Why are you an elf?

I wish that I could say that I was born to be a clown and that doing kids parties just came to me naturally, but that would be a lie, a huge, horrible, terrible lie.  Doing shows for children is like holding on by your fingers to the edge of a bridge over a raging river, while being pelted with used tires and taunted by a crowd below to just jump and just end it already.  It is that hard, especially when you just start out.  There really is no other performance situation that not only will you be heckled, but your audience might just get up and leave the room, never mind the handful that might physically assault you, burst into tears, or scream at pitch and volume that would cause wild dogs to scatter.  Performing for children is tough.

When I started as a clown, most of my gigs were with my then husband, the big shot circus clown.   Our jobs would usually consist of standing around in a over-the-top circus type of costume, wave, make simple balloon animals, smile, look fabulous–easy.  Joel might be juggling, or balancing a table on his face but I was usually an add-on and I was mainly hired to be pretty—a princess in clown form, to make the little girls happy.

But without really trying people started calling us asking us to do birthday parties, a gig is a gig, and being a clown is not the most lucrative of professions.   Birthday parties can’t be taught they are much like warfare, you can practice all you want but you will never truly be prepared for the experience until you are in the trenches.  My first gigs were awful.   I had no idea what I was doing.  It is so difficult to engage three and four-year olds for any length of time much less entertain them.   And they have no filter, if they don’t like something they tell you, and do so immediately.  They play with toys, they fight among themselves, they hit you with your own props, they can’t help it, they are children and it is what they do.

My worst party, the party I don’t even like talking about, the party that I wish would just go away but the memory of which still strikes fear into my heart each time I am asked to do a show.  Will this one be as bad as_that_ party?

I started with a bad referral, someone knew someone, that knew someone who knew someone and eventually this man got my number.  The client had no idea who I was or what I did.  The second warning sign, the client was a Dad.  95% of the parents that call me are moms.  I have since learned to distrust dads.  Most dads don’t ask enough questions, they assume too many things, they don’t think to consider all factors.   If dads planned most birthday parties they would go something like this. A large tarp would be thrown down on the floor, in the middle would be some pizza and the cake, and the kids would simply roll around on it.

This dad was hiring me for his son’s 1st birthday party.

Mistake #1.  I have since learned that 1st birthday parties are not for the children, they are for the adults.  I no longer do a show for a first birthday party.  The kids ages are too varied and it is next to impossible to please all of them.  And the guests at a 1st birthday party are usually all relatives.  The kids know each other and they will form a united front against any outsider they don’t like.  Add to that the long-held family grudges that exist between siblings, cousins, second cousins and the fights can also turn epic.   With family parties you have to be prepared for anything.

Mistake #2Long Island.   The commute from Brooklyn would be an hour into Manhattan and then over an hour into their section of Long Island, and finally a cab to the family home.  So a brutal 2 1/2 hours each way.

The home – an unassuming prefab 1960’s style medium-sized house.  From the outside it didn’t look like much yet, once inside I was blown away by its splendor.  White fur rugs on Italian marble floors, mirrored walls, all white sofas, a huge flat screen TV, expensive lighting, chandeliers, even statuary.    A small bust of Michelangelo’s David on the coffee table and a 5 foot reproduction of the Winged Victory of Samothrace in the corner.  It was overflowing with opulence.  My first thought was who has white fur rugs?  Since they are walked on they going to get dirty right?  These people have a child, how long do they expect any of this stuff to stay white?

The birthday boy’s father was a huge man with a booming Long Island accent.  The mother was a petite gorgeous size zero woman with tight crisp pants and hair so shiny it seemed to glow.  Normally I arrive dressed for parties but because of my extremely long commute I arrived in street clothes.  They had me change in the second floor bedroom, also decorated in all white, but instead of getting dressed in my usual clown attire I put on an elf costume.

When I had booked the gig with the dad, which took all of about a minute and a half, he asked me to send him some photos of my different looks.   This was before I had my website so I just sent him a 1-sheet, which is a single piece of paper with every costume I owned represented on it.  About a week later he called back to let me know his wife fell in love with a photo of me dressed as a Christmas elf, pointed collar, tunic, striped tights and pointed hat.  The family was second generation Italian, and my elf reminded them of an Italian clown.  I tried to argue that the children would be confused as the party was in March.  The dad said

Kids won’t know the difference, they could care…my wife liked the elf costume, so you should wear the elf costume, no one is going to think you are an elf”

All right I thought, you are the customer, the customer is always right, I guess.  I have since learned that no, sometimes the customer is wrong, completely and utterly, horribly wrong. I was lead down to the basement.   In stark contrast to the living room it was dark, with real wood paneling, low ceilings, and little natural light due to the tiny basement sized windows near the top of the room.   It was also very small, not a full basement and not much larger than their living room.  And yet it had seating for the entire extended family probably around 40 adults crammed in on top of each other in every type of chair, sofa, folding chair, or stool imaginable.  The only exit was a small staircase leading to a door in the corner of the room.

For most parties, the adults either have the show in a separate area with just children, or if they stick around but they talk amongst themselves, they don’t expect to be entertained.  Which is fine as long as they aren’t too loud. I had the same expectation for this party, but as I looked around at the huge crowd assembled, I realized, these people weren’t going anywhere.

