Greetings from aboard Amtrak Acela Train 2166 headed to Union Station in New Haven, Connecticut, where I reminisce about Hy Katz’s hilarious journey to meaningful work
I write my post early this week to honor the life of Herman “Hy” Katz—husband, father, father-in-law, restaurant owner, and for over 50 years, the acclaimed Shriner “Klown” known as Big Eyes.
Hy passed away on Sunday following a brief illness. He was 85 years old.
I write this weekly post days early to honor a man who, like all serious performers, lived by a strict code: know your lines and never be late for a performance. Hy and his wife Karol were always the first attendees to arrive at social events such as the alumni gatherings for the summer camp where their son Stu and I attended as campers and worked as staff. I admired Hy for his punctuality; part of it was old school professionalism, but part was that Hy could never bear to miss a moment of presence in the lives of the people in his life and community.
Stu and I have been best of friends for nearly 50 years. As a teenager when visiting my hometown of New Haven, I almost always stayed at the Katz’s home. Actually, that home was Hy’s shrine to clowning. On one dining chair I would discover Hy’s brightly colored clown shoes; on another the new clown costume that Karol sewed for him, and on the dining table one of Hy’s many rainbow wigs alongside Big Eyes’ signature sunglasses.
Of course, I’d always discover in the bathroom several jars of Clown White makeup; that’s where Hy Katz transformed himself into Big Eyes the legendary Shriner Klown.
For 25 years, Hy earned a living at the business end of a griddle at Hy’s Village Restaurant, rising about 3:30 each morning for the 4 a.m. bakery pickup of bread and rolls. It was between the grill and the counter that Hy tested out new comedy material on his patrons, including me. I remember most of the jokes, but all of them are too “blue” to relate here in this post.
Hy’s work journey was this: set aside some income from the daily restaurant sales receipts to be a clown, for transforming himself into the Shriner Klown named Big Eyes would become his most meaningful work.
Hy hated sadness. Hating it so deeply was motivation enough for him to deliver great performances to so many seriously ill children in hospital. He made frail little boys and girls light up, enjoy a belly laugh, forget their troubles, and cherish the balloon animals he made for them.
My personal favorite was Hy’s balloon poodle.
I got to see Big Eyes warm little kids’ hearts a dozen or so times in my life, the last time in 1990 at Milford, Connecticut’s big Fourth of July Parade. According to Stu, over 50 years, Hy transformed into Big Eyes at least 1,500 times.
Hy reminds me that my work can have a profound and positive impact on other people, like those sick kids he visited in pediatric acute care units. Work can be joyful, it should be. Hy’s work “clowning” brought him great joy. It didn’t have to pay him a plug nickel to be meaningful.
Tomorrow, we will celebrate Hy Katz’s wonderful life. Many will cry tears of sadness, but I hope that they will laugh as well. Hy wanted to leave this life making us all belly laugh:
Make ’em roar, make ’em scream,
Don’t you know all the world wants to laugh?
My Grandpa said, “Go out and tell ’em a joke
But give it plenty of hoke.”
Make ’em roar, make ’em scream,
Take a fall, butt a wall, split a seam.
You start off by pretending you’re a dancer with grace,
You wiggle till they’re giggling all over the place,
And then you get a great big custard pie in the face,
Make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh!
Our best days lie ahead.
DAN SMOLEN is founder of The Dan Smolen Experience. He is also the executive producer and host of The Tightrope with Dan Smolen podcast. Listen and subscribe to us by keywording “The Tightrope with Dan Smolen” on Apple Podcasts. Also, please rate us and offer suggestions for future guests and topics.
Photo credits: Hy Katz; New Haven Register; Karol and Hy Katz, and Big Eyes the Shriner Klown, Stuart J. Katz.
Song credit: Make ‘em Laugh, Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed.