The Profiler: Kenny the Clown

The Profiler: Kenny the Clown

Marcy Morrison

Of the many uplifting quotes Kenny the Clown holds in his mental file, one is worthy of at least two recitations during the course of our interview.

“Spreading joy and happiness is like perfume,” he said. “You can’t spread it without having a lot of it come back to you.”

As the imposing, six foot-plus former basketball player bounded down the street toward me on a warm spring morning, I saw him manifest that quote before he even uttered it. A beam of sunshine seemed to follow his comfortably friendly face like a spotlight as he turned left to shake a hand, right to slap a back, teetered on the edge of the Webster Street sidewalk to wave to a friend across the street.

“This guy is a parade unto himself,” I realized, as I watched him pass by the well-wishers, finally getting close enough to cast a strapping shadow in my direction. You’d recognize him. You’ve seen him, at the Alameda Art and Wine Fair, at the Park Street Car Show, at Concerts at the Cove. This is our town clown, Kenny the Clown.

Kenneth Kahn began taking this funny business seriously about 11 years ago. But just before he did, he was enrolled in graduate school at the University at California, Berkeley, with the goal of being, as he puts it, “the best child therapist in the world.” But he was too much of a softie. He’d see kids who were in such emotional pain that eventually, the daily heartbreak took too much of a toll on him. With an unusually downcast face, Kahn lamented, because of the restrictions placed on the relationship between the social worker and client, “I felt there was nothing I could do for them. I felt like my hands were tied.”

Today, his hands are untethered, free and moving in a blur, creating balloon animals, balloon flowers, balloon hats. Free to juggle torches on fire, free to make coins appear magically from thin air.

How did the transition from psychology books to patent leather clown shoes come about?

Out of grad school, out of a job, out of sorts and at his lowest point, Kahn said “yes” to an invitation from his former girlfriend to go with her to a Halloween costume party. Buki the Clown helped with his makeup. Buki told Kahn’s former girlfriend, “He’s pretty good at this clowning around stuff,” he recalled, and the rest is history.

When Kahn made his debut appearance as Kenny the Clown 11 years ago, you might have seen him working as a fledging jester twisting balloons for kids as you sipped a margarita at the former La Piñata on Park Street. When I first moved here about 12 years ago, that’s the first place I saw him. I looked up over my tostada shell and there he was with his big red nose, asking my then-8-year-old daughter if she’d like a doggy.

A year or so later, with his Alameda credentials firmly intact, Kahn branched out to more intimidating turf – San Francisco – where he says street performers can get a bit “territorial.” In real estate, it’s “location, location, location.” In street performing, according to Kahn, it’s “location, location and weather.” The place you stand can determine if you eat at night.

“I loved the work so much, sometimes I’d do it if the weather was bad or the location was bad and I’d end up making $20 or $30 for eight hours work,” Kahn said. But his tenacity paid off and in 2008 he won the title “Best Fisherman’s Wharf Street Performer.”

The challenge in his world is to combine the art, which he loves, with some business acumen and at the same time, “build community.” It’s a daunting task, Kahn said, during which “you try to make the impossible look easy and the easy look beautiful.”

“Trying to get business and art working in harmony … it’s a juggling act!” he said.

While he’s fully aware that twisting individual balloon sculptures for each child in line might not be the most lucrative use of his time when compared with the tips garnered by juggling fiery torches for a crowd of 100, he does it anyway, just to make that individual contact with each kid. Kahn still considers himself somewhat of a child therapist.

At one point in his topsy-turvy life, Kahn also considered himself somewhat of a politician. In 2006, he felt “so much disillusionment and cynicism with politics” that he threw his hat in the ring and ran for mayor of Alameda. In the process of talking to the public about the issues, he really began to believe that he could provide leadership that wouldn’t be beholden to special interests. He was repulsed by outside groups who he said were looking to profit from our Island, who were as he put it “buying and selling elections.” That year, Kahn won 10 percent of the vote.

“Not bad!” he said, “especially since the campaign was financed by the sale of animal balloons.”

Kahn made a run for mayor of San Francisco in 2007 and tried again for mayor of Alameda in 2010. Both campaigns were unsuccessful. Kahn’s aspirations now are in the arena of public service rather than politics. He quotes Ralph Nader saying, “I’d rather work on government than in government.”

Kahn said clowns are misunderstood. “People watch way too many Hollywood movies where clowns are creepy,” he said, and often more twisted than Kahn’s balloons. Kahn said he has no dark, sad side, but people are understandably cautious around him.

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Kahn noted, the characters wore masks like a clown’s to hide their true intentions. But he said he uses his clown get-up to radiate his true intention, which is punctuated on this beautiful spring morning by his makeup free facial expressions: Excited eyebrows arching up to where a hairline used to be, mouth drawn up in such an enthusiastic smile that his eyes are almost closed, like little new moons smiling at the heavens.

“My intention is to spread love, joy and laughter to the world,” Kahn said. “It just takes people a while to understand and believe, that’s my true message.”