Whatever Happened To ... The Great Zucchini?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The name he goes by is the Great Zucchini. As profiled by Gene Weingarten in "The Peekaboo Paradox" in January 2006, Eric Knaus resembled an older Holden Caulfield: a reluctant adult with a remarkable connection to children. Eric was earning a six-figure income as a children's entertainer. But behind the amusing facade, his life was a shambles: He was deeply in debt and had a suspended driver's license, an apartment furnished with a bed and an air-hockey table, a string of failed relationships and a gambling addiction that had spiraled out of control. On the day his secrets were revealed, Eric felt both a cathartic sense of relief and fear that his career working with children might be over.

He was wrong.

The Great Zucchini had greatly underestimated the willingness of parents to forgive personal flaws in a man who, at his core, has a poignantly genuine gift and a meticulous dedication to his work. He was doing about 300 shows a year then; now it's closer to 400. Last year, he sold out a performance for an audience that included Sasha Obama. And a film company is shopping for a screenwriter to tell his story.

Eric, 39, still looks as Weingarten described him: more house painter than entertainer, wearing a T-shirt and a backward Nationals cap. But there are changes, he says. Consider his tattered appointment book, a lifeline he clung to with a somewhat paranoid desperation. "I have a backup now," he announces -- an identical handwritten book.

His license is no longer suspended, the air-hockey table is gone, and he has actual furniture. Despite the upgrades, Eric is single again after a recent breakup. "Marriage makes me nervous," he admits, and though he loves children, "I'm not sure I'm responsible enough" to be a parent. He still likes to gamble, but "just once in a while" and mainly on football.

Eric's clients like to talk to him about the original Magazine article after he finishes a show. Moms still try to set him up with their single friends. But some dads approach him differently.

" 'So, uh, Zucchini,' " Eric imitates in a low voice, with an impish grin: " 'Do you like the Bears or the Redskins tonight?' "

Interview by CAITLIN GIBSON


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