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Minister of Merriment

Jeff Brown, using humor as a tool for social change for more than 48 years

Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2002

Mention the name Jeff Brown to almost anyone who has lived in Juneau and you'll probably hear a story about balloons, mazes, folk music, kids, radio, art or just plain wackiness.

Since Brown moved to Juneau in 1975, he has left a mark on the town that can be felt so deeply it's almost impossible to not be captured by his influence at some point.

Brown, 48, began working for KTOO public television and radio in 1977 and along the way has found time to help create a community rich in art and culture.

Just a few of the projects he has masterminded or played a role in include the Alaska Folk Festival, the satirical newspaper The Juneau What, the balloon animal-making event Balloons Around the World, the Amazing Mazes exhibit at the Alaska State Museum, the children's radio program "We Like Kids," and countless books and works of art.

Brown's affinity for entertaining adults and kids with magic and balloon animals landed him the title "Minister of Merriment" in 1997 by Gov. Tony Knowles.

"Jeff has volunteered at every holiday open house we have hosted at the Governor's Mansion," first lady Susan Knowles said. "The mischievous twinkle in his eye is just one clue to his success with children of all ages. Back in 1997 my husband declared Jeff minister of merriment in appreciation of his ability to delight Alaska families and children with his superior humor and charm."

Brown also was named "Humorist Laureate" by Gov. Steve Cowper and "Balloonist Laureate" by Gov. Wally Hickel.

Although he modestly denies full credit for his zany projects, Brown acknowledged that the more ideas you get and the more projects you do, the more likely people are to get involved.

"Like the folk festival, like KTOO, like so many other organizations here in Juneau, you come up with an idea and you say, 'Why not do it, let's do it,' and you just do it. And you find people who are willing to say, 'That's a good idea, I'll help you out,' " Brown said. "Any of these things I've done, it would be impossible to say that I'm the guy that did it all because it's never that way."

Although Brown's clowning has evoked smiles and laughter in Juneau for decades, beneath the wacky antics is a thoughtful idealist who believes that the power of laughter is fundamental to making the world a better place.

"Humor is a great tool for social change," he said. "Every once in a while I find another way of doing it."

KTOO public TV and Radio

Wearing his signature floral-print Hawaiian shirt, Brown can be found during the week at the offices of KTOO training volunteers and helping produce the daily programming.

In his office stands a plastic human skeleton wearing a hat and jacket, and the wall next to his desk is lined with pictures of Brown making balloon animals for celebrities.

Starting work at KTOO shortly after serving in the Coast Guard, Brown has spent almost 25 years at the station, barring a stint from 1980 to 1983 at Western Washington University, where he earned a degree in visual communication.

Brown described the work environment, when KTOO was new to Juneau, as an experiment, where those operating the station were learning from one another.

"Even members of the community would volunteer their time to come in and do news stories or do the weather report or do sports stories," he said. "We were all learning to do it at the same time, and it was just a fun time to start the station and to learn something new at the same time."

Former employee Elizabeth Arnold, who went on to work as a journalist for National Public Radio, started at KTOO in the mid-'80s.

"It wouldn't be KTOO without Jeff Brown," Arnold said. "He's just an incredibly creative Renaissance kind of guy in a wacky way."

Arnold recalled a time when Brown persuaded the employees to dress in lime-green tuxedos for the staff photo. Arnold described Brown as a dedicated, thoughtful artist and a testimony to the creativity of the human spirit.

She described KTOO as "having one of the widest ranges of volunteers you can imagine."

Brown said giving volunteers a chance to get on the air provides listeners with a variety of perspectives in music and news.

"When I go to other places and when people have come back from other places, they tell us that KTOO is special because it has all those different things," Brown said. "It's not just one kind of music. It's not just one person doing the programming for the music. It's a whole bunch of different voices that you just don't get in most other stations."

Balloons around the world

Like a balloon filling with hot air, Brown's fascination with making balloon animals has grown bigger and bigger.

Although he said he's made balloon animals for years, Brown got the idea about four years ago to take a day and make them for city employees.

"Then I thought, 'Wouldn't this be cool if we could organize some kind of movement or some kind of event where people all across America could do that same kind of thing,' " he said.

And thus was born "Balloons Across America."

On Oct. 4, 2000, hundreds of "twisters," as Brown calls balloon animal-makers, observed Balloons Across America Day, visiting hospitals, malls, day-care centers and other nonprofit organizations with the air-filled figures. The legislatures in Rhode Island, Nevada, Indiana and Alaska wrote proclamations in observance of the event, and participants in over 40 states joined in the fun. Other countries such as Germany, Canada, France, Italy and Australia also took part.

Some twisters weren't even on land."We've had people twisting on a U.S. Navy boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean," he said.

Brown, who usually carries balloons wherever he goes, said the event is an opportunity to create some good news and put a smile on people's faces. In 2001 more countries joined in the event, prompting Brown to rename the celebration "Balloons Around the World."

"We're hopefully making the world better a twist at a time," Brown said.

Maze craze

Brown's interest in mazes started with a bit of playful curiosity that turned into infatuation.

"From sitting down with my kids doing mazes I looked to find some Alaska-themed maze material," he said. "I didn't see that much that I really liked, so I said I'll just do one."

He started with a collection of his own mazes that he compiled into two books: "The Alaska Wildlife Maze and Puzzle Book" and "The Gold Rush Maze and Puzzle Book."

From there, he went on to create a life-size maze for kids called "The Mystery Maze of Fun." In 1998, Brown and friends constructed the 4-foot-tall maze out of some 200 wooden pallets.

"We just started pounding things together, and it took a lot longer and a lot bigger nails and a lot more wood than I could ever imagine," he said, noting that he got help from "all sorts of wonderful people."

Brown's maze craze later led him to create smaller mazes that were more art than puzzle; some are made of ceramic tile, some from rolling dice, and some from Lego building blocks.

The collection was sent to the Alaska State Museum last year and is currently touring the state.

Music and art

Jamie Waste, executive director for Southeast's public radio service Coast Alaska and longtime colleague of Brown, praised the Juneau community "because of the great people who give their time to their passions."

"Jeff Brown is one of those guys," Waste said.

Brown's time and effort have played a role in making the Alaska Folk Festival one of the most celebrated events in the state during its 28-year history.

Brown has helped over the years with programming and publicizing the festival and has sat on the planning board, in addition to performing on stage.

"I play guitar and musical saw," Brown said nonchalantly, noting that he subscribes to the quarterly magazine Musical Saw News. Brown said he is also an avid reader of magic magazines.

In addition to reading oddball publications, Brown puts out one of his own. The spoof newspaper The Juneau What runs phony articles and is distributed on April Fools' Day.

The Juneau What is the perfect publication for Brown to print his nutty cut-and-paste-style artwork he creates using his computer. Other pictures hanging at the offices at KTOO show photos he took during a trip to Washington, D.C.

In several he manipulated pictures of national monuments, the Supreme Court, and the Capitol to include a funny theme, such as a person skateboarding down the Washington Monument, or Lincoln with a laptop computer.

More to come

While Brown continues to brainstorm madcap ideas, he says he is close to completing some of his more recent projects.

He is working on a collection of games that are unique to Alaska some regular board games like Alaska Monopoly and some Native games such as Eskimo Football and the Seal Hop.

He's also close to completing his collection of all the U.S. state songs, to create a CD. He still lacks Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Brown said he's been working on the collection for over 10 years, but that hasn't kept him from pursuing it.

"It's good to have dreams; some of them come true, and some of them you just have to keep working on," Brown said.

Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.



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