The Birthday Club
Turning Fear Around
F.A.Q. (Frequently Asked Questions)
THE BIRTHDAY CLUB
No matter what other types of promotional advertising you utilize to get the word out that you perform at birthday parties, the birthday club is one of the best. I didn’t use it in lieu of other advertising, but in addition to yellow page ads, family newspaper ads, etc.
What is a birthday club? It is a "club" that children can join to receive some type of recognition when their own birthday comes along. Remember that every child has a birthday every single year. And no matter how old they get, there are usually younger siblings or friends coming right along after them.
Before starting your own club, you will need to decide what you want to offer. If a child joins, what will they receive? You might send them a postcard, wishing them a happy birthday. It could be a certificate proclaiming them "King" or "Queen" for their day. Other options include a personal note from you, a party newsletter, poem, story, etc. This will depend on your creativity and how much time you want to spend on it.
Children love to get mail, so it should be addressed specifically to them. Write directly to them on the postcard or note. For instance, you might begin with something like this:
February is one of my favorite months because that is when so many of my
friends are celebrating their birthdays, just like you! It is hard to believe that
on February 10th, you will be 5 years old.
This type of note is personal. However, it can be set up on the computer to easily fill in the appropriate information and still have it look like it is individually written. Whatever you write, remember the age you are writing to. If the child is a toddler, pre-school, elementary age or middle school, the note should reflect a different tone. A pre-teen, for instance, needs you to be respectful of their age:
Can you believe that it has already been a year since we celebrated your last
birthday? On February 12th, you will be turning 10, your first double digit birthday age!
Don’t discount the teenagers. I’ve sent many birthday notes to ones turning 13. It was special that they had become teenagers and I wrote that in the note. I remember one girl, turning 13, called me upon receiving her note and booked me for her own party. All of her friends were teens and we had a wonderful time! Also, parents will call you for the younger siblings once they’ve been "reminded" with what you’ve sent to their older child.
It is perfectly okay to include a discount or special offer coupon for the parents to use if they hire you for their next party. The coupon might be for $5.00 off, or a percentage reduction (i.e. 10% off), free face painting, special gift for the birthday child, helium balloons or whatever you want to offer as an incentive for them to call you. You might want to put an expiration date on the coupon and/or indicate that only one coupon is redeemable per birthday. Otherwise, you might have a parent hand you coupons from several years or siblings coupons to use at one birthday party. Define any restrictions on the coupon ahead of time, so there is no confusion later on.
Special offer coupons are fine, but don’t make this the only thing they get for joining the club. What is inside the envelope or on the postcard should be fun for them to receive. I have seen homemade notes, wonderful postcards, certificates, letters, Origami, small gifts, mini-magic tricks, funny money, heart balloons, stickers, puzzles, etc. sent out for different birthday clubs. Think about what a child would like to receive in the mail. Consider the age as well. A toddler is not going to get a great deal of fun out of a crossword puzzle, but an elementary school age child would. Remember not to make this too much of an expense out of your pocket. Whatever time and expense is incurred to produce your birthday club should be reimbursed with only one birthday party booked as a result. The rest of the bookings should be frosting on the cake.
How do you get the word out to children about your birthday club? That’s easy. You have a captive audience every time you perform at a birthday party. This can be a colorful handout that each child receives at the end of the party, before you leave. Or you can give it to the parent to put in the goodie bags. Always, show one of the sign-up fliers to the children and explain what your birthday club is all about. Get them excited to be a part of your club. The hand-out should clearly define what the birthday club is all about, what benefits they will receive by joining, plus a place for them to fill in their name, address, phone number and birthday date. It works well if this is a tear-off or cut-off portion of the flier. This is what they will mail back to you. The portion they retain should have your name and phone number on it as a wonderful advertising tool. If your picture is on it, your flier might find a home on their refrigerator or family bulletin board. This is also great for when their friends come to visit!
Throughout the years of my own Peppermint Birthday Club, I regularly received change of address forms from families when they moved. The parents said their children looked forward to the surprises I sent them each year and they didn’t want to miss out once they moved. I never eliminated anyone simply because of where he or she lived. If cousins were visiting from another state and wanted to join, that was fine with me.
Before handing out your first set of fliers at a party, be ready for your club to function. I handed out my first fliers and immediately received one back from a boy whose birthday was the very next month. I had to get his packet out right away in order for him to receive it early enough. By "early enough", I mean it should be received by the birthday child at least three weeks before their birthday. That gives the parents time to call you and book you for their party. What good is a birthday club if you don’t send it out until it is too late to book it into your schedule? Or too late because the parents have already made other plans for entertainment. Most parents begin planning or at least formulating ideas for their child’s party several weeks to a month ahead and often times several months ahead. You will want them to receive your birthday greetings early enough to accommodate their planning.
Birthday invitations are usually mailed or distributed 2 weeks before the party. Parents love to include the information about who and what the entertainment will be. This is surely an enticement for people to RSVP that they will be coming to the party, knowing that you will be there. Several years ago, one little girl’s mother asked for a color picture of me well in advance of the party. A friend of hers, who is an artist, was making the invitations for her. She wanted to do a watercolor of Peppermint on the front of each invitation. I received my fee inside one of the invitations to keep as a souvenir! Another mother owned a t-shirt silk screening business. She asked for a color picture ahead of time so they could put Peppermint’s picture on t-shirts, which were then given to each child as their gift for coming to the party.
These are just two examples of parties that needed to be planned way in advance. As you can see, if their birthday club packet was sent out only a week early, none of these types of fun things could have happened, because there wouldn’t have been enough time to accomplish them.
