Scenes from an Interview
He’s a promoter, a producer, a publicist, a public relations guru and an effective connector of people in support of their passions. But first, in his heart, he’s an artist, having mastered the art of mime from the master himself – Marcel Marceau.
While building an eclectic career that’s included some dance, some acting and a lot of fun along the way, he’s worked with everyone from “The Boss” – Bruce Springsteen – to Oprah Winfrey.
So what is Kenney DeCamp’s secret behind his mime mask? It’s definitely his caring attitude, love for his fellow man, and his tremendous energy harnessed from many of his life experiences, which include his early days on the South Side of Chicago; his young adult years serving as a physician’s assistant during the Vietnam War; and, the life he is living today, in the city he calls paradise, Sarasota.
Forever seeking to learn techniques and philosophies that lead to better health, he shares his passion for healthy living and the importance of growth through education with everyone from children to seniors. This Renaissance man also finds time to brush up on his epicurean skills, taking culinary classes to better serve his business of catering healthy meals. This month, you’ll find him producing an annual fundraiser he’s very proud of – Looking into the Crystal Ball at the Selby Library – benefitting various youth groups through the Friends of the Library.
But wherever you find Kenney, you must look quickly, because he’s one fast-moving mime. Always in motion, always connecting people and making them feel good; I couldn’t wait to take a look at the many eclectic scenes from an interview of his life.
Where were you born?
On the South Side of Chicago. That’s where I got my soul.
Describe your childhood:
In my first seven years on the South Side, I was the mascot of the football team because I was so small, wiry and energetic. One day I remember being carried home by this large 7th grade black kid, who was on the football team, and with whom I became good friends. Sadly, when he was 18, he was killed by a gang member. It was a mixed neighborhood, and a tough one.
Tell me about your parents.
I’m more like my mother, but I look like my father. Out of all the women I’ve ever met, my mother is probably the happiest person I’ve ever known. Even during her last days battling leukemia, she just smiled and always had a joke. She was a gift from God. My dad was a hardworking guy – an “I bring home the bread and you obey the law” kind of guy. That was my dad. I am a balance of the two of them.
When did you first realize the importance of good health?
In high school, I was with junior Red Cross and they sent me to leadership training camp. I learned a lot there. Then I went into the military. I was in pre-med and signed up to be a medic. Because of my scores and luck, I became one of the first physician’s assistants the army began training in order to create a physician’s assistant program. This was 1967. The actual physician’s assistant program wasn’t sanctioned until 1972. From 1970 – 1972 after getting out of the Army, I worked in New Jersey and New York. From 1972 to 1975, I became the first physician’s assistant to ever practice neurosurgery.
What did you take away from the experience of serving in Vietnam?
I recently went back to Vietnam to close the door and instead I opened more doors because the country is so amazingly unique. If people want to say who won and who lost the War, America truly won. I mean, we tragically lost 58,000 of our people, including my brother. We won because today, it’s a capitalistic country run by the Communists. It’s very open. It’s easier to get a visa into that country than it is to many other countries. You feel that most of the country is being run by 22 to 35-year-olds who had no idea of “The American War,” the name given this war by people who live there.
Tell me more about the doors your recent trip opened for you.
I wanted to see how it had changed. I had only been in Vietnam for short periods of time picking up patients. As a PA, I escorted patients from the battlefield back to Japan to the clinic that I was in charge of. I was stationed in an Army hospital 40 minutes out of Tokyo. It was the largest orthopedic hospital during the War for American casualties. During the almost-year that I was stationed there, 5,800 patients came through our facility. We did whatever we could do for them to get them back to Vietnam and maybe 20% of the soldiers went back to Nam. The majority went back to the states or sadly passed away.
What did serving in that war teach you?
It taught me that we should have a Department of Peace as opposed to a Department of Defense. It taught me that diplomacy is so important. The concept of love is thrown around so much, but it is the road we should strive to be on. We are all one people on this one planet and we should try to figure out how we can make it better and happier for all of us. As JFK said, “we all breathe the same air.”
What does being a performer mean to you?
Performance means a release of my positive creative energy that helps me to grow, while I see people’s faces communicate with me just by watching what I’m doing. As a mime, there are people who don’t like mime characters, so I have to read their bodies and still try and be non-offensive to them, which usually means turning my attention towards somebody else, or mimicking someone else, or creating a wall around somebody else.
Tell me about the time you worked with the Bruce Springsteen before he became “The Boss”?
