E.B. GO Vision Media Secured for Publication a Sunday Los Angeles Times Article About Kenny Kahn, Author of The Carny Kid: Survival of a Young Thief, by Cecilia Rasmussen, Times Staff Writer
L.A. THEN AND NOW: A ‘Carny Kid’ Who
Beat the Odds Has Message for Youths
They pay attention when he strolls onto the campus of the high school in Los Angeles—a man sporting white hair and beard and a jolly attitude.
They pay attention when he strides into a Los Angeles courtroom too, or onto a nightclub stage—a man wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase and toting a five-pound volume of the California Penal Code.People pay attention to every incarnation of Kenny Kahn: to the 63-year-old lawyer, to the comedian, to the teacher. He’s a stand-up kind of guy in a couple of senses of the word, a champion of unpopular causes and of juvenile delinquents because he used to be one.
The scrappy underdog isn’t a role he chose; it’s one he was born into. He was the only Jewish teenager in an Eastside housing project. He was stricken with polio. He states that his parents were heroin addicts. The trauma of his young life could have been lifted from the pages of a Charles Dickens novel, but he tells it himself, with some darkly comic moments, in his first and recently published book, The Carny Kid: Survival of a Young Thief.
He gets paid for lawyering, he gets paid a lot less for comedy, and he gets paid nothing at all for teaching former gangbangers and other teenagers how to stay out of the criminal justice system at Save Our Future charter school south of downtown Los Angeles. He recognizes himself in those hostile kids who sit up straight and listen when he tells them how he got himself out of the projects and into a penthouse.
Kahn was born in Los Angeles in 1941. He spent his early childhood on the midway at Ocean Park Pier, one of the many names it bore, an amusement zone on a pier at the end of Ocean Park Boulevard in Santa Monica.
He writes that his father, Barry, was a small-time carnival hustler who rigged pinball machines and games of chance. His mother, Faye, danced the nights away to big-band music in local nightclubs and ballrooms around the pier.
When his brother Ricki was born in 1944, Kahn, who was not quite 4, became the primary caregiver. He rarely saw his parents, who gave Kahn instructions to “never wake them before 2 p.m….I felt like strangling [Ricki],” Kahn writes.
He got out of baby-sitting when he started school in 1946. After school, he roamed the boardwalk, where he made friends and earned pocket change selling newspapers.
The pier suffered from neglect after World War II, and the customers who had been the elder Kahn’s lifeblood soon left.
When Kenny was 8, he writes, his mother went to jail for having sex with a minor and his father hit the road. Kenny and Ricki were sent to a foster home in Alhambra. A year later, he writes, the parents retrieved the boys for a family summer business, what carnies called the “hankie-pank” games—rigged games—at county fairs in several states.
By 1952, Kenny was earning $20 to $40 a day shortchanging customers at the dime-toss booth, according to his book. He’d also wax the plates to a sheen, making it virtually impossible for dimes to stick. In 1954, the family—which by then included a heroin-addicted baby sister, Cookie, he writes—was evicted for unpaid rent and other bills. They headed to Ramona Gardens, an Eastside public housing project.
Within weeks, their Lancaster Avenue apartment was a shooting gallery for neighborhood junkies.
The housing project was—and still is—nestled in a dell between a freeway and railroad tracks at the edge of Boyle Heights. Built in 1941, it was the first housing project in the city. Guns and hard drugs flooded in; staying alive became the definition of success.
But in 1956, his dream of a sports career was dashed by polio. Despite the pain, he lived what he believed was a pretty good life at White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights. “It was everything my home was not—clean, safe and filled with considerate people.”
When he left the hospital, he went back to class, hauling himself about on crutches and hobbling two miles to school. He was so exhausted that even his parents’ all-night raging battles over who got the most heroin couldn’t keep him awake.
Inspired by a dedicated social studies teacher named Raymond Lopez, he soon found education as a way out of his predicament. “I didn’t see any people living in the projects with college degrees,” he said.
“Lopez set off a spark in me that ignited a thirst for knowledge,” Kahn said.
In 1957, Kahn, by then 16, bought an aging Ford for $100. When students in the automotive class sabotaged it, the shop teacher took Kahn aside and suggested he read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.