Grace & Frankie: Hollywood vs. Reality


As a straight spouse myself, I’m always interested in how the media depicts our situations.  In most cases I shake my head as I see cartoonish one-sided clichés.  Lately it’s been Christian couples who have vowed to pray away the “same-sex attraction” in a miserable and strained marriage.

So I was a bit nervous about the new Netflix comedy, Grace & Frankie.  The premise of the show involves a double divorce of two closeted men who have had a 20-year affair while married to women.  In the first episode the announce they are leaving their wives for a new life together and hilarity ensues.  Actually most of the humor comes from the unconventional friendship that develops between their two dissimilar wives – The hippie Frankie, played by Lily Tomlin and the former model turned beauty executive played by Jane Fonda.  I genuinely loved the show, the characters are three-dimensional and multi-layered, the acting is brilliant and both straight spouses are extremely funny and sympathetic.  As much as I liked it, I was somewhat frustrated by the sugar-coated Hollywood take on everything.

Since I write about being a straight spouse and have been very public about my story, I’ve encountered literally hundreds of other straight spouses.  I’ve read their stories on private Facebook groups, and listened to harrowing details in my local straight spouse support group. No two mixed orientation marriages are quite the same, and our experiences do fall in a spectrum of outcomes. However, certain patterns are quite common and we often remark that we feel like we married the same person.  There was so much good in Grace & Frankie but I feel the need to break down Hollywood fantasy vs. reality.

Hollywood – Both of the gay men find the courage to finally come out to their wives, and reveal their 20 year-long affair.

Reality – I’d say with full confidence that in probably 80-90% of mixed orientation marriages, the closeted spouse doesn’t disclose anything. Most of us find out the hard way after months or years of searching for evidence.  In some truly horrific cases, a spouse finds out the truth accidentally.

Hollywood – 20 years of infidelity are forgiven rather easily and the relationships remain close and intact

Reality – For most spouses, finding out your partner was having a secret affair with his or her best friend for the past 20 years would be devastating.  The pain and betrayal would cause so much damage, it would be quite difficult to repair any sort of relationship.  A person might question literally everything.  Which business trip was really a liaison?  Which emergency meeting at work was really a hook-up?  How many times did my spouse blatantly lie to my face?  Twenty years of lies and betrayal are hard to forgive regardless of the circumstances.

Hollywood – Both couples have quick and simple divorces and both gay husbands are greatly concerned for the emotional and financial welfare of their wives. 

Reality – How many couples have an “easy” divorce?  Most drag on for several months if not years. Some partners do everything they can to block and stall to delay the inevitable.  Just like any divorce, a straight spouse will endure multiple court cases, shady legal maneuvers, psych evaluations, hiding of assets and vicious custody battles.  Some spouses are completely abandoned when their partner come out.  As soon as they are open about their orientation they want to discard their old identity and life.  Divorces between mixed orientation couples are no different than the general population – many are brutal, long, inequitable and devastating.

Hollywood – Both gay husbands immediately openly declare their sexual orientation to anyone and everyone

Reality – If a person has lived a lie for a couple of decades, they rarely switch to immediately proclaiming the truth.  I’ve known straight spouses who have watched their exes marry a same-sex partner and STILL not label themselves gay, bisexual or even hetero-flexible. They simply insist they’re straight despite their new gay spouse.  It’s baffling but it’s incredibly common.  Some closeted partners are so self-loathing they retreat back into the closet and marry another straight partner.

Hollywood – Both couples are financially well off, and no one suffers economic ruin.

Reality – Most television shows center around wealthy people.  The trials of paying bills on time and making ends meet just isn’t compelling and set designers would rather feature beautiful sprawling homes than sad depressing ones.  Grace & Frankie is no different.  Of course most straight spouses suffer tremendous financial problems from foreclosure to bankruptcy just like any other divorced couple.

Hollywood – Even though both women are in their 70’s there is seemingly a limitless supply of available partners.  Both women have love interests almost immediately.

Reality – As much as loved Frankie & Grace – This is pure fantasy.  

Hollywood – Both husbands admit fault for cheating, lying and destroying their marriage.  

Realities – This one is probably the most egregious.  Although I do know some closeted men and women who do take full accountability for their actions, many more admit no fault whatsoever.  Excuses abound from

  • You knew I was gay the whole time
  • Everyone knew I was gay
  • My orientation had nothing to do with our divorce
  • You made me gay
  • If you were there for me I would have never turned to men/women
  • If you were just more understanding about my cheating we’d still be together
  • It was just sex, it meant nothing, I don’t know why you care so much
  • I’m not gay, I was never gay, I’m just working some things out

Very few people actually admit they have done anything wrong, in a mixed orientation marriage or otherwise.

