He is the youngest of three children and a native Minnesotan. His family owned a Hopkins Pontiac dealership and, though Pentel never took an interest in business, he admits to having been influenced by his father’s “entrepreneurial spirit.” At Hopkins Eisenhower High School, he was an average student with an interest in the performing arts. His sister Stacy recalls, “He was always performing.”
So it was no surprise to the family when, in 1979, an 18-year-old Ken Pentel left the University of Minnesota and moved to Los Angeles. “I had this very superficial sense of Hollywood,” he told me. “I was gonna hustle to get into movies.” Very quickly, though, Pentel’s interests shifted toward theater, and he began to pursue improvisational comedy. “I liked the immediacy and flexibility of it,” he explained. Pentel studied under David Shepherd, founder of the seminal Compass Players (later to be the Second City), and the legendary teacher of Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Alan Alda, among many others. The improvisation invented and taught by Shepherd is centered on “games” in which performers compete against each other by improvising a persona or situation on cue. (Shepherd’s “ImprovOlympics” inspired the T.V. show Whose Line Is It Anyway?) Though not every student will become a star, most students leave Shepherd’s tutelage knowing how to spontaneously react and appeal to an audience in a highly competitive environment.
Los Angeles had other lessons. “On my first day in L.A. I looked up at the sky and I saw these brown clouds of smog. We didn’t have that in Minnesota,” Pentel said. Minnesota didn’t have ozone alerts, either, and it certainly didn’t have toxic tides. Above all, nobody in Minnesota was building nuclear power plants in earthquake zones. “My first ever political meeting was a Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing on the San Onofre nuclear plant [eventually built]. I saw all these very well-dressed, very articulate men telling me how safe it was to construct nuclear reactors on fault lines. And I thought, Well, this isn’t right.” Soon afterward he attended a No Nukes concert at the Hollywood Bowl. “That’s when I realized I wasn’t alone.”
Eventually Pentel returned to Minnesota and continued studying theater while working at Dudley Riggs and other odd jobs. In 1986, while paging through the Star Tribune, he happened upon an advertisement for the environmental activist organization Greenpeace. They needed people to go door-to-door, seeking memberships and donations. Pentel was hired. A week later he was promoted to management. He would spend the next 11 years with Greenpeace as an organizer, lobbyist, and strategist.
“But the show business part of him never really left,” his sister reflected. “He struggled with that for many years.” Throughout the 1980s Pentel continued to pursue his creative inclinations, including dance lessons at Zenon, and vocal training at the West Bank School of Music. When I asked him at what point he finally let go of show business, he smiled. “I still haven’t given up on the possibility.”