There was enough food and liquor to feed them all for at least a week.  Especially the booze, the table used as the makeshift bar was buckling under the weight of every type of liquor imaginable.  Not to mention the empty wine bottles which were neatly stacked up at the end of the generous buffet.  The adults were staying put, because where else would they go?  Take their plates of food up into the perfect museum like all white living room?  Only to have a plate of ziti or a glass of red wine ruin a perfectly beautiful yet horribly impractical white fur rug.  I was going to do this show for all of these adults, the mostly completely intoxicated adults.   Sweat was rolling down my back and pooling at the top of my elf knickers and I hadn’t even started the show.

The first words out of the kids mouth were

“Why are you an elf?”

My heart sank.   And really what could I say?  I am not an elf?  I am a green and red sort of Italian clown like person.  Like a fool I said

“Gabriel’s mommy wanted me to wear this”

Trying to justify, and as if they cared, all it did was further alienate myself from the client, my only hope for survival.    As with all types of performing–fear just makes things worse.  And at this point I was terrified, this was not going to be a good show.

I plunged ahead anyway, the first three minutes or so I had them charmed.  All of the adults were laughing and engaged and I thought to myself, this is going to work.   The kids were all ages, babies to teenagers.   The father had said maybe 12 children and it was more like 20 children, a common mistake, as no one ever counts the babies or the adolescents.  And then I made my first of many missteps, I referred to the birthday boy as Gabrielle instead of Gabriel.  Gabriel being a boy’s name and Gabrielle being a girl’s name.  I am from the Midwest, neither is common, and no matter how I tried I kept saying Gabrielle, Gabriel, Gabrielle, Gabrielle, Gabriel, Gabrielle, until the family said in mass “Gabriel”.  After that I referred to him simply as “sweetie” or “Mr. birthday boy!”

I held on, I could make this work, I could make this work.  Even though by five minutes into the show after fumbling for props, losing track of the order of tricks, and generally becoming consumed by fear–I had completely lost the parents.   The only thing that worked with the younger kids, including the birthday boy himself was music, so I started with more of the baby top 10.

“If you’re happy and you know it”,

It worked I had the little ones including Mr. Birthday boy, but I would immediately lose the older kids.  Switch to magic and the babies would run back to their parents.    I did a quick judgment call, I had more little kids than big, and the birthday boy was actually falling asleep, so I hedged my bets and went music, music, music.  By the time we were on the third song, I heard it.

“What are we babies now?”

And it wasn’t coming from a child, it was one of the adults.   The man’s voice was loud, and slurred, he was lit.   I kept going.

“I want a better show, don’t give us this baby crap”

I tried to block it out, I couldn’t believe that I was being heckled by a parent, a kid is one thing, but my show wasn’t for adults, it was for kids, how nasty does a person have to be to heckle a clown at a children’s party?

“Come on aren’t you going to do something better?”

And then he began to mock.

“If your an elf and you know it…..”

And he was starting to get laughs, not big ones, more nervous laughs than anything else, but this caused something in me to snap.

I froze, turned to the man my face in a stern grimace and I thought I am going to stop this now, and I couldn’t have handled it worse.

“Sir, I am sorry but I am trying to do this show for the kids, not for you, but for the kids, and I came all the way out to LONG ISLAND from Brooklyn in 2 1/2 hours!  Maybe I will stay in Brooklyn next time”

Meanwhile I wanted to say…

“Sir, I am sorry but your stupid fat drunken ass can shut your trap before I come over there and shove my ukulele down your throat”

But in any regards, I lost my cool, which just made everyone uncomfortable.  And I realized I sort of indirectly insulted Long Island and by doing so, insulted everyone in the room.   Most of the family members looked at their shoes during the whole exchange, they were used to him, every family has at least one out of control embarrassing “Drunken Unlce” like this, and they knew there was no point in fighting him.

I turned back to kids trying to keep it together and they reacted with a

“Lulu, LuLu, LuLu, Lulu”

That pretty much ended my show, I wasn’t doing that well to start, and there was no way I could recover.  I moved on to both balloons and face painting.   Only a mad woman does both balloons and face painting for a party that size, but I was inexperienced and I didn’t know better.  These people wanted me to leave but I had to get to every kid.   I was crouched on the floor with my face painting kit and kids surrounding me, even the teenagers wanted their faces painted.   The party went back into full swing including the bar, adults and kids alike stepped over me as I tried to finish things up.  The drunken uncle was still making nasty comments under his breath.

A full hour and a half after my 45 minute show later, drenched in sweat in part due to my velvet costume, I got paid the balance of $200.  Not bad but at this point it was blood money.  I changed out of my elf costume and then awkwardly waited for a cab to arrive.   The grandparents heaped me with praise but I wasn’t buying it, I just wanted to go home.  I missed the train I was planning to take, waited in the cold, damp station for nearly an hour, fell asleep only to be awkwardly awoken by the voice.

“Penn Station…..All Passengers out”

The worst part and the part that still haunts me a bit, when they look over their photo albums and they talk about Gabriel’s 1st birthday, or when they are planning his subsequent celebrations they talk about the terrible clown who wouldn’t leave, couldn’t get his name right, got in a fight with Uncle Tony, and for some unknown reason was dressed like an elf.


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One comment on “Life of a Clown: Why are you an Elf?

  1. Megabrain Mike

    I’ve never been a clown, mostly because I was one of those kids terrified of them, but I did uncostumed face painting and balloon animals. And still, this rings so familiar!

    I’ve been lucky enough not to have one party where it goes this sour, but I’ve had the experience of being expected to babysit because the parents are busy getting lit, double the amount of kids, slightly older kids who think I’m lame, much younger kids too timid to get painted, etc. Everytime I walk into a party that fear is there…

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