He Must Be Kidding

Children's entertainer John 'Kinderman' Taylor has brought songs, rhymes and dances to children for decades

Family Matters

September 11, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

You know there is something different about this children's entertainer -- something besides the fact that he is pushing 70 -- when the Kinderman opens the act he's been perfecting for more than two decades.

"We're gonna have a good time. We're gonna disturb the peace," he sings to the bright tones of a Casio keyboard as toddlers, preschoolers and parents sway before him.

"And if we have too much fun, they're going to call the po-lice!"

No matter how many times John "Kinderman" Taylor intones his signature line with its unique Baltimore pronunciation -- at birthday parties and malls, in senior centers and classrooms -- it never fails to draw a laugh.

Since 1983, Baltimore's answer to the late Mister Rogers has been singing his deceptively simple songs, set to the Latin beats on that keyboard, to teach children about friendship, colors and the joy of movement. He still is always feeling not fine, but "FLAW-less," and still saying "Call the po-lice!" whenever someone gets excited.

Now, at a point when many an aging performer leaves the stage, Taylor is seeking to expand his repertoire. Eager to cash in on the climbing value of his contemporary home on a Columbia cul-de-sac, he is hoping to sell it and open a Baltimore studio -- possibly on the fourth floor of the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center. There he plans to sing and rhyme, give teaching workshops, film his local television show, The Kinderman Show, and display hundreds of pages he's collected from books of nursery rhymes.

"I think we all have our purposes," he said, "and this is my purpose."

The derby-hatted, bow-tie-wearing Kinderman has been around for so long that it's easy to forget he's had more personae than Madonna.

Starting with his childhood in West Baltimore, he loved dancing. At the old Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue, he watched young Sammy Davis Jr. tap-dance and Louis Armstrong play his trumpet. In the family's Lanvale Street apartment, encouraged by a mother who also loved dancing, he and his friends would have so much fun swinging to a Latin beat that the neighbors would threaten to call the police.

He used to yell back: "Call the po-lice!" Now it is his all-purpose clarion call for fun.

A Kinderman is born

As a young man, Taylor was a teacher in the Baltimore and Anne Arundel County public schools, but he still nursed dreams of dancing on Broadway. When disco hit in the late 1970s, he became the local disco king who gave Oprah Winfrey -- then a Baltimore newscaster -- a private lesson in the hustle. He threw disco "happenings," as a 1978 Sun article called them, all over the region. He dubbed his classes "the Experience," and they included steps like the washing machine and the Latin hustle.

But when disco went from trendy to tacky, Taylor had to change his act. He became a guru of ballroom dance, teaching the mambo, the foxtrot, the cha-cha. When aerobics grew popular, he was a master instructor.

Then Taylor was asked by the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts to develop a movement curriculum for preschoolers. But to promote it, he needed a child-friendly alter-ego. As he and the program were being introduced at a workshop, his new identity came to him. "I said, 'Batman? Spider-Man? Superman? Kinderman!'"

The name was a hit. Taylor started to develop a "KinderKingdom" that included a Kindervan emblazoned with his likeness and his phone number, in which he still travels, and a series of "Kindertwins" -- partners who could help with his act.

He didn't even read music, but he began to write songs, humming a melody that a Kindertwin would flesh out. The first came about after a disappointing performance at a day-care center, in which the Kinderman was chagrined to find that his young audience was afraid of him. He learned later that the little ones had been told to be wary of strangers.

"They had to know I was a friend," he said.

The lyrics couldn't have been more basic:

Friends, friends,

1, 2, 3

All my friends are here with me

You're my friend

You're my friend

You're my friend

You're my friend

Since then, Taylor has adapted his act endlessly. "Friends" has been translated into 14 languages. He's tweaked the words to other songs to create a show for Sunday schools that includes "God's ABC." ("A is for Almighty God / He made us out of dust.")

A show called Black Hall of Fame uses simple rhymes to get kids to remember famous African-Americans. "Matthew Alexander Henson looks so cold. It's just because he found the North Pole."

There's a "Say No to Drugs" song, which urges: "Say no to drugs. No no no to drugs. Say yes to hugs. All we need are hugs."

An exercise tune developed for Head Start programs urges: "Let's jog, jog, jog around the 'hood. Let's jump, jump, jump around the 'hood."

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