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Obituaries

Martin David ‘Marty’ Kurland, who performed as a clown to entertain kids at hospitals and the White House, dies

Martin David “Marty” Kurland, who entertained children as Happy the Clown and made appearances at the White House in this role, died of heart disease Oct. 26 at his Pikesville home. He was 86.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Reisterstown Road near Park Circle, he was the son of Louis Kurland, a pharmacist, and Elizabeth “Libby” Brown. He was a 1954 graduate of Baltimore City College, where he played football. He earned a degree at what is now Towson University, where he later taught a noncredit course in clowning.

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He worked at the Social Security Administration at the old Paca-Pratt building location and later transferred to the Woodlawn headquarters. He was a disability and professional relations specialist.

Martin David “Marty” Kurland performed as a clown at hospitals, children’s care facilities and social events.

He met his future wife, Arlene Cohen, when she was the sweetheart of a local fraternity.

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In the 1950s when he was a member of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, he stepped in when the scheduled performer failed to show for a children’s event.

“He had an outgoing personality,” his wife said. “He was really a teacher by nature and he enjoyed the kids.”

His wife went on to create a clown costume that was patterned after a jumpsuit.

“He was a terrible first clown, but the kids loved it. He did a decent job, but as he mastered his craft, he improved with time,” said his son, Michael H. Kurland. “He also picked up magic along the way.”

Mr. Kurland called himself a “charity clown” for his first eight years when he appeared at children’s functions associated with local nonprofit organizations. He was a regular at Children’s Hospital and Kernan Hospital, now a division of the University of Maryland.

Martin David “Marty” Kurland is pictures in 1981 as Happy the Clown.

“I just got along by trial and error until I joined Clowns of America in 1970. Then I started learning,” he said.

He networked with amateur magicians at Social Security and they began putting on holiday shows. In 1970, he formed an official Social Security Clowns Club and by 1972, received his first White House invitation for the annual diplomatic children’s party.

Mr. Kurland was invited back. He appeared for events during the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations.

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A 1982 Evening Sun article described him as a “red nosed, white faced buffoon who entertains hundreds of children from around the world and performed the warmup acts for such luminaries as Helen Hayes, Frank Sinatra and Walter Cronkite.”

He appeared at the White House numerous times. On his 25th gig, he was part of a foster grandparents program, a pet charity of first lady Nancy Reagan.

He recalled jumping in to help form a human cradle over an 8-year-old Amy Carter, daughter of the president, when journalists and media photographers rushed her, causing her to lose her footing at an outdoor Easter egg hunt.

“He recruited me and my brother, Ed, to be small clowns,” said his son.

Mr. Kurland went on to found a business, Martin Kurland’s Clowns Unlimited. He appeared at hospitals, children’s care facilities, social events and at least one Severna Park pizza restaurant.

“I purposely do things wrong so kids can come up and outsmart me,” he said of his technique.

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He had pictures of himself as a clown with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, and Gerald and Betty Ford.

“It was a big deal in the clown club and everybody wanted to attend — eight or 10 clowns.

“They treated him well and one year, during an Easter performance, it was Passover and the White House had a kosher meal for him,” his son Michael said.

Mr. Kurland also started growing a beard in September that matured into a fluffy white facial hair by the Christmas season. He appeared as Santa Claus at malls and retail stores.

“His beard was really full, so it made him look heavier,” Michael said. “My mother did not like that beard and he shaved it off Dec. 26.”

Martin David “Marty” Kurland plays Santa Claus in December 2008 at Kenilworth Mall in Towson. He's pictured with John Robert Conrad.
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He also appeared as an early Baltimore-area Ronald McDonald.

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He was past president of the Baltimore chapter of Clowns of America and belonged to the International Brotherhood of Magicians.

He created three personas — Happy the Clown, Kurley the Klown and Professor Shenanigans.

“My father’s passion in life was to spread the love and joy, and kindness,” said his son, Edward Kurland, who is also an entertainer.

Mr. Kurland said in a 1982 Sun story: “You don’t become a clown. You are a clown, and I think it’s important to maintain that distinction; otherwise you are only a person dressed in a Halloween costume.”

Survivors include his wife of 65 years Arlene Cohen, a retired Sinai Hospital cardiac lab worker who also sold real estate; three sons, Michael H. Kurland of Pikesville, Edward Kurland of Glen Burnie and Richard Kurland of Tampa, Florida; a sister, Toby Mower, of Denver; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Graveside services were held Oct. 30.


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