What did I offer with the Peppermint Birthday Club? Lots of different things over the years (i.e. personal birthday notes, stickers, balloons, magic, etc.) But an important part was a monthly newsletter that I created. It was different each month, focusing on the season or holiday of the upcoming month. In the newsletter, I gave ideas for invitations, games, refreshments, etc. that the parents could implement regardless of whether they hired me or not. In addition, I included information on where Peppermint would be performing "publicly" in the upcoming month (i.e. library shows, store promotions, etc.) That way, parents could come see me prior to booking me, if they wanted. Also, it was fun to have so many little friends show up at any public performance I was doing.
This was before WebPages and Internet usage became so prevalent. Nowadays, if parents want to see what you look like, you can give them your WebPage URL and they can download your picture instantly. When I started my birthday club ten years ago, I didn’t even own a computer. It was all done with a typewriter. I did a lot of cut and paste…with real scissors and rubber cement! Once I jumped into the computer age, it made the club so much easier to do.
Even with a computer, it will be necessary to create a database with all of the children’s names, addresses, phone numbers, birthday dates, parents names, etc. You will need to continually update your information. The sign-up registrations will be arriving in the mail on a regular basis and, once a child has joined, it would be a real disappointment to them if you forgot to send their packet for their birthday! And for any of you who are computer-inept like I am, don’t forget to back up your database on a disc.
I always enjoy hearing about other birthday clubs. It amazes me how creative and ingenious people can be. Birthday clubs do require some effort. There is work involved. But, if done correctly, birthday clubs can be well worth it as a promotional tool.
And remember to always have fun with your clowning!
Penny’s mom called to book her party. Penny was turning 30. Penny has Downs Syndrome. There were going to be 15 guests, all around the same age…all with special needs. This was not the first time with this group. I had met Penny and some of her friends at Paul’s birthday party a few months ago when he turned 29.
Paul’s parents hired me for my "This Is Your Life" magic show. This was to be similar to other adult birthday party shows. His parents gave me a lot of information about him and I created a show based on his life. When the party was booked, I also requested a list of who would be there, not only their names, but also a description along with something special about each one. I knew ahead of time that, when I arrived, all of these young adults would be seated around the dining room table, having just finished a birthday lunch. Because of the list of names, I easily recognized each one as Paul introduced them to me. It made each one feel special that I knew they had just received an award from Special Olympics or that they had just started a new job or their nickname, etc.
The show that I put together was, indeed, based on Paul’s life (the information his mother had given me). For instance, I knew that Paul loved hotdogs. So, one of the magic tricks was a production pan, similar to a dove or chick pan. We added magical ingredients and, to their surprise, the pan was now filled with a long string of sponge hotdogs. Another trick I used was the "Mismatched Flag" which tied in nicely to their involvement in Special Olympics. One of the things I really enjoy about putting together this type of show is that I get to know so much about the birthday person. I feel that I really know them by the time I arrive and it makes it so much more personal when you can comment on special events in their life throughout the party.
Just like with any other birthday, parties for children with special needs come in a variety of sizes and situations. Party planning with the parent ahead of time is just as important, maybe even more so, to ensure the entertainment will be appropriate and well received. The things you choose to do at a party for children with physical impairments may be different from what you would do at a party for mentally or emotionally impaired children or adults. But every situation can still be successfully celebrated.
One mother called to hire me for her son, Keith’s 4th birthday. The party was to be held at his care facility. The mother explained that all of the children were physically and mentally handicapped. Keith had extremely poor eyesight, but loved high, whistling sounds. She told me that, even though her son and his friends wouldn’t really be able to participate much, if any, she still wanted Keith to have a party for his birthday….just like any other 4 year-old boy.
When I arrived, the children were each lying on the perimeter of a very large mat. The middle area had been left open for me. My usual party scenario simply would not have worked in this situation. So, I got down on my knees and interacted with the children close to their level. As I proceeded, I found myself crawling around, giving hugs and letting them see Peppermint’s bright colored hair and costume. You could see their eyes open wide as they took in the way I looked. I brought along a cassette player with songs from Raffi (Keith’s favorites) plus other familiar children’s songs that his mother told me he liked. Each child got a bright, colored balloon sculpture, which could eventually be attached to his/her wheelchair. While they were absorbing the new sights and sounds, I would hold onto their little fingers, caress their hair and talk to them. Of course this party was different, but it was essential to make adjustments in what I did to allow each little one to be a part of this special occasion, Keith’s 4th birthday, just like any other 4-year-old.
Another party was at a care facility for teenagers who had been catastrophically injured (i.e. car accidents, near-drownings, etc. that left them with severe brain damage). I was with another clown who had been at this facility before. The teens were in a circle, in their wheelchairs. Once again, their eyes would widen when they saw the bright colors. This is the time to go around and give one-on-one attention. As you make a balloon, use a puppet or something else brightly colored, you give them the opportunity to really look close. The nurses were amazed that one girl never took her eyes off of me, no matter where I was in the room. They told me they had never seen her focus on anything before that day. They took pictures so they could show her parents what had happened.
These two parties are examples of extreme cases of special needs. However, most special needs parties are less demanding and not as emotionally draining. In fact, I look forward to parties like Paul’s, Penney’s…and Jackie’s.
Jackie was turning 10. I had entertained at her younger sister’s parties before in addition to several other events where she was. Now it was her turn. Jackie also has Downs Syndrome. She is a delight! It was nice to know the family already, but that really wouldn’t have mattered. Jackie loved Peppermint and was ready to be the magician’s helper for her party. Because her group of friends were all 9 to 10 years old, I planned my "pre-teen" party for her (The New Calliope, July / August 1998). This involves a lot of magic and hands-on activities, including making their own balloons. I bring in the balloons already inflated and then teach them how to twist them into shaped animals, hats, etc. Everyone gets involved, including the parents. We always have balloons everywhere by the time we’re finished. And they each take home an armload of balloons that they made themselves. When it was time to paint faces, I already knew that Jackie didn’t like anything on her face, so I painted on her hand instead. Just like with any group of children, you need to be flexible in responding to each individual.
