LAS VEGAS -- Brian Dewhurst always knew he would be a circus act.
The English performer was born into a family of knife throwers, jugglers and animal trainers. He made his professional debut on the European circus circuit at 13, with a boyhood education comprised of lessons in juggling, acrobatics, stilt walking and dancing on a tightrope. As an adult, he started his own circus troupe and entertained his two children by trimming the hedges while on stilts.
For Dewhurst, the only unexpected thing about his life's devotion is that people are surprised he is still doing it. The celebrated acrobat and clown is the oldest performer employed by Cirque du Soleil, the upscale Canadian circus with 22 shows across the globe. Last week Dewhurst marked his 80th birthday as he would any other work day -- by starring in two back-to-back performances of "Mystere," a psychedelic exploration of the passage of time at the Treasure Island hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
"My father worked into his late 80s, so I don't think this is anything unusual," Dewhurst said as he prepared for his first performance on his birthday. "It's just another day."
Of course, it wasn't, and his castmates and relatives were not about to let Dewhurst forget it.
He began the night by teasing out his fine, gray hair into the loony halo that has become the calling card of Brian Le Petit, the rude clown Dewhurst portrays in "Mystere." He coated his bushy, white eyebrows with a black makeup pencil and lined his eyes to make them stand out on stage. He wore his customary costume of an oversized black suit and white shirt, with a red foam clown nose tucked away for later.
The birthday surprises began shortly after Dewhurst entered the theater.
As Le Petit, his job is to warm the crowd up by irritating them until they laugh.
As the cast closed the performance with a bow, they led the audience in "Happy Birthday to You" as Dewhurst looked on.
Later dozens of cast mates and relatives, including his six grandchildren, surprised Dewhurst with a party in the empty theater.
It was a celebration Dewhurst had avoided for decades. He said he never did much to observe the usual milestone birthdays, not his 30th or his 40th or his 50th, either.
All he ever did, he said, was work.
Old family photos show Dewhurst walking with his hands on a tightrope, his body above him in a head stand position. His hair was dark then.
After performing for years with his parents and sister, Dewhurst launched his own circus troupe with his children. The show caught Cirque's eye and the Dewhurst family was invited to hold workshops on their craft. They later joined the company.
Dewhurst served as the artistic director of "Mystere" when it opened in 1993 in Las Vegas. The show follows a babbling baby as it encounters contortionists, dancers, clowns and acrobats. Musicians pound Japanese drums and a giant, colorful snail named Alice slides across the stage.
After two years, Dewhurst longed to return to the spotlight. He became Le Petit and was given his own segment within the show, during which he makes advances at a young lady in the crowd and pretends to fatally shoot a dancing bird. At one point, he partially unbuttons his shirt and tweaks his nipples mid-dance. At each performance the audience erupts with laughter whenever Dewhurst enters the theater.
"He's kind of that crazy uncle at a wedding who is always running around bothering people," the show's artistic director David Gomez said of the character Dewhurst portrays.
Dewhurst's family said he won't give up the spotlight.
"He lives for this," said daughter Sally Dewhurst, 37.
With 10 performances each week, Dewhurst's craft is demanding. He said he stays fit with regular exercise and eating well. His body is trim and he looks younger than his 80 years.
Aging has forced him to slow down somewhat. He no longer walks the tightrope.