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OBITUARIES : Stan Kann, 1924 - 2008

Organist got swept up in a vacuum cleaner fixation

October 04, 2008|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Stan Kann, an organist with an affinity for antique vacuum cleaners whose unlikely hobby brought him celebrity as a frequent guest on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and other talk shows, died Monday at St. Louis University Hospital in St. Louis of complications from open heart surgery. He was 83.

Although Kann was best known in his native St. Louis for playing the Wurlitzer pipe organ at the city's Fabulous Fox Theatre, he began acquiring a national television audience on June 8, 1966, when he first appeared with Carson on "The Tonight Show." He showed up with a few prized items from his collection of carpet sweepers that numbered 150.

Years later, Kann recalled disaster striking in that first appearance: Parts began to fall off his vacuum cleaners at inopportune moments when he was demonstrating them. Carson made the most of the moment. The results were hilarious.

"The stagehands put the wrong handles on several of the machines," Kann told the St. Louis Post Dispatch a few years ago. "I planned on showing the vacuums as a kind of historical demonstration. I had no idea what it would turn into."

His first appearance led to 76 more appearances on the Carson show, 89 appearances on "The Mike Douglas Show" and others on shows hosted by Merv Griffin and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

He even uprooted himself from St. Louis and moved to Los Angeles, where he lived from 1975 to 1998, to accommodate the workload.

Kann recalled one memorable occasion on Carson's show when he brought on one of the first Hoovers ever made. It weighed about 40 pounds and when Carson tried to lift it he said of the model: "This is the Hernia 102."

Kann became so popular that he expanded his repertoire by demonstrating other common household gizmos and gadgets, many of which didn't actually work, which was just fine with the bemused Carson.

Kann was born in St. Louis on Dec. 9, 1924, and began playing the organ at age 4. By 8, he was transfixed by vacuum cleaners, mainly because his cash-strapped parents didn't have one. He had a great ear for the sound of the machines and while walking down the street learned to easily identify the Singers, the Hoovers, the Eurekas and the Electroluxes. If he heard a new one, he had no qualms about going up to a neighbor's door and asking if he could take a look. "Sometimes they'd say yes, and sometimes they'd say no," he told the Post Dispatch.

While in high school, he had a brief job as a vacuum salesman and ended up learning to fix them.

His other love was the classical organ, a subject he majored in at Washington University in St. Louis. He would become something of a legend to theater organ aficionados, playing the Wurlitzer pipe organ for 22 years at the Fox Theatre. He also played at baseball great Stan Musial's restaurant in St. Louis.

As co-host and musical director of the "The Charlotte Peters Show," a local St. Louis television program, he met Phyllis Diller, who thought Kann was very funny, and eventually showed her his vast array of carpet sweepers.

"When she saw my vacuum [collection], she said, 'I'm going to call the Carson show, 'cause you're nuts,' " Kann told the Associated Press.

Kann, who never married, returned to St. Louis for hip replacement surgery and decided to return to his hometown along with his collection of vacuum cleaners.

In 2004, he told the Post Dispatch that he had about 150 in his basement.

The oldest, Kann said, was a Hoover from 1910. Most, if not all, were in good working order, as he used a different one each week to clean the floors in his home.

"They don't always work right," Kann said, adding, "Sometimes, I don't work right either."

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jon.thurber@latimes.com

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