Now, let’s get back to Penny’s party. I had looked forward to this party all day because I knew it was going to be a lot of fun! It was a bowling party, so the group of 15 friends had already been together for 2 hours at the bowling alley before I arrived. They were in a private party room eating pizza when I got there. When Penny saw me, she immediately came running over and gave me a big hug. It sure feels nice to be welcomed like that! Instead of jumping right into the show, I took a few minutes and let Penny walk me around to each table, introducing me to each of her friends. (Just like with Paul’s party, Penny’s mom had sent me a list of names and information about each one ahead of time.)
Now it was time for the magic show. Penny was right there with me the entire time. She laughed, she was amazed, she was delightful! The group was eager to participate in everything we did. They cracked jokes, shared stories, proudly told about recent awards in Special Olympics and weren’t shy about pointing out when I made "mistakes" with the magic. Very little change was necessary on my part in putting together the show for this party other than gearing it towards a fun adult level.
I was careful to never "blame" them for any mistakes in the magic. But that is the same at any party. I always personally take the blame when things go wrong. When I handed the break-away wand to Penny and it collapsed, she profusely apologized, thinking she’d caused it to break. I assured her that it was my fault. When it collapsed a second time and she again apologized, I quickly concluded that "bit" by bringing out the "correct wand" because I definitely did not want Penny to think she had done anything wrong. It is important to use magic, puppets, etc. that are fun and self-esteem builders as opposed to "sucker" tricks. Stay away from anything like that.
I really like to interact with them while I’m there about what they’re doing. For instance, they had all been bowling, consequently their bowling bags were lined up against one wall, which gave me a perfect opening to ask them about their games. I noticed the different variety of pizzas and took a poll on which was their favorite. While I walked around the tables making balloon animals, Penny started opening her presents. I would stop occasionally to see what she had just opened. One of her favorite gifts was a picture of Elvis. Everyone immediately assured me that Penny LOVED Elvis. I noticed one young man, Andrew, had been sitting quietly throughout the party. I picked up the Elvis picture and held it close to Andrew. I pointed out to the group how much Andrew looked like Elvis. Everyone laughed and agreed. Andrew began curling his upper lip, saying, "Thank you, thank you very much" which then encouraged others to do the same thing. Andrew got up from his chair and became an active participant for the remainder of the party.
Penny’s mom called me a few days later to thank me. Something she said has really stuck in my mind. One of the guests, who is autistic, is usually quiet and somewhat withdrawn. All of the parents were delighted to see her "belly laughing" throughout the show. They had never seen her do that before. It never ceases to amaze me…the importance that clowning can play in another person’s life. I was so glad she shared this with me.
The one thing that rings through loud and clear after entertaining at this party is: I wish all of my parties were this much fun! They were the best audience. A number of her guests told me they want Peppermint to come to their birthdays, too. I will cross my fingers and hope it comes true!
And remember to always have fun with your clowning!
PS: I recently had the wonderful opportunity to view two new videotapes on face painting, both by Mama Clown: "Put On A Happy Face" and "The Princess Face Painting Video". For anyone who is interested in face painting as a beginner, who wants to add some full-face designs to their repertoire or even to enhance what they’re already doing, I highly recommend both of these videos. They are a must for every face painter’s library.
As I write this article, I realize it has only been a few hours since I left San Francisco where the Gateway to the Future - COAI 2000 convention took place. It was wonderful re-connecting with all of the friends I have made over the years at COAI conventions and regional festivals. It was also fun meeting new people and listening as others shared their own experiences in performing at birthday parties.
One of the questions that I was asked about at the convention was how to perform at multiple parties in one day. What is the best way to prepare and the easiest method to make everything runs smoothly? Well, there are no guarantees that there won’t be the occasional "wrench in the works" (i.e. traffic jam, etc.), but there are definite steps to take to organize yourself and your parties.
First, I look at each party individually and plan what I’m going to do for my show. Because I change my show for every party, basing the magic tricks on the party’s theme, I do have to take afew minutes to plan and organize. By party theme, I mean what the decorations and cake are focused on (i.e. clowns, unicorns, current popular movies, etc.) If the party is a repeat or referral from another party, I look at my master party list and find out when the previous parties were done. I look at the booking sheet for each party to see what game(s) were played, what magic tricks were performed and what my puppet "Tricksy Rabbit" did. I write up an "agenda" (cheat sheet) for each separate party. Here is what it looks like:
The party date / actual Birthday Time I start & finish
Child's Name Parent Name(s)
# of guests Siblings (names & ages)
Age of Birthday child 1.
Magic Tricks 3.
Tricksy Rabbit Show Other child’s name whose
Cupcake Trick birthday I’ve been at
Let’s try an example of a party. Sara is turning 6 years old. Her party is on her actual birthday, June 10th, it starts at 1:00 and she has 12 friends coming. I plan to arrive / start entertaining at 1:15 pm. Her mother is Joyce and Sara has a sister Melanie who is 7 and a little brother Joey who is 3. (I like to know who the brothers and sisters are so I can recognize them so they don’t feel left out.) Sara saw me at Alyssa’s party last month and Alyssa’s younger sister Julie is also coming. (When I am asking everyone’s name and get to Alyssa, rather than telling me her name, she’ll probably say "you remember ME, you just came to my birthday." In addition, she’ll likely say "and here’s my sister, too." Including this information on the agenda makes me look like I have a wonderful memory by saying, "Of course I remember you Alyssa and Julie too." This definitely makes an impact with the parents!) Sara’s party theme is Clowns. Here is what Sara’s "agenda" would look like:
June 10th (Today!)
