In Juneau, surrounded by miles of ice and wilderness, we tend to depend on certain constants, familiar elements that add to our definition of home.
The mist on the mountains.
Even if you’ve never met Brown in person, you’ve likely come into contact with him in one way or another. Maybe his voice has kept you company on your drive home from work. Maybe you’ve laughed out loud at his magazine, “Real Alaskan,” and photo exhibits. Or maybe your kids have been among the throngs he’s delighted at parties, libraries and on street corners.
Chances are, whether you’re 8 or 80, you know him — and chances are, when you think of him, you smile.
Brown’s many talents and dedication to fostering a spirit of community in Juneau have recently been recognized by Gov. Sean Parnell and the Alaska State Council on the Arts with a 2011 Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities. Brown will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award during a ceremony to be held Oct. 19 in Anchorage, along with nine other award-winners in other categories.
Brown’s many roles include program director of local public radio stations KTOO and KRNN, host of the radio program “A Juneau Afternoon,” musician, magician, balloon artist, storyteller, photographer and creator of “Real Alaskan” magazines. In the past he’s also been a medic, stained glass artist, camera technician, Gorilla Gram delivery man, mayoral candidate and improv comedy performer, among other things.
All of these roles converge in his commitment to his community and his fun-loving spirit.
“Perhaps I’m a workaholic, but I think I’m more of a funaholic,” Brown said.
A familiar voice
The most prominent hat in Brown’s extensive collection is his involvement in public radio.
“I’m a radio guy, that’s first and primary,” he said. “And the musician and the storyteller and the magazine guy and the photographer — they’re all another part of me.”
Brown’s experience with local radio began more than three decades ago, almost immediately upon his arrival in Juneau in 1975. At that point, his interest had already been stoked by his hearty appreciation for the The Firesign Theatre, a four-man comedy group that had a live radio show in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“It made me laugh and it made me think at the same time,” Brown said of the program.
He arrived in Juneau as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, as a medic, but it didn’t take him long to connect with KTOO.
“I was walking around Merchants’ Wharf one day, pretty soon after I got here, and KTOO was doing a fundraising drive in Merchants’ Wharf. I thought this might be my opportunity to do something like those Firesign Theatre guys, so I started volunteering at the station.”
Brown was at that time living at the fire hall, answering fire and ambulance calls.
“But I discovered I was not a very good firefighter,” he said.
He soon had a Sunday radio show and by 1977 was hired as one of the first three employees of the Alaska Public Radio Network, along with Dennis Harris and Betsy Brenneman.
“We got hired to do a program on KTOO called Capital Connection, which was a legislative update radio program. I was the tech guy.”
Around the same time, KTOO-TV was launched, with Brown’s help. The radio station, KTOO-FM, had been founded in 1972 and launched in 1974.
Apart from a brief departure to attend school in Washington state, Brown’s been at the station ever since. He now serves as program director for KRNN and KTOO, a position he formerly shared with Susan Fitzgerald prior to her departure in 2006. He is also host of “A Juneau Afternoon,” a community access program formerly led by Fitzgerald that airs from 3-4 p.m., Monday through Friday. The show features interviews with a range of local and visiting artists, business owners and others, often centering on events of local interest.
Brown said among the challenges of on-air interviewing one of the most frustrating is running short on time, and having to cut short a fascinating speaker, such as recent guest Jennifer Hahn, author of “Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine.”
The opposite situation also poses problems, he said.
“Of course, the other side of that is when you’ve got somebody who you think is going to be really interesting .. and they just say, ‘Yes.’ ‘No.’ There’s nothing you can do about it.”
He’s also hosted “We Like Kids,” a weekly program geared toward families as well as other programs.
Brown’s on-air presence and extensive work behind the scenes have helped make the radio station what it is today, a vibrant and active source of connection in our isolated Alaska city.
“It’s an important service to the community, people appreciate it, and it helps keep me going,” he said.
Practicing on stage
Brown’s role on the radio is primarily a serious one, but he is also well-known for his ability to make people laugh.
During his first few years in town he helped start an improvisational comedy group called the Open Circle, which performed a few shows at the Crystal Saloon, a local watering hole that was at that time located at the tourist end of Franklin Street, across from the former Armadillo Cafe.
Brown said the experience was a valuable one for him.
“In show business in general you need places to be bad, you need the audiences to suffer through things, and you need to learn to grow from those experiences,” he said. “Juneau is for me a place where I can be bad and hopefully I’ve gotten a little bit better.”
Brown said his comedic tastes include Bob Newhart reruns, local freelance writer Geoff Kirsch and formative influence the Firesign Theatre.
“In music there’s The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, in comedy there’s Firesign Theatre or Cheech and Chong. One is more intellectual, one is more physical, I guess. And I’ve always (leaned) toward more intellectual, I hope, though I like a pratfall just as much as anybody else.”
Brown said getting up in front of an audience did not come naturally to him. He describes himself as a shy kid, but one who was always ready to laugh. Coming to Juneau helped coax him out.
“When I got to Juneau things really started opening up for me, personally and professionally,” he said.
