SAN FRANCISCO Heads turn when Kenneth Kahn confidently strolls into Hallidie Plaza. The brimstone preacher admonishing through the loudspeaker may monopolize the air, but Kahn squeaks his bike horn when he gains eye contact with strollers, or when someone turns to view the honker shouting “Let’s have some San Fran-silliness!”
They know it isn’t the preacher: Kahn is wearing a fluffy and sherbet-hued wig, blue sneakers, orange pants and a checkered jacket loud enough to trigger migraines at a Halloween party.
Besides honking, Kenny the Clown blows balloon hats and animals. He can also juggle fire torches – “On a skateboard, for the finale!” – but not just now. The day is young. Kenny the Clown just arrived downtown on a BART train from the East Bay, changed into his work outfit in a washroom and – who knows? – he may make some money by making people laugh.
He’s been doing this for 11 years. At age 45 or so, he fesses up to being a class clown when he was a kid, and to learning to juggle in eighth grade. He picked up doing magic tricks along the way.
He received a bachelor’s degree in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and did graduate work at San Jose State before he made a career choice to be foolish.
Kenny the candidate
Today he’s working the crowds with his colleague Al the Balloon Man. Both are keeping their eyes peeled for an Officer Marino, whom they say is quick to issue citations.
At one point, Al furtively edges up the street after thinking he spotted a policeman. False alarm, but both would have had a hard time melting into the crowd: Al is wearing an outrageous balloon hat as tall as Kenny, who describes himself as “a point guard trapped in a clown’s body.” They’re standing near the Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom stores, where shoppers tend to favor beige.
Kenny doesn’t have one of the busker permits the city encourages – but does not require – street entertainers to buy. (Note: He did buy He’s received $190 tickets, and “even if the charge is thrown out, having to turn up for arraignments and court appearances can cost you $350 or $400 in lost time.”
The topic makes his yellow and green hair curl. “I’ve gotten tickets for ‘selling’ things I’ve been giving away. Yes, I’m in a funny business, but this is no laughing matter.”
He says the city’s addiction to over-regulation, at the expense of common sense, is what caused him to once run for mayor of San Francisco with the slogan, “Let’s stop clowning around.” Kenny didn’t have the money to get his name on the ballot, but points out that during one of his two campaigns running for mayor in Alameda he got 10 percent of the vote.
Working a crowd of strangers seems to come naturally to him. When pedestrians thin out, he’ll offer a couple of loud horn honks and call for more San Fran-silliness.
Street entertainers like Ed the Tap Dancer amble by to compare notes. After Ed moves down the street, Kenny leans over and stage whispers, “I love the guy, but on stage I have to be No. 1!”
This can be a rough-and-tumble business, especially when buskers have to compete for attention and tips at popular places
“Fisherman’s Wharf?” Kenny asked. “I call it ‘Fisherman’s Turf’ – that’s how bad it can get.” (SF Weekly, by the way, named Kenny ‘Best Fisherman’s Wharf Artist’ back in 2008.)
He tells how Sunshine the Clown attacked him in front of a Mexican TV crew that was filming there.
Sunshine the Clown?
“She’s short, but she’s like a pit bull,” Al the Balloon Man explained.
Fame and foolishness
Making people laugh can have other complications.
Last year, he and an acquaintance from Alameda planned to fly to Hawaii. Fate intervened – the trip would cost each of them $300 more than anticipated.
This friend, according to Kenny, didn’t have the extra cash available, so he gave the clown an iPad. It was a fancy one, though Kenny used it primarily to download and play clown-appropriate music while performing.
“Then he called me a few days later and said he had to have it back. I figured, ‘Well, OK. He probably can pay me the cash I was owed.’ But he said someone was coming over to get it – and it was the police.”
It turned out the super-fancy 64 GB iPad was part of the loot stolen from a home owned by recently deceased Apple wizard Steve Jobs.
The guy who gave it to Kenny was charged. The unwitting clown was exonerated by the authorities but was pilloried by the local, national and international media anyhow.
Most of the 100,000 Internet postings about this affair last August careen between snarkiness and feigned disbelief. (Typical headline: “Kenny the Clown ends up with Steve Jobs’ stolen iPad.”)
But Kenny the Clown is still quick with a balloon, and –
– life goes on.
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