Sara Joyce (mom)
(#12) 1. sis Melanie - 7
HBD X 6 2. bro Joey - 3
ABC – ESP game
1. Clown Silks
2. Circus Wagon
3. Clown Painting
Tricksy – balloon trick
Cupcake Trick sis – Julie (5)
I do up one of these agenda sheets for each party for the day. As I am packing my trunk, I have these sheets in front of me to make sure I don’t forget anything. I have a plastic, see-through pocket on the inside lid of my trunk where these sheets slip into. That way, I can look at them anytime throughout the party and all of the information is right there.
Once I have the agenda sheets completed, I start packing my trunk for the first party. Once that is finished, I look at party #2 to see what other props I need. Those items go into one of my large party (duffel-style) bags. I do the same with each successive party, packing up one at a time. I always perform the birthday cake magic trick at each party, where we crack an egg, stir in the flour and it turns into a Hostess® cupcake with their magic. Consequently, I have a separate Dove Pan for each party that I’m performing at that day. That way, I don’t have to try to clean them in between parties.
In the hot weather, I keep a cooler in my car filled with ice water and finger foods to keep me going. I also keep the eggs and cupcakes in there until I’m ready to use them.
When I finish one party, I put my trunk into the back of my van, open the lid, pull out the agenda sheet for the next party and re-pack whatever I need. I remove any broken balloons, unneeded magic tricks, my face paint kit can be put in or taken out at the time, depending on if they requested this option or not. I double check to make sure everything that is on the agenda sheet is now in place in my trunk. And I’m ready to go again.
I know that there are many different ways to perform at birthday parties. This just happens to be the system that works for me. It might seem like a lot of work, but I have been refining it for so many years that it is an ingrained routine, and I can do it in just a few minutes without a lot of fuss. It virtually guarantees that each and every party I do is mainly new and fresh to each audience. I can customize each performance to each party theme.
Yes, I agree that children watch the same video / movie over and over. They like repetition and sometimes request their favorite tricks, songs, stories, etc. And I’m not trying to tell you that I never repeat things, because I do. But my show is never the same way twice for the children who have seen me before. As most of you can attest to, there is nothing that makes you cringe like the child who announces that they know exactly what comes next and what you’re going to do. For a group that has seen you perform numerous times as you’ve entertained at many of their birthdays, there is a tendency for them to get easily distracted if your show is the "same old" one they’ve seen over and over. You can keep their attention a lot easier if you give them something new and fresh for at least part of the show.
I have performed at parties back to back (Saturday and Sunday) for two best friends with the identical group of friends. The parents commented how nice it was to see a different show on Sunday from what they saw on Saturday (The New Calliope, March/April 1999). Not only are you entertaining the children, but also the parents (they’re the ones who pay you). It shows when you put the extra effort into making those small but noticeable adjustments in your performance.
In addition to the agenda sheets, I also take the original booking sheet (The New Calliope, Nov/Dec 1996) with me in the front seat of the van. This has all of the information that’s on the agenda, but also phone numbers and driving directions. Because I am extremely far-sighted, I do have to wear my glasses while driving. To assist even further, I type up the directions and print them in large font on the back of the booking sheet. That way I can see at a quick glance exactly where I’m going. Each separate part of the directions is written on a separate line. For instance:
Take I-5 South
King City Exit – RIGHT at light
Come to a "T" – 72nd – LEFT
Durham (light) – RIGHT
99W (light) (McDonalds on left) – LEFT
Fischer Rd. (light) – RIGHT
3rd house on RIGHT (Blue with white trim)
Then I write the actual house number / address
I also get out my Thomas Guide and figure out my travel plans based on the directions the parent has given me. However, I need to make sure I know the best way to get from one party to the next. It does me no good to have directions from my house to party #2 since I will be at party #1 as my starting point. Because I am one of those people with absolutely no sense of direction, I get very specific directions at all times. I want to know landmarks, street names, whether I turn left or right (NOT north or south). I always recommend that the parent put balloons out on the mailbox or a birthday banner, etc. to make the house more visible.
The Thomas Guide is a must for anyone who entertains at different locations. I have one in my office and one in my van. Even when you know where you’re going, there is still a possibility of a traffic jam on the freeway and you need to find an alternative route. There is always that isolated incident when the parent gives you incorrect information or you inadvertently wrote it down wrong.
I once showed up for a little girl’s party, rang the doorbell several times and no one ever came to the door. I decided they must be downstairs and couldn’t hear me. So I walked back to my car, used my cell phone to call their home phone and let them know I was at the front door. I went back to the front porch and waited and waited. Still no one came. I went back to my car and called their home line again. I recognized the house and the neighborhood since I had been there several times before. Where I had made the mistake was this: they had moved to a new house the previous year, but I had transferred the old address onto the new booking sheet. Luckily, they hadn’t moved too far away and the mother guided me (via the cell phone) to their current home. Without a cell phone, I would have been in real trouble (not to mention very late).
Speaking of cell phones and car trouble: one Saturday, I had just finished up with my 2nd party and was on my way to #3. Driving down the freeway, my transmission died without warning. Normally, I would have called my husband to be my chauffeur for the remainder of the day, but he was out of town that weekend. I had 2 choices here. One was to call the parents and see if they offered to provide transportation. The second choice was to call a taxi. I called Mom #3 and explained my dilemma, that my car had broken down and I was waiting for AAA. She panicked and said "You can’t leave me alone with all of these kids!" She asked where I was and said she would send her husband to get me. I explained that I had another party after hers and then would need to still get home. She agreed to do whatever it took to get me to her party. I quickly called Mom #4 (whose parties I’d been to many times before) and they agreed to pick me up from party #3, take me to their party and then drive me home! I had called AAA, arranged for a tow truck and called the car dealership service center from my car. The tow truck arrived just minutes before Dad #3 got there. Cars were honking, people laughing and waving at the clown on the side of the freeway. The tow truck driver got a big kick out of it. He agreed to take my van (without me) and deliver it to the car dealership. Dad #3 helped load my trunk and other props into his car and off we went. Mom #3 had the kids open presents and she served the refreshments before I arrived, so there was still plenty of time to do my show. When that was finished, Dad #4 arrived (on time) to chauffeur me to the final party. Then he drove me home (a 45 minute drive).
