Stan Kann, vacuum cleaner collector, organist and comic, dies

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 | 6:05 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Stan Kann, a theater organist whose vacuum cleaner collection and gadget obsession made him a regular on the "Tonight Show," has died. He was 83.

Kann died Monday at a St. Louis hospital from complications related to a heart procedure, according to a tribute on the Web site of the Fox Theatre, where he played Saturday.

A public memorial service celebrating his life will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at the theater.

Kann studied classical organ, restored and played the mighty Wurlitzer at St. Louis' Fox Theater for 22 years, and worked as an organist, music director and script writer on a local variety show hosted by the late Charlotte Peters.

But it was his collection of antique vacuum cleaners, kitchen aids and other mechanical gadgets that earned him a regular spot on "The Tonight Show."

His friend Phyllis Diller, who once lived in suburban St. Louis, recommended Kann for Johnny Carson's show in the mid-1960s. He made 77 appearances over 22 years.

He also made dozens of appearances on the Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas shows.

That first appearance on the NBC "Tonight Show" in New York wasn't without a hitch. The vacuum cleaner handles were separated from the rest of the shipment, and Kann, who was the first guest ahead of Bob Hope and Edie Gorme that night, said he got trapped in a locked fire escape on his way to makeup.

He ended up in NBC's basement and made his way through an underground tunnel to get to street level. He re-entered the building late, soaked in perspiration, and trembling.

But he said in a 2005 interview that Carson "treated me beautifully."

Diller eventually persuaded Kann to relocate to the West Coast, when the "Tonight Show" moved to Burbank in 1972. He returned to St. Louis in 1998.

Kann developed a passion for vacuum cleaners as a boy in the Depression. His mother didn't own one, so he would watch the neighbors run theirs, and eventually donate them to him. Kann said his father sent the boy to a psychiatrist to cure him of his "mania," until young Stan reported he had spent the session discussing the doctor's electric iron collection.

Once Kann moved to Los Angeles, he was called regularly by the "Tonight Show," often to fill in for guests who had canceled. He would demonstrate one of his kitchen devices and Carson would react.

He also performed at the old Ruggeri's Restaurant in St. Louis, and from 1964 to 1975, the NBC Radio Network broadcast the performances nationally every Saturday night.

Kann also acted in the television sitcoms "Gimme A Break" and "The Two Of Us," and recorded organ sequences for the feature film "The Fury" and television series "M.A.S.H."

"Stan Kann was a one-man show, regaling audiences with his natural comedic personality, his exploits with his vacuum cleaners and his virtuosity on the mighty Wurlitzer organ," said Mary Strauss, who restored the Fox.

"St. Louis has lost a goodwill ambassador and the Fox has lost its best friend."



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