While many parents chalk up an afternoon in front of the television as adequate entertainment for their kids, Kenny Haas is a throwback to the days of 1960s variety shows. And when he calls himself “a one- man Ed Sullivan Show,” take heed. Known to his legions of young fans as the Mayor of Storyville, he 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 Chicago area.
Not bad for a guy who, in his day job as an advertising copywriter, won 80 awards in the last six years, and still managed to record a children’s album.
“The trick is to figure out what your gifts are and use them,” says Haas, whose mother’s family hails from Casina di Buti in Tuscany. “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. I have many talents, but I’m about developing their talent.”
Haas’ maternal grandparents exerted a huge influence on his life path. He was close to his grandfather, Narciso Buti, who taught him Italian. “He went around the kitchen and pointed to everything in Italian,” Haas recalls. “He wanted to make sure everything cultural was not lost. After that, he lit a cigarette and said, ‘You wanna smoke-a?’ I was 7 years old, but he had smoked cigarettes since he was 7.”
Even in casual conversation, Haas lights up with performer’s charisma. Aside from taking the Mayor of Storyville to many schools, he’s also written an Aladdin “Look and Find” book for Disney, and 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. “The 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 Haas stays down long. He’s developing a series of five-minute Mayor of Storyville “webisodes” for a YouTube channel he plans to create.
“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 it.”
That is, up to a point: “When I see shows where the parents are made to look stupid, it drives me nuts,” Haas says. “It’s about respect, not just for adults, but for the kids. It’s something we grew up with, and it’s part of our fabric. My nonno wore a suit, tie and hat to a job as a janitor. To him, that was respect: ‘I may be a janitor, but that does not define my life.’ And with The Mayor of Storyville, I wanted something respectful.”