Hollywood – Both gay husbands seem to have healthy psychological profiles and don’t have any personality disorders

Reality – Most of us learn through therapists that our exes are narcissists. Narcissists rarely take responsibility for their actions and have a tendency to blame everyone around them for whatever damage or chaos they’ve caused.  They lack empathy and view themselves as the ultimate victim.  Narcissists are often charming and charismatic but ultimately they are extremely difficult partners in a marriage. Of course our spouses do NOT represent the larger LGTB community as most LGTB people would never marry a straight person.  Narcissism has nothing to do with sexual orientation but more to do with someone marrying another person under false pretense.  Of course not all closeted men and women who marry straight partners are narcissistic but it is such a common problem that I would be remiss not to mention it here.

There were some things the show got spot on.

Denial & Co-dependence 

One of the wives remains in a deep state of denial despite the obvious evidence.  She accepts her husband is gay but continues to use him as her main source of emotional support.  She acts out in very co-dependent ways and won’t accept that he’s treated her horribly.  This is quite common for many straight spouses as denial is the glue that keeps these marriages together for so long.  It’s difficult to suddenly turn on the light and see reality.

Resentment & Sadness

The show also captured the deep resentment and sadness that both women experience.  In reality it would most likely stretch out much longer and be more intense, but at least the producers and writers allowed both characters to get angry, meltdown, and process real emotions.  The disclosure wasn’t just a punchline, it given real gravitas.

Conflicted emotions in adult children

The adult children of both couples also expressed deeply conflicted feelings towards their fathers.   As adults they still saw that their fathers had both cheated, lied and betrayed their mothers while setting them adrift in their old age.  Despite their love for their dads, they couldn’t ignore their misdeeds.

Realistic gay couple

Another thing I liked about the show is that the gay partners act like any couple, they fight, they get frustrated with each other, they have bad communication skills but ultimately love each other very deeply.  They were a fully dimensional and believable couple.

Most mixed orientation marriages would make extremely boring and sad television shows,  Our lives don’t get nicely wrapped up in cute 30 minute episodes.  Many of us live with emotional damage and shattered trust for years.  With all of this though, I’m glad our stories are getting told at all.   Just a decade ago it would have been unheard of to have a show explore this topic. I hope one day people may wonder why anyone would marry someone to hide the fact that they were gay.  It simply won’t make any sense to do something so against one’s nature.

I laughed and cried while watching Grace and Frankie and I can’t wait for the next season.  Even though it’s largely a best case scenario fairy tale, at least both straight spouses are sympathetic and likable and their struggles and obstacles are given respect.   I’m thankful to both Fonda and Tomlin for having the courage to tackle this subject and to make an entertaining and funny show about it.

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Sean Saves the World – A Straight Spouse Perspective


NBC’s new Thursday night comedy, Sean Saves the World stars Sean Hayes as a gay single dad who suddenly finds himself the full-time parent of a teenaged girl.  I’m excited about any show which features a gay parent.  It’s also great to see another show tackle a mixed orientation marriage, like Fran Drescher‘s “Happily Divorced“. As a straight spouse myself, it’s good to see anyone telling our stories. Many straight spouses continue to hide the sexual orientation of their former partner or at least stay private about the reasons for their divorce.  Most people have no idea around 2 million straight spouses live throughout the country, in every economic, racial and cultural background.

Sean Saves the World has only aired one episode, and here is what we know so far about the characters:

Now that she is living with her father full-time, his daughter Ellie suddenly thinks to ask. “If your gay, how did mom and you have sex?”

To which Sean responds, “Gay, tried not to be, was, was again, was one more time because it was not unpleasant…am”

So the character knew he was gay before he entered into a marriage with a straight woman.  He either misled his bride about his true orientation, or she knew and thought they could work through it.  Their specific past is left ambiguous.  He never once says to his daughter that he hurt his ex-wife, or that he made a mistake when he married a straight woman.  I guess no child wants to hear that she is the product of a mistake, but he could have shown at least some empathy towards his ex.

Sean’s ex-wife Jill decides to take a job out-of-town, and Ellie makes the choice to live with her dad full-time to stay in the same school.

So far the premise is perfectly reasonable although most single parents would at least wait four years until their kids are out of high school.  Relocations are a common issue with shared custody agreements.  The point where the show started to physically hurt me came early when Sean’s mother played by Linda Lavin exclaims, “She (Ellie) has been abandoned, she has no one.”

