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Clown struggles for control of the name ‘Gandalf’

January 27, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Gandalf the Wizard Clown sits, bereft of his sorcery and his smile.

Gandalf _ better known to his Long Island neighbors as 41-year-old Michael Kaplan _ has been waging a costly, three-year trademark battle against a powerful force: the estate of writer J.R.R. Tolkien.

At issue is Kaplan’s right to use the name Gandalf.

``They’ve been bullying me,″ Kaplan says, surrounded by a raft of legal papers intermingled with videos of his clown shows. ``I’m up against all of their money. I realize that.″

Kaplan has already spent $10,000 in his fight. A federal board must now decide: Is Gandalf exclusively a wizard battling evil in Tolkien’s fictional Middle Earth? Or is he also a suburban children’s entertainer?

Kaplan’s Gandalf has been twisting balloon animals at birthday parties since 1974.

Kaplan says the two Gandalfs have one thing in common: Both took their names from 10th century Norse mythology. That, he claims, makes the name part of the public domain. He further asserts that his use of the name predates the Tolkien estate’s trademark protection filing by two years.

Daniel L. Kegan, a Chicago attorney for Tolkien Enterprises, strongly disagrees. ``What he appears to believe are his two main points are wrong on the facts, wrong on the law, and stubbornly so,″ Kegan says.

In his negotiations with the Tolkien estate, Kaplan rejected a deal requiring him to pay a one-time $3,000 fee plus an annual $2,000.

He lined up a pair of historians to verify Gandalf’s 1,000-year-old Norse roots. Kegan was unimpressed: ``Ivory has been around as an English word for a long time. That doesn’t mean you can make Ivory Soap.″

Tolkien’s 1937 ``The Hobbit″ and his subsequent trilogy ``The Lord of the Rings″ introduced his heroic Gandalf. Kaplan argues that means nothing to his grammar school clients.

``They don’t know Gandalf from Bozo,″ says Kaplan, an elfin presence at 5-foot-5.

Kaplan discovered his affinity for show business at 13 when he began visiting a New York City shop once frequented by Harry Houdini. He invented his balloon-twisting Gandalf six years later. It was an inauspicious start; because of a typographical error, his magazine ad promised ``ballroom sculpture.″

``Hey, I got the ad for free,″ Kaplan says.

In 1993, the Tolkien estate got wind of Kaplan’s character in a direct-mail ad. A lawyer called.

``I tell him I’m not Tolkien’s Gandalf,″ Kaplan recalls. ``He tells me there’s only Tolkien’s Gandalf, and they own it, and I shouldn’t be using it. And I told him, `Why don’t you bother somebody with money?‴

A decision from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board appears at least a year away, and appeals could stretch the not-so-epic battle into the next century.

Kaplan has no plans to back down.

``I keep getting angrier and angrier, madder and madder and madder,″ he says, no hint of the happy clown on his face. ``And at some point I decided, `What have I got to lose?‴

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