Not long after his arrival in Juneau, he began participating in the Alaska Folk Festival with the 20th Century Bluescast, a group that combines skits and songs in an often satirical take on Alaska politics and culture. The Bluescast is still active; the group performed in the 2011 folk fest and, in addition to Brown, included Ron Clarke, Laury Scandling, Ed Schoenfeld and Mo Hicks.
In the ‘70s Brown also served on the AFF board, and served as Sunday night emcee, a role he continued for more than a decade.
Brown’s super active life in the ‘70s also involved playing Joe Juneau in a local tourist show, delivering singing Gorilla Grams in a gorilla suit, and a run for mayor as “Joe Gorilla.” (He lost.)
He also pursued a brief but intense interest in stained glass, an artform he taught himself after coming across Dan Hopson’s old supplies.
“I still have memories of staying up ‘til 1 or 2 in the morning, tap tap tap tapping away,” he said. ”Seems like I put together a piece every few days. I was driven.”
In 1980, Brown left town for three years to pursue a bachelor’s degree in visual communications at Western Washington University. But he soon returned to what had become his home.
“I grew up in Los Angeles and spent some time in Seattle and Bellingham (Wash.), and a few short months on the East Coast, but Juneau was the first place I really felt comfortable.”
Photography and magic
On his return he took a job with KTOO-TV, and by 1983 was involved in a range of projects, two of which continue to this day.
The first began when he joined forces with Bill Hudson and Ken Burch to produce “The Juneau What,” a satirical paper filled with fabricated news stories. Brown said the idea for the paper was Hudson’s, but he continued the project after Hudson left town.
A couple years ago, after a software change, he upgraded to a magazine format. The magazine, called “Real Alaskan,” has been published twice so far to rave reviews, garnering Brown a first place win in this year’s Alaska Press Club awards.
Like the “Juneau What,”, the “Real Alaskan” presents a satirical or exaggerated view at life in Alaska. Alongside features such as “Cleaning the Mendenhall Glacier,” complete with images of someone using a vacuum cleaner to clean the “dirty” ice, Brown runs advertising spoofs, as well as features on prominent local citizens
“What’s been surprising about the magazine is that I can ask people like Sen. Mark Begich if he wants to pose for me, or Libby Riddles, Paul Rosenthal, (I say) ‘Will you be in my magazine?’ And they say, ‘Sure, no problem.’”
Brown had long been involved in photography, particularly in doctored images, and had shown his creations at downtown business such as the Armadillo Cafe and the bowling alley.
He is currently at work on the third issue of “Real Alaskan.”
The second project Brown began in the ‘80s that had far-reaching effects also involved Hudson, who was Brown’s partner in crime in the Wigglers, a music group geared toward kids.
Brown said an experience at a neighbor’s birthday party (Lacey Ingalls) let him to expand the Wigglers’ range to include magic.
“(At the party) this magician from India came by and started doing magic tricks that you’re never, ever supposed to do in front of kids, like eating fire, doing the razor-blades-in-your-mouth trick, smashing concrete blocks on your chest. But he really had an effect on the audience, myself included, and I started integrating magic into the Wigglers shows. And then Billy left town, and I’d say (to the kids), ‘Well, what do you want, magic or music?’ And they’d go, ‘Magic! Magic! Magic!’ So I started really getting involved in magic.’”
By the 1990s, magic had become an avid interest and remains so; Brown is now a member of the Society of American Magicians and the International Society of Magicians, and performs at countless parties and events. In the 1990s, Brown started performing at libraries around Southeast, preparing shows that highlighted themes from summer reading programs.
Balloon bending became part of his life about the same time as magic, he said, and it has now become one of Brown’s trademark activities.
Over the last decade, Brown started “Balloons Around the World,” an organization devoted to the simple joys of balloon-making and the power of simple gestures to improve lives. The annual celebration was held this week, on Oct. 5, and Brown personally made buttons for all the participants across the country, more than 200, in his basement.
Brown said performing for kids is something he never gets tired of.
“One of the sheer jobs of performing for kids is just the belly laughs,” he said. “I can read something funny, or I can see something funny, watch a funny movie, and I might chuckle, but performing for kids, I laugh. I have a great time.”
Brown’s been formally acknowledged for his kids shows and general merry spirit by Alaska governors from former Gov. Steve Cowper (who named him Humorist Laureate) through current Gov. Sean Parnell (who called him Master of Cheerful Smiles).
His activities over the years also include publishing a series of joke books for each state, creating an “I spy” display in the kids room at the Alaska State Museum, guest curating a games exhibit at the state museum, and participating in the annual Wearable Art show in Juneau, an event he said he loves most for the spirit of camaraderie among the participants.
“What’s more fun to me is just the general spirit in the back of the Wearable Art show, everybody’s having such a great time, everybody’s creative and helping out everybody else. It’s just another reason why I’m living in Juneau.”
Future projects Brown is considering include a drive around the country gathering photos for an expanded, national version of his humor magazine, as long as he can fit that in with spending time with his family. In addition to his wife, Brown has a step-son in law school and a daughter in her first year of college.
Recently Brown was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and says he can’t move as fast as he used to. But the twinkle in his eye as he describes his flea circus or talks about his community is undiminished. For Brown, devoting energy toward his community is a natural consequence of all Juneau has given him.
“It’s made an amazing impact on me,” he said. “Anything that’s reflected back is just payback time.”