Clown celebrates 80th birthday

BIG RAPIDS — When Rudy Grahek walked into the Comfort Inn and Suites on Saturday, he thought he was meeting his daughter, BethAnn, and her family for dinner. When he was pointed to a banquet room with the words “Happy 80th Birthday” written on a banner over the doorway, he realized many more people had been invited to dinner. “When I walked in, for a minute I just couldn’t believe it,” said Grahek, who plays the popular funnyman, Dynamite the Clown. “I thought I was walking into my own funeral, but I was alive.” Around 50 people — family, fellow clowns, friends and former co-workers — greeted the 80 year old at a surprise birthday party. Many had travelled from across the state to celebrate the milestone in the life of their favorite clown. “He’s always clowning around. He’s got 1,001 stories to tell,” said his brother Dick, who lives in the Lansing area. Along with surprising Rudy with a birthday party, the family wanted to make the birthday extra special. They arranged a plane with a banner that said “Happy 80th Birthday Dynamite the Clown” to fly over Big Rapids Saturday around 4:30 p.m., and circle around the hotel. “When Beth called me and told me about the birthday party, I thought, ‘We should arrange an airplane fly-over. He’d go crazy,’” said Rudy’s sister-in-law Jean Grahek, who came from Eaton Rapids for the party. “We thought somebody would spill the beans, but nobody did.” Seeing his name fly across the sky put a smile on the face of the man who has brought smiles to the faces of many people for decades. Dynamite the Clown performs at more than 50 parades and shows across the state annually, tying balloon animals and cracking jokes in his signature grease paint, ragged clothes and oversized shoes. Though Rudy first became Dynamite the Clown 60 years ago after guest performing with various circus acts, Dick said he has been a clown since he was young. Growing up in Cadillac, the Graheks lived a mile from the fairgrounds. Dick and Rudy would often help set up for the annual fair, but Rudy would stay long hours after Dick went home. “I would come home at 3 p.m. and my mom would say, ‘Where’s Rudy?’ Then around 2 in the morning he’d come home. I knew right then and there that Rudy was going to be in that line of work,” Dick said. “My dad always said, ‘Rudy, you’re going to be a clown someday.’ He was right.” With a three-year age difference between the brothers, Dick said he and Rudy have been close all their lives. As youngsters, he recalls Rudy pinning him on the ground and kissing him, just to irritate him. Now, the brothers engage in more mature fun — old man jokes. “He’s a great brother. I’m proud of him,” said Dick, who gave Rudy a T-shirt with a grumpy old man joke on the front for his birthday. “I can’t imagine not having him around.” Rudy’s cousin Sara Hettich said that whether in costume or out, he is the life of the party. She came from Cadillac for his surprise birthday celebration, and said any one-on-one time she spends with her cousin is always a comical experience. “I love going out to coffee with him. He has so many stories,” she said. “He’s so funny. He keeps everybody laughing.” Hettich, who helps with the annual CAPS Clubhouse carnival in Cadillac, said Rudy gladly offers to entertain students anytime his comedic routine is needed. “Whenever I need him to come volunteer, he’s always there for me,” she said. “He’s awesome.” From homecoming parades, to carnivals, to performances with the Scottville Clown Band, the octogenarian doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon. His birthday cake included a picture of him wearing a Ferris Institute jersey that he bought in 1956. The FSU alumnus plans to wear the same jersey when he walks in the university’s homecoming parade in October. “I always say, you’ll know I’ve retired when you read my obituary in the paper,” Rudy said.