Posted on

Sheer Magic! Wheeler Summer Children’s Program Entertains, Enthralls, and Engages

Sheer Magic!  Wheeler Summer Children’s Program Entertains, Enthralls, and Engages
MAKING MUSIC — From the moment he stepped in front of the children attending a summer program at Wheeler County Library, Reuben Haller kept his young audience engaged. Above, he plays a mandola while telling a story.Photo by Deborah Clark
Sheer Magic!  Wheeler Summer Children’s Program Entertains, Enthralls, and Engages
MAKING MUSIC — From the moment he stepped in front of the children attending a summer program at Wheeler County Library, Reuben Haller kept his young audience engaged. Above, he plays a mandola while telling a story.Photo by Deborah Clark

One recent, sunny morning a group of elementary- age youngsters sat cross-legged on the floor of the Wheeler County Library in Alamo eagerly awaiting the start of a summer reading program. Fiddlin’ Dan stepped in front of the children, drew a bow across the strings of his violin, and the magic began. The presenter had gotten the kids’ attention, and the momentum he created carried the young audience blissfully through the next hour.

Reuben Haller, also known as Fiddlin’ Dan the Mountain Man and Ruby the Clown, had visited this particular library before, and many of the older children in attendance remembered him. The Atlanta-based musicianteacher- entertainer is adept at telling a story with humor and music, and the youngsters have so much fun they don’t even realize that they are learning as they go. Even when Haller puts down his musical instruments and launches into a story— often taken from the pages of a popular children’s book— the transition is seamless. Haller has the children thoroughly engaged as he takes them on a voyage across the sea, or relates the plight of a little polar bear as he accidentally ventures far away from home but meets a lot of interesting characters along the way.

The presentation was part of an “Adventure Begins at Your Library” summer reading program. Each year, the Wheeler County Library, part of the Ocmulgee Regional Library System, hosts a program for children. Library Branch Manager Elaine Joiner always lines up an array of talent from near and far to carry out the mission of keeping children engaged in reading and learning during the long break between school terms. Supported by allocations from local government, the program is intended for children aged four to 12.

Presenters have included paleontologists, yoga instructors, musicians, artists, and entertainer-educators like Reuben Haller. Blending a multitude of talents in his performances, from puppetry to song, the San Francisco native began his career as an elementary school teacher, but because he is also an artist at heart, his path led straight to the performing arts. Haller moved to Atlanta in 1994 and he ended up at a circus camp. It was practically love at first sight. “When I put on a clown nose, the angels sang and that was my destiny. I felt this freedom and power, and it was magic,” he said in a 2020 interview.

In 1997, three years after he became a clown, Haller was hired by the Big Apple Circus in New York to be a hospital clown and he continued in that role for 16 years. When that ended, he became part of a company called Humorology Atlanta (HA!), which offered “essential clowning” for sick or injured patients and their families. From 2014 to 2022, he served as site supervisor for HA! at Egleston Hospital, Childrens’ Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA). Now, Haller is affiliated with Laughter League, a nonprofit based in Dallas, Texas, and is clowning for patients at Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital and is hoping to get back into CHOA. Haller stays busy with his various pursuits. He has written and produced music as Fiddlin’ Dan, and he enjoys playing Santa. “A Jewish Santa?” he posited, chuckling at the irony. He has also done special events for the world-famous Cirque de Soleil and the World of Coke museum.

He creates art, including a series of Hebrew calligraphy that is made up of Hebrew words and phrases surrounded by scenes and intricate designs, and he is poised to publish a book of poetry for children. Recently, he released an album called “Ma Tovu” or “How Good,” which includes all original songs, with verses from the Torah.

Very involved in the Atlanta Jewish Community, Haller and his wife, McKenzie Wren, are members of the band of Congregation Bet Haverim where he leads children’s High Holy Day services. As a Zionist, Haller has been greatly saddened by the events of October 7.

“Every Jew I know is reeling. It was shock and trauma,” he said of the tragedy. Haller said he is lucky to still have his parents in his life and in America. “Both are 93, and the holocaust happened in their lifetime when a third of the Jews in the world were eliminated and the state of Israel was created,” he shared. “We are living in a very dramatic, epochal time for Jewish people, but over our history in most every country, we have been chased out or persecuted or expelled — except in the U.S. where we have been accepted. Thank goodness for separation of church and state and the U.S. guaranteeing the rights of minorities.”

Haller noted that now, compared to worldwide populations, there are very few Jews on the earth — probably around 15 million. The population centers for Jews can now be found in France, England the U.S., and of course, Israel. “There aren’t many of us, but we have a lot of attention put on us. We are an endangered species, and I am a proud Jew who cares about my people.”

A year prior to that tragedy, perhaps prophetically, Haller wrote a letter to the editor of a prominent Georgia newspaper about his concern for the future of Israel. “I am a diaspora Jew who cares deeply about the State of Israel. I pray for Israel to thrive and prosper, and to live in peace. More than pray, I also lived in Israel for a year and volunteered on an Israeli military base as part of the ‘Volunteers for Israel’ program. I’m not a citizen of Israel, but I believe we Jews are a people whose fate is bound together.”

Seeing the world, with all its chaos, as a beautiful place isn’t always easy— even for a clown, whether in reference to the world stage or the confines of a hospital room. Some of Haller’s appearances have called on all of his personal and professional resources. Many times, he has put on a happy face in hospital rooms where he hoped to bring some joy and comfort to very sick children and their families. As a performer, and as a human being, Haller has the ability to create positivity. As Ruby the Clown and Fiddlin’ Dan, Haller continues to go about his mission of spreading good will when and where he can.

“Clowning to me is the most human of all arts forms. It is all about the human condition. Clowns find delight in just being human,” he reflected, noting clowns deal with the real world, so spontaneity and improvisation are part of the equation.

“If something happens in an audience, you don’t ignore it because that’s what’s real, especially with kids because kids are so in the moment.” He usually doesn’t wear a lot makeup, just to be more approachable — especially when working in small spaces and with small audiences, as in a hospital setting. He said of his organization, “We go into neonatal units and sing lullabies. We interact with all ages, from infants to adults, staff, families, for everyone in every circumstance.” He and his colleagues have sometimes been in end of life situations where they were invited to sing.

He added, “What is most important in what we do is to make it appropriate to what is needed in the room at the time. If a nurse or doctor comes in, we melt away; it takes a lot of sensitivity. It’s a beautiful art of doing the right thing at the right time in the right way.”

CLOWNING AROUND — Reuben Haller defines his art as “strolling entertainment,” but he is also a magic-maker and a healer as he goes about spreading joy. Haller has been a clown for 27 years and performs in many venues, including countless hours as a hospital clown at Egleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta and most recently at Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital.

Recent Death Notices