When I was in the Army, I was stationed in a hospital near Asbury Park, New Jersey. I was 19 and Bruce was 18 and he was playing a 12-string guitar in a coffee house. I met him through my friend. I just fell in love with the guy because of his poetry and imagery. I always wanted to be a dancer and my father always wanted me to be a doctor, which is why I ended up in medicine. So, when Bruce would sing a song, I would act out the words of the song. One time they flashed my silhouette on the screen while I was acting out the song. You could easily see someone running down the backstreets. The song that I really liked that I acted out had these lyrics – “I had skin like leather. And a diamond hard look of a cobra. I was born blue and weathered, burst like a super nova.” You could see the imagery there and I was able to dance and mime that out. A girlfriend of mine at the time came up to me and said, “Kenney, you’re like a mime. You should be a mime. Have you ever taken mime classes?” I had a friend who was a mime and I talked with him and it turned out that his teacher had moved to New York City. So, I ended up taking some classes with them and helped manage the mime school while I was working in a hospital.
Eventually, you spent some time with the man whose name is synonymous with mime. Tell me what you learned from Marcel Marceau?
I took a six-week workshop with Marcel Marceau at Hunter College. The essence of what he taught me was this: “If you know that you can control, then you can become a mime.” It’s all based on control, which is what I teach children, and why I am so interested in human growth education. We have the ability from a young age to learn about our body and how to control it. I didn’t learn how to control my body until I started with my mime classes. And with Marcel I understood the magnificence of it because he was truly a master. We ended up not having good relationship because of my mustache (laughs). He thought I should be my own self and not base my character on three people who I loved and admired. And those three people are Marcel Marceau, Gene Kelly and Charlie Chaplin. So, I had this mustache, and I knew how to dance, and I could tap myself around. And Marcel gave me the opportunity to control those two other characters and then create my dance form. My dance form ended up taking 15 to 20 songs and editing out pieces and running them together so that they ended up telling a story. In a typical show you could hear Bobby Womack to Springsteen, to Sinatra, to Stevie Wonder. I was opening act for a wide array of acts ranging from Phil Collins at the Park West, to Uri Geller, to Divine.
You mentioned Charlie Chaplin. Tell me about your affinity for him.
When I was younger and I first saw Charlie perform his magic in his silent films on our black and white TV in the 1950s, I was mesmerized. When I first saw his “Tramp” I thought I was the little kid following this guy along. I guess subconsciously there was this control. You saw this guy in control. As I got older, I read a lot about Chaplin and became intrigued with who he was as an artist and an activist. I, too, consider myself an artist and an activist. Still, Chaplin’s universal appeal is love. He’s the gentle guy, the outsider who wants to be accepted and not only get love, but give love. Even in his Great Dictator film, the mockery was to help the world see what was going on and bring love to the world.
Tell me about the classes and lectures where you portray and convey the virtues of Charlie Chaplin.
I plan on resurrecting that Charlie character for children, which I haven’t done for a while. I used to go into colleges and perform a dance program, and at the end of the dance, a group of kids would come out with canes and mustaches and perform as Charlie with me. In the routine, they end up laughing at me. Then we reversed it, showing the kids laughing with me and not at me in a wonderful ending in which all of us are laughing and hugging each other on stage. Chaplin’s message is inclusive – let’s laugh with each other and not at each other. A few years back at Southside Elementary in Sarasota, we did a great event for the Sarasota Film Festival for about 700 kids in which we performed the beauty of Chaplin’s City Lights.
One of your main interests in life involves helping people live healthy lives. Tell me one or two things that would help most people lead a healthier life.
The first thing is for them to realize they have control. After that, they can learn human growth education. We don’t get enough education about our bodies. How it grows. Once we’re grown, we’re in a pattern, and we should be learning about that pattern. It’s really a shame that we don’t try to educate ourselves more about our bodies as we grow older. I learned the power and potential of our bodies through the works of Alexander Lowen and Bioenergetics, which is something I practice daily.
What is the one thing you would incorporate into our schools, regarding health education?
I want to help teachers become more involved with human growth education so that it can be taught in schools. I plan to focus on teaching this over the next decade. I find it’s especially pertinent right now, especially at my age. People look at me and say ‘my God, he’s nearly 70 and he’s doing this. He’s helping these kids and he’s as healthy as he can be.’
Name two things that you do for yourself every day.
Bioenergetics movement and sex, if I can (laughs). And my diet. I make sure that each day at least one of my meals is handmade by me.
Tell me a little more about Human Growth Education.
It started out years ago as MEE (Movement Entertainment Education). I wanted everyone to learn about MEE. That’s what I did with the Kids Dance Company group. I’ve been in over 250 grade schools, high schools and universities doing my class. For the kids, it’s called Body Language – The Art of Mime. For the older ones, it’s called The Head Has a Body. It’s based on human growth education and it’s important, and should be taught in schools.
What does dancing do for you?
