Uplifting People: The Mayor of Storyville
While many parents chalk up an afternoon in front of screens as adequate children's entertainment, Kenny Haas (a.k.a. The Mayor of Storyville) is a throwback to the days of 1960s variety shows, dressed in his sky-blue dress shirt, skinny suspenders and colorful tie.
And when he calls himself "a one-man Ed Sullivan Show," take heed: Haas sings, writes songs and stories, draws, and does voice impersonations and ventriloquism. That might make him the most multi-faceted children's performer in the Midwest.
But if you ask Haas how much money he makes when he takes his “Mayor of Storyville” show to an elementary school, here’s how he replies: “I don't make money. I lose money every time I do a show. Sometimes people buy me at fundraisers that benefit children, and the money goes to them. But it's the greater good, you know?”
So whether he’s teaching kids to sketch a horse, or reciting his fanciful tales about sharing squirrels, Haas keeps a singular focus in mind and heart: “God gives us our gifts, and my gift is to make kids realize they have talents – that they can say, ‘I can do that.’ It's that simple. It's empowering entertainment that brings kids and families together."
As an advertising copywriter, Haas has won 80 awards in the last six years. And while he’s got that ad man’s flair for self-promotion, he can’t help but give away the fruits of his labor. Take his children's album, The Mayor of Storyville: Now This is Fun. If you check out the Parents’ Choice Award-winning disc at CDBaby.com, Haas has seven tracks available for free download. As Haas puts it, "What good is being the Mayor of Storyville if you can’t give away free stories?"
If you’re expecting Raffi or Barney, guess again. Haas might perform like a pro, but he revels in his creativity like a kid in a sandbox. Take "Kitty Delight," perhaps the world’s first acapella doo-wop song about a lost cat, or “Don’t Let Those Chickens Run Away,” a percolating polka to rival any silly song on “VeggieTales.”
"Kids need to be constantly surprised, and I have a childlike curiosity," Haas says. I'm an entertainer and whatever it takes to draw the kids in, I'll do."
That kind of openness reflects the man’s love of God. Haas points out that the Mayor of Storyville came not from some ad campaign brainstorming session, but divine inspiration.
"The Mayor was given to me as a faith journey and I was told to go out there and do what I can with him," says Haas, who attends a Methodist church in his hometown of New Lenox, Ill., 30 miles southwest of Chicago. "I've never seen anyone bring a live audience to life the way I do. But I'm not there for me – I'm there for the children. And I don't ask to go to these places where I perform; they're put in my path."
Even in casual conversation, Haas lights up with a charisma that’s part performer, part believer. Aside from taking The Mayor of Storyville to many schools and churches, he's also written an Aladdin “Look and Find” book for Disney. He also came close to the big time in 1997, as one of 10 finalists for a reboot of "Capt. Kangaroo" by Saban Entertainment. He flew to Hollywood and auditioned well, but perhaps his thin frame hurt him. "They guy they chose was a beekeeper from New England, and he looked like Sebastian Cabot," Haas recalls. "But the kids didn't buy it."
Not that the effusive Haas ever stays down long. He's developed a series of five-minute Mayor of Storyville "webisodes" for the website Podomatic, and the eight shorts have garnered more than 1300 views in two months, making Haas one Podomatic’s top three performers for kids and family viewing in January.
Yet while Haas’ faith inspires his content, he takes great care not to come across as preachy. “If you do that, the kids will smell it out; kids are very smart and can smell a phony,” he says. “But if you talk in terms of parables – modern days parables with a lonely crayon – you can speak to Christian values. And those values never go away.”
“The Loneliest Crayon,” in fact, sounds like a kid-friendly version of Psalm 118. (“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”) In his story, a forlorn Gray Violet sits neglected in a box of crayons. But when asked to color the princess’ gown, all 63 of her crayon companions snap one by one, leaving her alone to finish the task.
Gray Violet comes through, and the princess grants her a wish. Gray Violet asks for all the broken crayons to be restored, and Haas ends the tale with a redemptive couplet about the value of friendship: “To love a cherish each one to the end/ For we’re all held together by the love of as friend.”
Does Haas have his dreams? You bet. “My goal is to have a children’s show filmed live at schools – schools that could never afford it, from inner-city schools to somewhere out in a rural town – and to syndicate it nationally.”
If it comes to pass, chalk it up as more proof that among kids’ artists, Kenny Haas makes the connection between spiritual gifts and giving it away like no one else.
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