There are several important lessons to be learned here. One is to take care of your car and follow through with routine maintenance to keep it in good running order. In a case like mine where the car breaks down without warning, be sure to always keep some extra money tucked away in your clown trunk or glove compartment box for an emergency taxi ride. It is imperative to not leave the parents in a panic. They are expecting you and they are counting on you to be there. By the way, I offered to reduce my fee to show my appreciation for all they did. Not only did they refuse, but they even tipped me. What could have been an extremely stressful situation was handled quickly and effectively with a cell phone and the incredible cooperation of those parents.
Organization and effective time management doesn’t just happen. It takes commitment on our parts to make sure that we take care of our business in a responsible, professional manner. The end result, though, is well worth the extra effort. As most all of you already know, word of mouth advertising is your most powerful form of advertising. All of the promotional ads in the world will not do you any good if you are habitually late, ill-prepared for your show, cranky or short-tempered with the children because you got lost on your way there. Take the few extra minutes to prepare. You’ll be glad you did.
And remember to always have fun with your clowning!
Practicing and rehearsing is essential to quality entertainment for birthday parties as well as any type of performing (i.e. school shows, library shows, stage performances, etc.). As with any show, you usually start with a basic scenario of what you want to do and then carefully build around it using your magic, music, puppetry, etc. to complete it. You then practice, fine-tune it, final rehearsal and then you’re ready to perform in front of a live audience. But, performing in front of a live audience is not the same as rehearsing in front of a mirror or video camera. As in the Art Linkletter show and the more recent Bill Cosby show, kids will say and do the funniest, unexpected things. And there are many extenuating circumstances that can also play a part in how the party progresses. All the rehearsing in the world won’t always prepare you in how to respond to each and every one of these situations. This is where common sense and experience takes over.
Let’s look at some different situations that come up and ideas on simple, common sense solutions. Take for instance the summer birthday party being held outdoors. Most parents don’t think to take the sun’s position into consideration when planning their child’s party. Many times I arrive to find the children facing into the sun in order to see me. They’re squinting, shading their eyes and finally looking away because the bright sun hurts their eyes. Common sense tells me to walk around the group so I’m now on the opposite side. Now they’re looking away from the sun and can comfortable watch the show. Even though I am facing the sun, I am looking down at the children rather than up into the sun.
If we were to look at changing this slightly by incorporating what we’ve learned through experience, we can eliminate this happening entirely. When I am party planning and the parent tells me that the party is going to be held outside, I ask them to please lay some blankets or quilts on the deck or lawn for the children to sit on (which is more comfortable for them and also provides an "audience area"). In addition, I ask them to situate the blankets so that the children will not be looking into the sun while I perform. The eliminates the problem from even coming up.
New birthday party clowns don’t always feel they have the right to change things once they get to the party. Even though their common sense tells them they should change things to make them better, they might not have the confidence or feel comfortable enough to make the changes. This is where "experience" helps out.
Let’s try another scenario: You arrive at the party and the parent has placed chips or other munchies on a side table for the children. Throughout your show, there are several who continuously get up and down to get more chips. This can be very disruptive to how smoothly your show flows. Common sense tells you that the chips shouldn’t be there. What should you do? There are several choices here. If the children are seated on blankets, you can call in the parent and ask if it’s okay to put the snacks in the middle of the blankets to be within easy reach to eliminate them getting up and down. If they’re sitting on the carpet or furniture, you might ask to have the chips put away temporarily until after the show.
You can also deal with this ahead of time by asking the parent if snacks will be available for the children during the party. If the answer is yes, that’s when you can suggest finger food be placed in a bowl in the middle of the blankets the children are sitting on so there are minimal distractions to your show.
Another problem is when parents start to loudly socialize in the background. As they get louder, your show has to get louder so the children can hear you. Soon, the noise is almost deafening. Common sense tells you that the parents need to quiet down and be considerate of the children trying to listen to your show. When this happens, I will get their attention by clearing my voice and loudly & deliberately announce "Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention please?!" Once I have their attention, I will point out (nicely) that the children are having trouble hearing the show. This is usually sufficient. However, if it continues unabated, it is okay to have the children turn around and, on the count of three, say "Sh-h-h-h-h" to the parents. This generally gets a laugh from the adults and cooperation for the remainder of the show.
This is another issue that can be addressed while party planning. I know some entertainers who, in their confirmation letter to the parents, request the parents’ cooperation in keeping their socializing volume way down to avoid any disruption of the show. This can also be related to the parent at the time you are party planning on the phone.
Parties that take place at a fast food establishment have lots of disruptions and you must learn to "go with the flow" (The New Calliope, Sept. / October 1997). When you are in the middle of your show and the waitress comes over to take everyone’s food order and/or serve their food, common sense tells you this is not the right time for them to be doing this. Rather than compete with the waitress for the children’s’ attention, it is better to ‘join in’ by helping her take the orders and/or hand out each person’s meal. This can be done with a lot of fun and playfulness. It also gets it done quickly so you can get back to your performance. However, experience teaches you that this type of disruption can be eliminated completely by party planning correctly. Once you find out the party is going to be at a restaurant, ask the parents to have the food orders placed before you arrive. And I always ask that the food be served at the time I am making the balloon animals. It is fairly easy to give them the time frame (i.e. the party starts at 11:00 am. I will arrive at 11:15, so that gives the parent enough time to get everyone’s order and place it. I will be through with the main part of my show by 11:50 and ready to make balloons. This is the best time to serve the food so it won’t be disruptive.)