Dancing is great. It puts the body in motion and lifts the spirit. With dance mime, you are literally acting out the song. You are falling in love, having your heart broken and you’re running down the back street.
When you get behind the mime’s mask, what does that do for you?
It puts me into a perspective where in front of people, I can let them know I’m really looking at them. Because I have this mask, so to speak, I’m not saying anything, but I’m doing motions and movements and performing in such a way that I’m watching them and how they relate towards me. It’s a diverse energy where you can read the people right off the bat who dig you, and those who don’t want nothing to do with you.
Do you agree that mimes sometimes get a bad rap?
Most of the time. (Laughs) There is a lesson there. If you aren’t getting the love, you guide it in another direction, just like in life.
Where do you get your energy from?
Bioenergetics, which has helped me deal with the five gifts of life: balance, coordination, flexibility, stamina and rhythm. You’re going to have stamina if you’ve got those other four connected. That’s a gift that we all should work on. Because there is no human growth education, some of us, as we grow older, end up being overweight, weak and rigid. As babies, we’re not taught to breathe – we just breathe. That’s why yoga is so good. It teaches specific breathing. With the reality of stretching, which also starts in the womb, I tell everybody, before you get out of bed, stretch like a dog or cat does. They stretch and then go on their day. The last reality is movement, and that’s based on walking. Most people walk like ducks, and just like Charlie Chaplin, that causes rigidity in the back. But to walk correctly, turn your toes in, slightly bend your knees, and walk on the balls of your feet.
What is the greatest thing we should teach our children?
How to keep your body healthy. Imagine how much more brain power we would have had if we were educated from the get-go on how our body grows, on what we need to put in it and what we don’t need to put in it.
We asked Kenney to finish the following sentences:
My best quality is… My concern.
Something I need to work on is… More education of my body.
If you don’t have good health… You’re not living.
I’ve found that the most talented people always… Smile.
Success teaches you… Failure.
Failure teaches you… Success.
Good Heath is attainable if you… Work at it.
A positive attitude… Should always be. Life has an expiration date
You encountered Oprah Winfrey during her rise to fame. What was it that you noticed about Oprah that made her special?
I encountered her twice. I didn’t notice that she had “it.” The first time I met her, we were put in a St. Patrick’s Day parade together during her first year on TV. She wasn’t even the parade marshal. I was the parade marshal’s mime sidekick. Two years later she’s a big star, and I’m doing a mall grand reopening for which we hired Oprah for $300 to sign autographs as I led a marching band of 76 Trombones into the mall for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Tell us what comes to mind when I name some of the people with whom you’ve worked.
Vickie Sue Robinson:
I was her first stage choreographer. Her record “Turn the Beat Around” turned the whole disco era around.
A fun lady who got mad at me and threw a pie in my face when I told her she wasn’t supposed to be eating the pie.
Love to love you baby. A big talent. One night after a show in Albany, New York, over cocktails, she told me about her dream of producing a rock musical about Cleopatra, who she believed she was related to.
How did you find your way to Sarasota?
A friend a mine asked if I would help improve the health of his aging mother at Venice Country Club.
Tell me about your involvement with Friends of the Library?
I’m very proud and excited about this because it helps raise money for the children’s programs at the library. The wonderful philanthropist Nat McCulloch got me involved by saying, “Kenney, we need your energy on the Friends of the Library board.” After being vetted by the FBI (laughs), I was on the board.
One of your signature productions, Looking into the Crystal Ball, aka The People’s Gala, takes place every January at the Selby Library. Tell me about that.
I was producing events that were similar to this in Chicago in various venues back in the 1980s and 1990s. When I got on the Friends board, they needed a fundraiser, so I suggested we throw a similar event inside the library. They were renovating the library then, so we were all wondering what the event would look like while under those conditions. We came up with Looking into the Crystal Ball. The event has raised a lot of money for the library, which directly helps kids through many programs. This year will be our seventh annual event. Over 340 people attended our first event and last year over 900 people attended. It’s the People’s Gala because everyone can afford to attend. We have an array of acts that donate their time and energy; artists, musicians, palm readers, you name it. People know it’s a great function, and they know they’re going to have good time. This year’s event takes place on January 11.
What are you most proud of in your eclectic and interesting life?
I think that I’m most proud of my mom. She was the last of 13 children. She came from Poland and her family left when Hitler came into power. Still, there was business that had to be taken care of, and my mom’s mother had to go back to Poland during the week that the Nazis captured Poland. She went back and they were not going to let her out. The Chicago Tribune and the Polish community put up such a big protest, and congressmen got involved, so finally they gave her a visa to return to America. I have a copy of that visa with two Nazi swastika stamps on it. It gives me chills. I think of my dear mother and my grandmother.