Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Mists of Time

One Saturday, I got a full load of characters: Big Bird, Elmo, and Cookie Monster. Wearing the monster costumes is like being inside a live bear, but Big Bird is even worse. At its best, the costume tended to hinder breathing, since your eyes looked out of the neck, keeping your face pressed against the material. At its worst, it was a death trap.

Big Bird’s head had started to cave. An earlier performer had used a yardstick to keep it in roughly cranial shape. It snapped. He shoved the shards in horizontally and passed it on.

The neck, though, posed the greatest threat to me. While the top of the head no longer sank like a newborn baby’s, this Big Bird was an invertebrate, the face falling to his chest. Big Bird seemed to be snoozing or preparing to feed on the nearest kiddo.

My solution was simple but effective. I used two croquet mallets, the heads resting on my shoulders, as support, and Big Bird was ready to take flight. Or so it seemed.

This first party started but didn’t stop with the Bird. After an hour and a half suffocating hell, I left, and returned in Elmo costume as per the party instructions. Unbeknownst to me, during that time, the mother tyrant had replaced me with “The Reptile Woman.” Great, Elmo can just be part of the crowd, no dancing necessary.

However, part of Reptile Jane’s routine involved allowing everyone to hold various slithering creatures, including a number of snakes. And of course, all the kids wanted Elmo to hold the snake. I played along, gasping loudly and feigning fear. Feigning, that is, until a baby boa worked its way into gap between gloves and sleeve. If Reptile Jane hadn’t handily snagged the snake, the kids would have been treated to one very disturbed Elmo.

I left the party, soaked in sweat. Half an hour later, I clambered back into Big Bird. I was supposed to meet two other performers, hand off a Cookie Monster to one and make sure the other had a functioning Elmo costume. Then, we’d all enter en masse, knock the kids around for an hour and take off. Ah, the best laid plans…

Cookie and Elmo didn’t show. Big Bird was going to have to do this one alone.

The party ended almost before it began. Just as the kids started to flock, one of the mallets popped out of the head, as if shot from a cannon. Six inches to the right and it would have brained a little girl. The headlines write themselves, “Big Bird charged with manslaughter.” Thank heaven for the costume; they couldn’t see me blanch.

Down one mallet and two characters, I did the safe thing: balloon animals. For forty-five minutes. Every kid at the party had a hat and a creature, and Big Bird’s beak, long past looking reasonable in the slightest, kept hitting little kids in the head. Thankfully, Elmo arrived. The Second Coming wouldn’t have made me happier.

With Elmo here and the parachute open, I couldn’t help but think of these kids. I couldn’t imagine more fanatical partisans of a children’s television show. From the moment I set foot at the party, every character’s song played on repeat, and the kids sang along with every word. They had more show trivia at the fingertips than the staff of TV Guide. I fully expected someone to roll up a sleeve and flash an Ernie tat.

These kids wanted Cookie Monster. You could tell from the yearning in their eyes, from the drooping shoulders, from the incessant queries, “When is Cookie Monstah gunna get heawh?”

I did what any man would do in such circumstances. I became Cookie Monster.

I fled back to the car ("Big Bird's gonna find Cookie!"), shed the yellow mess, leapt into the wooly blue sauna, and got back to the party before “C is for Cookie” played again.

I can only dimly recall the rest of the night. Child after child forced cookies into my costume mouth, all of which had to be crumbled with great zeal. Someone broke open the piƱata; out came bags of cookies. Some mother had brought plate-sized cookies. Meanwhile, Elmo lost his mind, repeatedly diving onto tables, which caused an unknown number of enchiladas to be ground underfoot and several beers to shatter. The night blurred into a disturbing fusion of Muppetry and the Satyricon.

Later, as we changed down the street, Elmo revealed the lowdown on the birth of Chuckles. Apparently, Brian had gotten into the clown business just as we had, as a performer. Sensing a business opportunity, he pilfered all the contacts he was making, and created his own enterprise. Strolling around campus at Biola University, a Southland Bible college, he was fond of approaching females at random, saying, “You look like a (Princess/Pippi Longstocking/Mermaid). Wanna work for me?” Elmo couldn’t tell me how many times Brian had been slapped across the face.

Either my grunts or chocolate-chipped UnderArmor persuaded Elmo we had a connection. Standing in his briefs under a streetlight, he rubbed his palms together and revealed his own plans.

“I’m actually saving all these names and addresses for myself. You ever heard of Cutco knives? They’re a great deal and you get an awesome percentage of every sale. And, for every person you recruit to sell knives, you get a portion of their sales and a smaller part of every person they-”

I peeled out before Mr. Ponzi started cutting pennies in two.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Routine Schemes

Every party is different (hence, the Saturday morning terror). I never know if the kids will be monsters, the parents dictators or the costumes particularly foul-smelling. But there are some things that don’t change, a routine to fall back on when despair overwhelms hope.

Twenty minutes before I’m due to arrive, I call, give the mother an ETA (always an odd number of minutes, so as to seem more precise), and ask if they have any particular activities they’d prefer. How they respond does not affect the substance of the performance. The description of the imminent entertainment, however, will vary dramatically to give the impression that I’ve just shelved all the timeworn tricks and am bringing out only my best material for this show.

Twenty minutes later I call again, from “two blocks away.” In fact, I am sitting two houses away, cursing at the electrical tape that is supposed to keep Black Ranger’s mask together. They don’t even notice I am now five minutes late.

We meet out in front, to “map out the party.” If I’m lucky, the parents come out as a couple. This adds another level to the mapping and soaks up more time, as they debate with one another. If I’m standing in a patch of four-leaf clovers, they will repeatedly try to force offerings of food and drink upon me. I repeatedly refuse, citing professionalism. The hour is now ten minutes old, I haven’t even crossed the threshold, and they respect my commitment to the craft.