During the summer months, a lot of parties are planned to be held outside. This is fine until the temperature rises into the 90’s and 100’s. So many homes now have air conditioning that it doesn’t make sense for everyone to suffer in the heat, especially in our costumes and wigs. It is perfectly okay for this topic to be discussed when you are party planning and/or even the morning of the party. Ask if having the party inside is an option. Not only because it will be more comfortable for the entertainer, but also the children will be cooler and the balloons won’t break as easily, etc. As a new birthday party entertainer, you might be reluctant to ask about these options. However, once you have experienced a party in the sweltering heat where everyone is hot and miserable and the balloons break almost immediately, you will resolve to party plan differently for parties on the next hot day.
Piñatas are a popular activity at parties. Yet, most parents seem oblivious to how easily a child can get hurt if they run too quickly to collect the candy while the baton is still being swung around. You begin to question where the parents’ common sense is. When I find out, while party planning, that they’re having a piñata, I make the suggestion to have the children sitting in a circle while the baton is being swung around. This eliminates the children running into the inner circle to catch the first pieces of candy. Also, there are always the more aggressive ones who get most of the candy. To eliminate this happening, I also suggest that the parent place equal amounts of candy in small ziplocked bags (one for each child). There can also be loose candy in the piñata to be more visually effective when the piñata is broken. However, with the individual bags, there is an assurance that each child gets the same amount. Parents absolutely love ideas and suggestions like this. They usually respond by saying how much "sense" it makes to do it this way.
Another frequent occurrence at parties (as well as other events) is a parent who comes up to you and asks about your availability and prices to do their child’s next party. Most parents will simply ask for a business card (don’t leave home without them!), but others will begin to ask detailed questions. There you are surrounded by adoring children and this adult wants you to start discussing money. Common sense tells you this isn’t the time or the place. But how do you relay that to the possible future customer without hurting their feelings? I hand them a business card with a big smile and explain that I offer different options, so the best thing they can do is call me so we can discuss their choices. Then I thank them and turn back to the children. It works every time.
Common sense is something we all have, to make choices on how we respond to situations. Experience lets us give ourselves permission to follow through with our common sense ideas. The more comfortable we are with our ability to perform, the easier the solutions come to us on how to handle any problems. Learn to listen to your common sense and then act on it, combining it with your experience and knowledge learned through practice, performing and educational classes.
And remember to always have fun with your clowning!
TURNING FEAR AROUND
I just returned from performing at a birthday party for a little girl turning 3. I knew from the initial phone conversation with the mother that it was going to be a very small party. Only 2 or 3 other children were being invited, plus several aunts, uncles and grandparents. I took this into consideration in planning what I was going to do at the party. With such a small number of children, there was plenty of time to do extra activities (i.e an extra game or two could be played, one or more additional magic tricks could be added into the show, more elaborate balloon sculptures could be offered as choices, etc.). I always take extras in my trunk to each and every party just in case I need to switch gears in the middle of my show, or less children show up than anticipated, or some other unexpected scenario takes place. However, when I know ahead of time that the party is going to be especially small (The New Calliope, July/Aug. 1997) or extraordinarily large (The New Calliope, May/June 1997), I take this into consideration while planning my show.
What did not come up in the party planning phone call was what happened as I arrived. The birthday girl, Blaine, came running up and threw her arms around me to welcome me to her party. However, at the same moment, her mother whispered in my ear that the other 2 little girls were very scared of clowns. As I hugged Blaine back, I quickly glanced around and saw 2 girls curled up in their mothers’ laps with their faces turned away from me. This was the party and it was what I needed to deal with to make this party work.
We were outside on the brick patio and I noticed that there were little children’s chairs over to the side. I asked what the first little girl’s name was…Sarah. One thing I’ve learned in clowning is to draw the child’s attention away from him or her.
Re-directing a child’s focus works great when face painting. When a little one comes up (with their parent) to get their face or hand painted and is unsure about getting it done, I start by showing all the different colors of glitter that I have. I ask the child if we should put some glitter on mom or dad’s hand. This directs attention away from the child. It now becomes something to focus on that doesn’t include them. I start putting one color on, and then I choose the next color. Usually by the third color, I ask what their choice is for the next one. By then, the child starts choosing the color of glitter to go on their parent’s hand. After a couple of these, they usually put their own hand out for some glitter. After one or two more, I get my paintbrush and paint a simple heart on the parent’s hand. Then I paint one on the child’s hand. By then, they are totally relaxed and ready to have me paint something (more than the heart) on their hand or even on their face.
This type of re-direction works just as well on little ones who are shy or afraid of the clown at parties or other events. The re-direction just needs to be something different from glitter, since you’re not painting faces at the beginning of meeting the children at a birthday party. What I like to do is find out their name from one of the adults. Then I say something to them, like "Hi Sarah, I’m so glad to meet you. I’m going to stay right here. You can stay with your mom or come join us whenever you want." Then I start re-directing the focus, like "By the way Sarah, I really like your shoes. They look just like Dorothy’s from the Wizard of Oz. I’ve got red shoes, too". Then, I’ll move on to something else. At this particular party, it was the second little girl, Libby. I welcomed her, too. Then I complimented her necklace. Her mother informed me that Libby had just received the necklace as a party gift from Blaine a few minutes before I arrived. I told Libby again how beautiful it was and how lucky she was to have it.
Then I shifted my attention to moving the little children’s chairs in front of where the adults were sitting. Blaine immediately hopped onto one of the 3 chairs and I started the party by making her birthday balloon hat. As usual, I tell the other children that I am making the balloon hat for the birthday girl but I will be making a balloon for each of them, just a little bit later on in the party. In this situation, because there were only 2 other children, I really personalized it by saying: "I am making a birthday hat for Blaine, because it is her birthday. But I will make a special balloon for each of you a little bit later in the party. So, Libby and Sarah, don’t let me forget to make your balloon a little later on."
