TRAVERSE CITY — David Kaplan always wanted to be a musician. But playing the balloon and the turkey baster wasn’t originally what he had in mind.
The Cincinnati native began playing guitar when he was 11 and studied fine art at Ohio State University. That’s where he learned to juggle, a hobby that would eventually change his career and lead to a new kind of music-making.
“An elementary teacher friend asked me to come to the school and juggle and play guitar,” recalled Kaplan, who by then was playing music gigs and designing and selling wind chimes at craft shows to help pay the bills. “That was kind of an ‘aha’ moment. I played a song on the guitar and recorded it as I played it.
“Then I played the recording back and juggled an egg, a rubber chicken and a piece of cheese. And at the end I had double applause.”
That was the beginning of a street act that would morph into a one-man comedy-variety show including illusion, juggling, deadpan comedy and, of course, music — the funnier the better. Enter the “concert balloon,” the ukulele (his great-grandfather’s) and the common household turkey baster.
“You blow across the top like a bottle and then by squeezing the ‘turkey juice’ — colored water — it moves up and down and changes the size of the cavity and changes the pitch,” said Kaplan, 56, aka the “Great Kaplan.” “If you squeeze it just so, you can actually play a song.”
The Columbus, Ohio-based performer will bring his novelty act to Benzonia’s Mills Community House today and to the Williamsburg Theater on Saturday. Both shows are at 7:30 p.m.
Kaplan said the family show is a throwback to acts by the likes of Buster Keaton, Victor Borge, Peter Sellers, Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, Red Skelton, Jonathan Winters, the Smothers Brothers, Steve Martin and even Maxwell Smart. In it, he plays an earnest vaudeville performer whose act goes wrong in sometimes spectacular ways.
“If it’s funny, it’s funny,” said Kaplan, who was “one of” the class clowns at school. “I think comedy is kind of cyclical, too. In the ‘80s and ‘90s it was all topical. This kind of prop show is coming back. ‘America’s Got Talent’ is kind of a variety show.”
His own props include ordinary items like a paper bag and a hat, with which he does extraordinary things.
“Most of the things in my act are things people have a history with,” said the performer, whose skills and gimmicks range from juggling beanbag chairs to “taming” a rogue ball by seemingly defying the laws of physics. “It’s not some weird box that’s used for one trick. It’s stronger to have everyday objects because people know what it’s supposed to do and when they see it do other things, it’s more shocking and amazing.”
Kaplan, who has performed in 20 countries in five years, has come a long way from the performer who once juggled for two hours behind a chef-carving station and who dabbled in fire-eating until his face caught on fire. He won the “Peoples Choice” award at the 2006 International Brotherhood of Magicians convention in Miami and placed second at the 2008 IBM/SAM Competition — the world’s second-largest magic competition — with tricks he mostly invented.
Notable shows include a recent performance as guest “balloonist” with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and network television appearances on ABC TV’s “The View” and “The Statler Brothers Show” on TNN.
Tickets for his area shows are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Outlets include East Shore Market and Sugar Moon Cafe in Beulah, and Corner Drug in Frankfort (Benzonia show); and Brilliant Books, Oryana Natural Foods Market and West Side Beverage in Traverse City, and Ace Hardware and Stained Glass Cabinet in Acme (Williamsburg show). Doors open at 6 p.m. for the Williamsburg performance, with full bar service and appetizers available.
For more information, call Mills Community House at 882-0591 or the Williamsburg at 938-2181 or 941-8667.