Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 4, 2013

Dynamite the Clown will head up kids' parade

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Dynamite the Clown has a million and one shticks, all involving suitcases.

“Do you want to see my box of tricks,” he’ll say to a kid along the parade route. He grins, opens his suitcase and pulls out a cereal box of Trix.

“We just love seeing people laugh,” said Rudy Grahek, 80, on behalf of clowns everywhere. “Because people are so sober, so stressed-looking nowadays. If we can do anything crazy to make them laugh, it makes us laugh.”

Today Grahek will set aside his suitcase — all 28 of them — to ride as grand marshal of the National Cherry Festival Junior Royale Parade.

“As a marshal, I’m going to ride in a convertible,” he said. “I’ve got to ride, that parade is too long. It’s like starting in Saginaw and ending up in Manitowoc, Wisc. I’ll do a wave and meet and greet, just like the queen.”

Gary Kaberle, a past festival president, said it was his idea to invite Grahek to serve as grand marshal.

Kaberle surprised Grahek with the news about a month ago, when he showed up at his home in Paris, outside of Reed City, ostensibly to shoot photos of him with National Cherry Festival queen Meg Howard. Grahek opened the official invitation and teared up.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clown cry,” Kaberle said. “You can tell it really touched him.”

Kaberle met Grahek when he’d come into his parents’ restaurant and gift shop in Paris. Kaberle later moved to Traverse City and became involved with the National Cherry Festival in the mid-1970s.

“Rudy was always there. He’s the hardest-working person I know,” he said. “This is a guy who’s making all these people happy, and now he’ll be celebrated.”

Grahek fell in love with clowning when he went to circuses on the Cadillac fairgrounds where he grew up. He was a huge fan of Emmett Kelly and Red Skelton of radio, film and television fame.

“I portrayed my character after (Skelton’s) Freddie the Freeloader, the tramp clown that lived in the city dump,” Grahek said. “I’m copyrighted and registered my show name and my face pattern.”

At age 19, Grahek took a job with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus.

“I worked there for a month in ‘52, and then I got a call from a guy called Uncle Sam and he incorporated me into the United States Army,” he said. “I was in the battle of Pork Chop Hill, one of the worst battles of Korea. It was a hard, hard battle. I got through it okay, I was real fortunate. I’d seen a lot of the guys in my company, not only wounded, but dead, just plain dead.”

When Grahek returned home, he continued to clown, sold VW beetles for his day job, and raised a family.

“One son is a U.S. lieutenant colonel in the Army, another is on the crisis team for the FBI in Quantico, Virginia, and my daughter is a nurse in Detroit,” he said. “Where in the hell did I go wrong? Not one turned out to be a clown!”

Grahek said he’s now down to 42 parades a year,and gets paid $50 to $200 for each. “You gotta love this type of job, or you’d quit a long time ago,” he said.

He clowned for the National Cherry Festival for 29 years, but had dropped it in favor of a parade in Ludington.

“This year I had to dump Ludington when they asked me to be grand marshal,” he said. “This is a big honor; it’s the biggest event in Michigan.”