Then all of the adults helped sing "Happy Birthday" to Blaine, three times because it was her third birthday. At that point, it was time to start the games. By then, Sarah and Libby were watching me, instead of burying their heads in their mom’s arms. As we started playing the first game, Libby climbed down and got into one of the little chairs. Then, Sarah joined her. By the time I was finished with the first game, all 3 little girls were involved in the party. As we got into the magic show, Sarah turned back to look at her mother and said "I really like clowns now, Mommy." Phew! It takes a little bit of effort to work with shy or scared children, but the end results are so rewarding. We had a great time for the next hour!
If you try to force yourself on children who are unsure of you (or downright scared), it is rare, if ever, that you can win them over. It takes patience, understanding, gentle behavior, re-direction and perseverance to make it work. I can’t guarantee that it will work every single time. But it is very rare that I can’t win a child over within 7 to 10 minutes of arriving.
When I first started entertaining at birthday parties, I made the mistake of "pursuing" a frightened child. It so happened it was for a two-year old boy. What I have learned over the years is to party plan very special for a two-year old (The New Calliope, Nov./Dec. 1997). I question the parent about how their child reacts around clowns or other costumed characters. If they respond that their child is scared to death of costumed characters, I recommend waiting for another year, until they are turning three. If they respond that their child is fine around costumed characters, I always send a picture of myself as "Peppermint" to be posted on their refrigerator ahead of time so that I become a familiar face to the little one before I even arrive.
However, when I first started in the world of birthday parties (almost 20 years ago), I wasn’t so prepared. At this particular party for a little boy turning two, I walked in and he ran away from me, frightened. I spent the next 15 minutes pursuing him from room to room, trying to convince him that I was a nice clown, that we were going to have fun, etc. The more I pursued him, the more he ran away from me. It wasn’t until I gave up and went back to the other children and started to entertain them that he finally joined us out of curiosity and we managed to have a fun time. Hmmm…something could be learned here, I thought. As we all know, experience is the best teacher. If we can learn from our mistakes, then we can continue to improve. If we can learn from others’ mistakes, even better!
There is so much gratification (I think) in turning a child’s opinion about clowns around. I love it when a child decides they really like clowns after being initially shy or frightened. It is so rewarding when a parent tells me that their child used to be afraid of clowns; but after meeting me, they decided that they liked clowns after all.
It is important to temper your energy, level of voice and movements around the little ones until you know your audience. If you come on too strong in the beginning, it might scare someone who is already fearful, to the point that it is much more difficult (if not impossible) to turn their feelings about clowns around. To start out on a softer note, both with voice and actions, gives the little ones a few minutes to relax around you. If you are too loud, they will continue to bury their heads against their parents and miss out on the opportunity to get to know you and to enjoy what you are doing.
When you notice that a child is shy or fearful, try re-directing the focus away from them. Of course, welcome and acknowledge them at first. Then include them in everything you are doing, by name if nothing else. Once they see that there is nothing to be afraid of and they know you have given them permission to join in whenever they want, it is easier for them to put aside those initial fears and begin to enjoy the entertainment that you bring. You’ll see them turn to watch you, then come to sit with the other children to be a part of the group if you have given them the time and space that they need to adjust.
As always, remember to have fun with your clowning!
F.A.Q. (Frequently Asked Questions)
"Are you a real clown?" How many times have we each been asked that same question. It might be worded differently (i.e. You’re not a real clown!) but it still asks the same thing. How do you respond? Do you get serious, silly, defensive, protective, indignant, tongue-tied, evasive, playful? How do you respond?
I think there are different ways to answer that question, depending on who is asking. For instance, if it is a young child, the answer can be fun and playful. If it comes from a teenager (more than likely it will be a statement from them, not a question), then the answer can be more open and ‘human’. You have to listen to the question and notice who is asking before you will know how to respond.
My favorite answer to this question came from a workshop I attended on ‘meet & greet clowning’. It was one of my first conferences, about 17 years ago. I will never forget the words of wisdom and advice from this class. I took copious notes and have referred to them often during the ensuing years. The question: "Are you a clown?" The answer: "No, I’m an elephant in disguise." The children will giggle and invariably respond with "No, you’re not an elephant…you’re a clown!" Ta dah….they just answered their own question! This works beautifully when it’s an older child (notice I didn’t say pre-teen) and their question is worded as a challenge: "You’re not a real clown." That’s when you reply "Do you want to know a secret? You’re right…I’m not a real clown. I’m an elephant in disguise. But don’t tell anyone, okay?" Immediately, they’ll turn to their friends and announce to everyone that you’re an elephant. The other kids will deny it, saying "no, she’s a clown!" Once again, they’ve answered their own question.
If this is a pre-teen or teenager, there is no way that you’re going to convince them that you’re a "real" clown. Teenagers (as we all know) turn into aliens for a few years. They know everything and have all the answers. Consequently, anything you might try to convince them of is simply not going to work. It is better to be honest with them. The question / statement: "Hey, clow-w-w-wn (spoken with sarcasm), you’re not a real clown…that’s just makeup on your face." My response (somewhat sarcastic): "Duh!"
When arriving at an event, there are always children who will point and say "Look, a clown!" I like to turn quickly to my left, then to my right, looking everywhere, saying "Where? I don’t see a clown!" They’ll laugh and say "You’re the clown." This also works when someone says "you’re not a clown." You can say "Funny you should say that, because everywhere I go, people say ‘hey look, a clown’. Well, I look and I look, but I never see one. So, the next time you see a clown, would you let me know so I can see one too?" At this, they’ll point to you and say "You’re the clown!" Once again, they’ve answered their own question.
You can’t take it too seriously when someone asks you this. As adults, we encourage children to notice things and ask questions. Why should we get defensive when we get asked one of these questions? If they ask it, we should answer it. It is up to each one of us to come up with the best way to handle it.
