REED CITY — Rudy Grahek’s inner child is kindly, comical and, thankfully, ageless. And even if his pace has shifted to a gear between slow down and sit down, his life-long drive has remained true to course: live life in the fast lane of laughter.
Turning 87 in just a few months, the longtime northern Michigan tramp clown is celebrating over six decades in a lime-green and sun-yellow derby, painted face, tattered clothes and over-sized shoes. And make no mistake about it, he has no intention of retiring his alter ego, Dynamite the Clown.
“Clowns never retire,” Grahek said. “We slow down, but we never retire.”
Over the years, Grahek as Dynamite has appeared in a road map of northwestern Michigan communities and their events, including the National Cherry Festival many times over. In April he performed at the National Trout Festival in Kalkaska and in September, for the 63rd year in a row, he’ll appear in the Manton Labor Day Parade.
But if his pace has slowed — he no longer walks in parades, he rides in golf carts — one thing that hasn’t is his gift of gab. Dynamite has a catalog of one-liners he shares with his audience, many of which poke fun at himself.
“I used to tell people that at my age, you prefer riding in a convertible to a hearse,” he said. “ Now I tell ‘em I prefer riding in a golf cart, to a hearse. And the women tell me I look better in make-up — lots and lots of make-up.”
This year Dynamite has already worked, or will work, 42 parades, fairs, promotional shows and other events, mostly in central and northern Michigan. It’s about half the number of gigs he did in 1963 when he topped out at 90. By his own estimation he’s taken his crowd-pleasing schtick to over 150 Michigan communities.
He’s also opened shows, or been the “front man” greeting and entertaining fans as they entered venues, for the likes of Roy Clark, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Minnie Pearl, Bing Crosby and more.
Wherever he’s performed there’s been one common thread — laughter.
“One thing about laughter, it never gets old,” said Dynamite, who grew up watching TV/movie personalities Emmett Kelly and Red Skelton, who often donned a tattered costume and grease paint to become Freddie the Freeloader. “I like all the towns I play. Every town is unique and nice in its own way. I like to call them all my home.”
A 1952 Cadillac High School graduate and a U.S. Army veteran who now lives near Reed City, Dynamite was teased to chase a career in clowning after high school, working a few gigs for the then-popular Clyde Beatty Circus. Then, after being honorably discharged from the Army and returning stateside, he officially began his career in clowning in 1956. He hosted the Fox TV 33 Kids’ Club Show from 1990 to 1993.
While his parade appearances earned him a place in northern Michigan folklore, hosting the Kids’ Club Show solidified his identity.
“I still have a lot of ‘kids’ who come up and say they grew up watching me,” Dynamite said of the TV show. “To this day, a lot of them reach out just to shake my hand and say ‘thanks.’ That’s pretty humbling.”
But the best of times, he said, came years later when his sons began to share his love for the grease paint and oversized clothes.
His first-born son, Mike, wore his own little costume and became Dynamite Junior, even as he was learning to ride a bike. Years later his second son, Jeff, also put on the tattered costume to become Dynamite Junior.
“That was quite a sight,” Grahek said. “Everybody loved seeing me coming down the street with Dynamite Junior scrambling to keep up. Gosh, but those were fun, unforgettable times.”
Grahek didn’t attend a specialized “clown school” to learn his facetious forte, nor did he read a “how-to-book” on the subject. Rather, he says with a beaming smile, he was born a clown, plain and simple.
“If you’re going to be a clown, you’re a clown from birth,” he said, adding that he might have ripped and refined his hobo-like costume to resemble Emmett Kelly’s but that he added speaking to his audiences. “A clown is a clown is a clown, from the time he or she is born, until they die. Oh, you might pattern yourself after other clowns, but you’re always going to be your own clown, no matter what.”
Now there’s more to Dynamite than meets the chuckle. Over the years he’s become quite the artist for creating string balloon masterpieces, including swans, elephants, rabbits, giraffes, dogs, cats, bi-planes, hearts, crowns, light sabers and more to pass out to his audiences.
“I love kids — kids of all ages,” he said. “There’s no better feeling than making a kid laugh.”