Dennis Porter’s success as a performer is scripted by the North Kansas City native’s talent at reading a room — adapting his jokes and wide variety of entertainment styles to fit the audience. If he’s doing it right, one of Porter’s characters brings a healthy grin to their happy faces, he said.
“I am over-blessed to get to make people smile and laugh for a living,” said Porter, owner of Happy Faces Entertainment. “No matter how long I get to interact with them. … my goal is for them to forget about life. They just get to come laugh, smile, and have some good times.”
Through the business, Porter creates shows for toddlers and adults alike, performing in numerous forms and as various characters: magic, game shows, storytelling, juggling, tap dancing, murder mysteries, clowning, and drag.
He describes himself as a variety entertainer, noting that he could play as many as six different characters in one weekend, or even perform the same tricks for completely different audiences.
“I’m not doing the same thing every day. I’m not working with the same age every time,” Porter continued, noting the variety he achieves by “mixing it up” with different performance styles, characters and showtimes. “That’s what I think keeps me on my toes a little bit, and I get to keep creating new things, too. It lets me keep my creative juices flowing and doesn’t get stale.”
Porter is set to embark this June and July on a four-state summer reading program in cooperation with libraries in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois, he shared.
Click here to learn more about Happy Faces library programs.
Don’t be a drag
While he doesn’t dress in drag for his storytelling performances for children, one of Porter’s most popular characters at Happy Faces is “Ruby” — a fictional alter ego he portrays in drag.
Porter called the recent political pushback to the gender-bending drag style “ridiculous.” More than a dozen states have pushed legislation that would limit drag performances in public spaces with Tennessee passing a first-of-its-kind ban in March.
Kansas state Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, previously a longtime Kansas City meteorologist, introduced legislation earlier this year that would classify drag shows as obscenity — a move aimed at criminalizing such performances in certain venues in the Sunflower State. Missouri’s legislature also proposed multiple bills to criminalize the presence of minors at drag performances, and Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey demanded his state’s schools “adopt a new resolution that bans educators from exposing children to drag queen shows,” according to Fox News.
“It’s just stupid, really,” Porter said of the wave of legislation. “They’re trying to make laws based on clothes. I have maybe as much makeup on as a circus clown as I do in drag, so now it’s just a matter of the choices of style of makeup and clothes that I’m wearing.”
Porter said that his ability to connect with and tailor appropriate content to each audience matters far more than the clothes he’s wearing.
“The only thing that matters is that I’m being appropriate for my audience,” Porter said. “Am I gonna do the same jokes at Missie B’s that I do at the preschool? Hell no! Sometimes a preschool joke actually works for adults, but it’s all about appropriateness. It’s just like what movies you take your kids to. Do you take them to the G-rated movie or the R-rated movie?”
“As a performer, I come upon lots of different people,” he continued. “In one minute, I could be dealing with a group of four kids and a mom, then walk 100 yards, and now I’m interacting with four 30-something-year-olds who’ve been drinking. I’m going to entertain them differently even in the same character, which really seems just pretty simple to me.”
More than anything, Porter focuses on creating smiles, laughter, and joy, which he said he receives by being a “certified smile maker.”
“There seem to be so many people who are not creating smiles for anybody, even with people on ‘their side’ who are fighting for something,” Porter said. “It seems like there’s nowhere in their life that they’re creating a smile; they’re creating tension.”
“If everybody in the world were to take a breath and maybe even once a day help someone else create a smile, we would be so much farther ahead in every area,” he added.
On the rise
Porter’s performance journey began humbly — as a child with a Mr. Microphone putting on a show for family members. School theater and choir followed, with Porter beginning work as a circus clown about 30 years ago during his teenage years.
He later earned a business theater degree from William Jewell College. After graduation, Porter worked with Theater League on business operations, he said, while still working as a performer in a scaled-back capacity on the side.
“I realized that I really would rather be on the stage than just supporting the people on the stage,” Porter said.
With that revelation, Porter gradually began taking more part-time performance gigs, he said, founding Happy Faces Entertainment in 2001. He’s now been a full-time performer for 15 years, he estimated.
Along the way, Porter has also worked for other performance companies, including at one point roughly a decade ago with an out-of-town murder mystery company where he first performed in drag, simply out of necessity, he recalled.
“One year our Christmas script came in and it had a different ratio of men to women than our core group,” Porter remembered. “One of my friends who was in that group said, ‘Here’s what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna put Dennis in drag, and we’re going to do the show.’ At that point, I’d never really done drag before.”
However, Porter enjoyed the experience so much that he began incorporating drag into his entertainment services, even adapting that character into what became his most-popular drag character, Ruby.
Ruby didn’t become a featured character of Porter’s until 2021, he said, noting she truly arrived during Missie B’s eight-week “On the Rise” talent contest.
Porter began the contest by performing magic and storytelling, he shared, then added a show from Ruby, which he said the judges really enjoyed, inspiring him to add more of Ruby into his repertoire.
“I remember one of the judges saying one time that they didn’t think I had planned on Ruby being around as much — which was true,” Porter recalled. “But I was getting such great feedback, and I was having fun and enjoying incorporating the different things in with it, that it really kind of lit a fire there to get Ruby going.”
The character ultimately got her own comedy show — “Ruby’s High School Reunion” — which returned in February at Westport Bowery after its 2022 debut in Lawrence.
Peeking around the fourth wall
Beyond the now-recognizable Ruby, Porter still performs as a number of other characters, including Cornelius the clown, emcee Denny Rayburn — based on “Match Game” host Gene Rayburn — as well as numerous others that are event-specific or rotating.
Cornelius makes rare appearances, Porter said, though he can be seen every year on St. Patrick’s Day at Children’s Mercy before the annual parade, calling that day one of the highlights of his year.
“We call it taking the parade to them,” Porter said. “We get to do a little 45-minute show, and there’s some dancers and usually a musician. I do some clowning, juggling, and magic, which is wonderful. … They can kind of forget for a moment where they are and why they’re there.”
Many of Porter’s acts feature magic — he said that’s been the case for 40 years now, long before Happy Faces Entertainment. Porter described his magic as more low key — think mind reading, as opposed to major illusions.
Porter is grateful to have found his own magic as a full-time performer in his hometown, he said.
“I grew up in North Kansas City, and I have always been based out of Kansas City,” Porter said. “To be able to perform for a living is amazing. … I can’t be more thrilled to make that happen.”
Making that happen has required Porter to be ambidextrous, he said, as he has to balance running a business with his creative side.
Happy Faces Entertainment continues to be as multifaceted as Porter; he incorporated the KC Mystery Players into his portfolio once the out-of-town company stopped performing in Kansas City.
The business also still offers all of Porter’s other services and characters, from storytelling to magic to drag, and more.
One key commonality among all of Porter’s performances and characters is an interactive and engaging experience for audience members, he said, noting that he doesn’t like the fourth wall.
“I love the interaction, and giving people the opportunity to participate,” Porter said. “I’m very interactive. I haven’t done a stage show where you act like the audience isn’t there, probably since college. I could maybe do that again, but I’ve been so interactive for so long that I would have a hard time with that.”