When I’m face painting and children get real close to me, they can really get a good, close-up look at my face, my wig, my hands, etc. That’s when the questions start. There are a variety of ways to answer the many questions that inevitably get asked. Question: "Is that your real hair?" Answer "Yes, and I have the receipt to prove it!" Parents chuckle at this one. Children, for whatever reason, seem to receive this as an acceptable answer. Go figure! Another one about wigs: "Is that a wig?" Answer: "No, my wig is underneath." Once again, it leaves them somewhat scratching their heads or laughing at your answer. Either way, it’s responding to their question.
Another common problem is when someone tries to pull at your wig. This usually doesn’t happen until I’m sitting down painting faces. I’m at their level and they can easily touch my hair. I always stop and gently explain that I have a paintbrush very close to someone’s face. If they pull at my wig, it might startle me and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone with my paintbrush." I have never had anyone continue touching my wig after I’ve enlisted their help in making sure my face painting is safe.
Regarding makeup…"Is that makeup?" "Why does your face look like that?" Answer: "Oh, did you notice I put makeup on this morning? I hope I put the right amount on today. What do you think? Did I put too much on or is it just right?" Usually, they’ll say it is just right. Sometimes, they’ll say that maybe I’ve put too much on. I promise them I’ll try to remember that next time and thank them for noticing.
If they notice my hands are flesh colored (I cut the fingertips off of my gloves), they might ask why my hands aren’t white like my face. Answer: "Oh, you mean I’m supposed to put makeup on my hands? I didn’t know that. Is that what your mom does when she puts her makeup on in the morning? Does she put it on her face and her hands?" They’ll answer "no, you’re just fine the way you are." A little misdirection never hurt anyone.
It seems important for children to know whether your nose honks or not. Little ones (and sometimes, unfortunately, big ones) like to reach up and touch/grab at your nose. If you see that hand coming close to your face, the best thing to do is to take control of the situation. If you have decided to let them touch your nose, take hold of their hand and let them gently touch your nose. By holding their hand, you can make sure all they do is touch, not pull, your nose. If you hold a squeaker in the palm of your hand, you can show them that your nose does not squeak, but their nose does. Or their elbow does, or their knee does. Once again, it draws attention away from your nose and focuses on them.
Now, let’s move down to the feet. Clown shoes have to be one of the most abused parts of a clown. And it’s not just the children who try to step on our toes. How many of you have heard the parents encourage their child to step on the clown’s feet?! When I have been pre-warned (by that annoying parent) that their child is going to try to step on my foot, I stop what I’m doing immediately and caution the child (and adult) that those are my shoes with my very real feet inside. And if they step on my shoe, they’ll hurt my foot. That always stops them. If a child steps on my shoe without any warning, I immediately say "Ouch! That hurt. You just stepped on my foot." I don’t try to joke around about this because it will just encourage them to try again. By bringing human aspects (the possibility of pain) into the conversation, they rarely try again.
If a pre-teen, teenager or pesky adult is persistent in trying to step / stomp on my shoe, I let them know that it hurts when they do that, just like it would hurt them if I stepped on their foot. (I say all of this nicely, but firmly, without any menace.) In the summer time, most of these people have sandals on. You can see the wheels turning in their heads, thinking that up against my clown shoes, they realize they wouldn’t stand a chance. It always stops them. Of course, you always have the isolated, adult ‘prankster’ who crawls up behind you and, with his fist, slams down on your shoe. At that point, I drop character and say "I can’t believe you did that! Don’t do it again." It is said firmly with a touch of annoyance, but never any menace. It stops any repeat action.
Our costumes are bright, colorful and unique. It is a common question that people ask where do we get our costumes. They really aren’t asking for us to tell them about the latest clown convention we went to and how we looked through the racks of costumes until we found just the right one. Once again, you need to pay attention to who is asking before you answer. If it is a child, your answer can be fun and silly. "Oh you like my new Calvin Clowns?" or "I got this at St. Vincent de Mall" or something equally ridiculous. My favorite answer to give to adults when they ask about where I got my costume is: "I got this at Nordstrom." For those of you who don’t know about Nordstrom, it offers top quality, top priced clothing. It is completely ridiculous to even think that I actually got my costume at that store. So, it always brings a chuckle. You can use the name of whatever top of the line store that is known in your area to answer this question.
Being a female clown who wears a dress costume, occasionally someone will lift up my skirt. It usually is simply out of curiosity by a young child. They want to know everything about this ‘life-sized’ cartoon character. I respond by saying something like "Oops! It’s a good thing I have bloomers on underneath." That actually answers their ‘question’, they simply wanted to know what was underneath and I’ve just told them. If it’s an older child who is being pesky, I’ll usually say "Oops! Please don’t do that" in a very nice way. If it persists, I’ll remind them they wouldn’t want anyone doing that to them. I believe in appealing to their feelings of privacy about their own clothes and body (that hurts my feet) to stop them when they’re doing something inappropriate or possibly harmful to me. It is rare that anyone persists after this.
If someone does persist, it is definitely time to drop character and tell them to stop. It is not something that happens often (thank goodness); but when it does, you have the right to make it stop. You can certainly enlist the help of the adult in charge at the event, if things start to get out of hand. In the 20 years I have been clowning, I have never had to take it this far. Simple and direct responses usually will curtail the actions of an annoying individual. I like to think that, when I drop character, I talk like a "Mom", the one who’s in charge….which most people will respond to immediately.
I expect the best from the people around me and that’s usually what I get. That’s part of what makes clowning what I love to do. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, as if what they’ve just done is a mistake. This gives them the chance to stop what they’re doing while saving face with their friends. It leaves everyone a winner.
In upcoming issues, I will offer ideas and possible answers to more common questions that we all encounter when we’re out there clowning. If you have any particular question or situation you would like an answer to, please e-mail it to me.
As always, remember to have fun with your clowning!
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