and what Hager calls the "office of a mime" (a room filled with mime and clown books and decor, plus a full-length mirror where Hager practices his craft), one might mistake the pair for an average set of golden-age suburban men.
"Because when you're young and in high school and you sit down with the school counselor and tell them you like acting," Hager says, "they're like, You can't make a living from acting-join the military.' And I'm like, Where'd that come from?' I went from standing onstage to standing in line. So that was what was going on inside of me, and it was funny, because when I met Larry, there was something that was pulling inside of him, as well."
Sure enough, Keough has a similar story. He taught himself how to juggle and loved it, but he literally had to drop the balls when he really did end up joining the military. The two eventually met through jobs in the city of San Diego's Park & Recreation Department, and it wasn't long before they brought out each other's inner yukster and started a performance group called Crazy Clowns. Hager came up with his mischievous mime character, Kazoo, and Keough juggled and clowned as Kazoo's trusty sidekick, Stu Mulligan. A few friends were part of the group but dropped out over time, leaving Keough and Hager as the core (a trend that would continue throughout their long careers).
Eventually, Hager and Keough left Crazy Clowns behind and continued down the same career path in therapeutic recreation-using performance as a form of therapy for people with mental and physical disabilities. They put together their next group, Fantasy Productions and performed at schools, festivals and places like Crisis Center, a place for people with schizophrenia where Hager worked. The Crisis Center was, as Hager puts it, "my last real job before I ran off to join the circus."
When Seaport Village opened in 1980, Hager saw his chance to make entertaining his fulltime gig. He performed as Kazoo at the grand opening for free, asked if he could come back the next weekend and then eventually asked if he could have gas money so he could continue coming back every weekend. He ended up winning his way into a weekly paid gig. He brought in his buddy Keough, of course, and the two started "Music with a Twist of Mime." Seaport Village operators ended up liking the show so much that they built the boys a stage, and Kazoo quickly became the face and unofficial ambassador of Seaport Village.
"We'd do the Kazoo's Kid Show' on Sunday," remembers Hager excitedly, "and we would take the kids at the end of the show on a parade through the village down to the carousel and they'd all get a free ride."
"And the carousel operator would dread it because we'd give all the kids kazoos," Keough says. "That was a magical time," he adds without a hint of hyperbole.
In 1985, Horton Plaza opened and Keough went from being Kazoo's trusty sidekick at Seaport to being the star of his own one-man wandering mime show at the shopping center. On top of that, the Del Mar Fair started inviting Keough and Hager to perform every year and the two continued to do "Music with a Twist of Mime" in schools. That was the heyday-they were spending more time in character than out. The two love looking through their thick scrapbooks filled with photos and memories of those times.
"Here's an article about when I left the village," says Hager, pointing to a Union-Tribune story in his scrapbook. In 2006, according to the piece, Seaport Village decided to "spice it up and change it around a bit," and so, after 26 years as the shopping center's resident mime, Hager left his post. An oversized pencil with the inscription "For Kazoo Only: Seaport Village, California" still sits atop Hager's dusty roll-top desk in his home office.
Keough's gig at Horton Plaza had already come to an end by then. "They just took the acts out," he says, glancing at a photo of himself performing in the plaza, "and they started hiring people who did things like the pan flute-you know, they were selling their CDs, so they stopped paying for entertainment and started hiring people that'd work to sell their CDs. But I was there for 11 or so years."
Perhaps predictably, the two ended up in teaching jobs-Hager at Grossmont College teaching a mime and drama class and Keough at Explorer Elementary School teaching music. They still perform annually at the fair and at a few schools now and then, but the age of paid public street performances has pretty much ended.
Neither Hager nor Keough is the least bit bitter, though. Hager's happy passing along the trade, most notably through Steam Powered Giraffe, a young musical pantomime group that's proud to cite Kazoo as their teacher and inspiration, and Keough's written a children book, Fragilly, which comes with a sing-along CD that features his and Hager's voices.
"So now," Keough says, flipping through his book. "I thought, here's where we've come to: We've come from performing live shows and now we've become these animated characters. So, I think this is going to be our exit, where we become animated characters and the story goes on forever. Isn't that funny?"
Music with a Twist of Mime is showing at Sunshine Brooks Theatre, 217 N. Coast Hwy. in Oceanside, at 2 and 6 p.m. Dec. 20 and 21. Steam Powered Giraffe will perform a lobby show.