After 30 years of “clowning around” at America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Downtown Detroit, Austin Kanter, 88, achieves “Grand Jester” status this year. It’s an honorary title with a special hat that is awarded to the longest continuously serving Thanksgiving Parade clown. While he appreciates the recognition, bringing smiles to parade spectators is what really matters to him.
The cadre of 100-150 volunteer clowns march along the parade route that covers almost three miles from Midtown to Downtown Detroit, waving and tossing out Mardi Gras-style beads to a happy crowd that reaches a million or more.
“Fans fight for them,” Kanter says, adding that a supply float replenishes their stock along the way.
Over the years, Kanter estimates there have been about 2,000 parade clowns — known as the Distinguished Clown Corps — each of whom donates $1,000 to the Parade Company, the nonprofit organization that organizes the event. Art Van is the presenting sponsor.
“In the beginning, there were a lot of Jewish businessmen who were clowns,” Kanter says. “There are probably 20 now who are doing a good thing for the community.”
Kanter, a West Bloomfield resident, began his clown career years ago through a personal contact at the Parade Company.
“I came Downtown to the parade as a child and thought it was important for this parade to be perpetuated after Hudson’s left Detroit,” he explains. “Even when Detroit was in the doldrums, everyone was smiling and that is marvelous.”
The Clown Corps gathers early on parade day for breakfast and professional makeup application. Costumes are provided by the Parade Company, with replacements every five years. “After 15 years, you get a red Superman cape and, after 25 years, a blue cape with a silver lining. There are only four or five of those,” Kanter says.
Along with being the longest-serving active clown, Kanter leads the largest family group of clowns — eight last year, including his twin grandsons and their wives. This year, his daughter and seven grandchildren will accompany “Papa Audie” on the parade route. His youngest grandchild will be a junior jester.
“We are the only family with so many people this year and last. It’s a family charitable enterprise,” says Kanter, who is in the insurance and money management business.
Twin grandsons, Jason Kanter, 31, of Chicago, and Joshua Kanter, 31, of New York, began participating when they were 8 or 10. They remember starting in the young children’s group and then becoming junior jesters in middle school. In 2004, they became “official distinguished clowns.”
“The tradition of the parade is amazing and so is being able to join our grandfather,” Joshua says.
“The parade is a magical moment for Downtown, and my grandfather created very large clown shoes to fill. It’s special to see the smile on his face,” Jason adds.
“Being a clown allows us to be thankful for all that we have, including being able to bring that joy to the people at the parade,” Joshua says.
“Austin and his grandkids exemplify what America’s Thanksgiving Parade is all about: family and tradition,” said Tony Michaels, president/CEO of the Parade Company. “Austin is the longest-standing member of the Distinguished Clown Corps and the first in parade history to reach the 30-year milestone. We are appreciative of his support, along with his family’s throughout the years.”
By Shari S. Cohen, Contributing Writer