When the well of stalling runs dry, it’s into the party. This is where the water balloon hits the fan (hey, it’s a kids party). You really can’t control for the children, the space, or if there will be any initial success. Some kids have blood that a Tour de France rider would have killed for, while others act like they’ve eaten more Ritalin than Doritos. It’s going to be hairy, regardless. But if the party really starts trending downhill, I break out the trump card: balloons.

The balloon animals have never failed me. But that doesn’t mean I can let my guard down. In a post-Wedding Crashers era, there’s no shortage of children willing to sabotage the party by demanding a T-Rex, 747 or scale replica of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. But they don’t laugh at alternate suggestions (“How about a sword, little buddy?”). They tend to scream. The key, then, is to get to them before their imagination does—or their older siblings.

The number one goal is to start an arms race among the boys. I have come up with no fewer than eight variations on the basic sword. The list includes a buccaneer’s cutlass, Three Musketeers rapier, fencing foil, claymore, longsword, dual ninja blades, dagger and a Roman gladius. Rudimentary shields are simple to create, but it’s best if the escalation continues. A pair of kids in Malibu once worked their way into full suits of armor, returning after every duel until they both had helmets, breastplates, oval shields, leggings, and two weapons apiece. It was like watching multicolored Michelin men fight to the death.

The girls are better off being girlish. While the boys tend to be more outlandish in their requests (“I wanna blue moose and a Corvette”), girls have an uncanny knack for suggesting those things I really ought to know how to make: “Could I have a mouse? Or a horse? How about a teddy bear?” I try to throw them off the scent with leftfield suggestions: “How about an octopus? Or a Viking helmet? Or a submachine gun?” We usually compromise on flowers.

The balloons are a lifesaver and they keep you off your dogs. Five minutes to go, I start catching the attention of the host and packing up my things. Then, just as Mum is approaching with the cash, I strategically yield to the crowd of kids, sticking around for a couple more minutes of furious ballooning, before retreating to the parents surrounded by children begging me not to leave. This makes for a perfect backdrop when gently reminding moneybags, “Ahem, the gratuity is not included.”

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Danger, Red Ranger

I had a Red Ranger party in La Canada once. A fancy house in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, the party had its own caste system. The parents socialized in the upper house while, down a flight of stairs, the children played in a separate yard, comfortably distant. I’m not sure if the kids felt like the Untouchables (not the Brian de Palma kind), but I certainly did.

It seemed like a normal party: the parachute games were mediocre at best, my magic routine produced a couple smirks and several opaque stares, and the balloons became a catfight between four girls and an effeminate boy. The average age was slightly higher than normal and all these kids obviously thought very highly of themselves. Interacting with a clown was apparently beneath them (except for a kid who attended as a Black Ranger, then proceeded to slowly remove every article of his costume and clothing until he was leaping around the moonbounce in a pair of Superman boxers and knee-high socks).

To keep the older boys from popping the girls’ balloons, though, I leaned on that old reliable crutch. I promised a trip into the jumper. I had been back in the inflatables since my disastrous first weekend. It was kinda like getting bucked from a horse: you just gotta get back on and ride it into the ground. So I had done, and I thought I couldn’t be broken. As usual, I was wrong.

The first ill-tidings to blow my way came when I tried, instead of getting on the jumper immediately, to just sprint madly about the outside, cackling “you can’t catch this Ranger!” That little game ended abruptly when I thought I was hidden behind a column: two twelve-year olds threw their bodies into the pillar and nailed me in the face, destroying my glasses.

Blinded and not a little irritated, the Red Ranger decided to get on the jumper. I came flying in with all the fury of a man who has just been rapped on the nose. Two chaotic minutes of battling ended abruptly when one of the boys protested I still had my boots on. Apparently, I’d been standing on his chest.

As I unlaced the boots, I heard words that make any entertainers blood run cold. “Alright, we need to use teamwork. I'll hold him while you guys come from this side, and you guys come from the right. Try to trip him to get him down and then we'll jump on him.” I’m sure someday, when man creates a robot smarter than himself, he will feel exactly as I did. I climbed back inside like a man going to the gallows.

By the time I had emerged, one kid was crying and I only had half of the Red Ranger helm. I pocketed my broken glasses and fled the scene of the crime, still managing to score a sweet tip from the padre who hadn’t noticed the fighting below.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

NoHo Parenting

I remember walking into a party in Hollywoodland. All the parents drove luxury cars and had designer jeans. There were three adults for every kid, and it wasn’t clear who was actually reproducing. The birthday twins had been adopted by two daddies, who apparently had a very removed approach to parenting. The kids were sweet as pumpkin pie when I came in as Spiderman. Sensing a peaceful crowd, I relented and popped into the moonbounce. Big mistake.

Somehow, standing on inflated ground drove these children mad. They exploded into unbridled violence, slamming into each other with terrifying force. One little tyke would make a loud grunting noise, lower his head, and plow into the nearest target at a dead run. I learned of this tactic when he collided with the nether regions, sending Spiderman into a painful Spidercrouch.

Parents swarmed to the side of the moonbounce, imploring their children to not be accomplices to homicide. It was like asking Prince not to be accomplice to weirdness. The kids were completely out of control. As soon as they stepped off the jumper, and into the waiting, hysterical hands of their parents, they would revert to cute little sweetums. And just as quickly, parental concern would evaporate, disappearing faster than the mimosas.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Welcome to...

The Great Clown Underground.

Roughly five months ago, I yielded to temptation and followed a classified posting for a work as a children's entertainer. In the half year since, I've become part of a huge underground economy that I never knew existed, a pink market if you will. Along the way, I've accumulated some hilarious stories and I couldn't help writing them down and putting them out there. I hope you enjoy them.