Sean then tries to defend his ex-wife “Jill didn’t abandon her, she took a job.”

Later in the episode the daughter laments, “I was abandoned, and she sucks (Her Mother)”

I know these are fictional characters but I couldn’t help but think of the same woman, watching her marriage dissolve soon after the birth of her child.  That is hardly an easy situation under any circumstance.  So far the viewer knows very little details.  We know their marriage ended soon after the birth of their daughter but that’s about it. Did his ex-wife know he was gay?  Or did she have to find out the hard way?  From the character’s own admission it would seem infidelity had something to do with it.  There is also no mention of a second husband, so we are to assume, Jill is still unmarried and raised her daughter as a single parent.  Unfortunately for most straight spouses we find out the true sexual orientation of our partners after years of betrayal, secrets and lies.

Television producers have long been obsessed with single dads.  Although in reality, most primary single parents are mothers, network executives can’t get enough of the fish out of water scenario of the harried father trying to raise children.  Notable examples include such classic shows as, The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, Full House, Different Strokes, Blossom, Punky Brewster, My Two Dads, Two and Half Men, Full House, Silver Spoons, Who’s the Boss, The Nanny, Arrested Development, and Louie.  So many shows feature single fathers a comprehensive list is at www.TVDads.com

My hunch is that NBC wanted to give Hayes his own vehicle, and decided to go with the popular single dad storyline.  I get it, and again I’m glad to see a positive portrayal of a gay single parent.  Sexual orientation has nothing to do with anyone’s parenting skills, and it’s about time another sitcom followed the lead of the extremely popular Modern Family in which two gay men lovingly raise an adopted daughter.

I just wish the straight spouse wasn’t vilified.  Many of us have gone through absolutely dreadful experiences, especially with divorces involving children.  In some circumstances when the gay half of these mixed orientation marriages comes out of the closet, they find themselves eager to re-live the years they lost.  Some regress so strongly, they quickly forget about the responsibilities of parenting altogether.  Others might fight viciously for full custody when they were the ones who lied, cheated and may have even exposed their spouses to STD’s including HIV.

Sean Saves the World is extremely formulaic and over uses canned laughter throughout. Hayes is a likable actor with great comic timing, physical comedy and intensity.  The writing is nowhere near the level of Will and Grace the long-running hit that made his career.  Chances is are, Sean Saves the World won’t make it a season as it scored a 43% on Metacritic and has had disappointing ratings. Despite its name, a television sitcom isn’t going to change the world.  I just wish instead of showing a warped, biased view of a mixed orientation marriage they might have made a show about a gay parent in a loving relationship, or at least made his ex-wife an actual character on the show.

I can’t help but think of the fictional Jill holding her newborn daughter and hearing the following words from her new husband, “I’m gay.” Instead of raising her child with a man she thought she would spend the rest of her life with, she is going to have to raise her with the part-time help of the self-admitted “fun weekend dad.”  Most of us don’t immediately bounce back after finding out our marriages were fraudulent. Many straight spouses continue to have a strained if not openly combative relationship with their former partners, and a few are flat out abandoned.   Maybe the show will turn around and become a huge hit, but if it does I would love to see more equitable treatment of one of the few straight spouses on television.  Reality doesn’t make for a fun wacky sitcom I guess.

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Celebrity Crowd Funding: Brother, Can you Spare a Dime for a Millionaire?

English: Zach Braff at the Vanity Fair party c...

English: Zach Braff at the Vanity Fair party celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You are walking down the streets of New York and you see a famous celebrity.  Your heartbeat speeds up as it’s someone you like and admire.  You don’t want to bother him, but his last movie is one of your favorites, despite yourself you go up to him, extended your hand and say, “I really love your work.” a broad smile flashes across his face and he returns with, “Could you spare a few bucks for me then?  I need it to help me finance my next picture.  He reaches into his bag and hands you a brochure complete with all the details. “For $25 I’ll give you a pre-screening invite.  If you give me $100 I’ll throw in a DVD. For a $1000 we’ll include your name in the credits and you can go to one of many after-parties, for $10,000, and I know that’s a lot, you’ll get a small part in the movie! Whadda think?”   As strange as that scenario seems, it’s a new reality.

Crowd funding is a relatively new innovation brought to us by the internet.  Anyone can create a fund-raising campaign by themselves for just about any cause: a sick friend, help with a new small business, playground equipment for a school and just about every type of artistic endeavor.  Theater companies and bands especially rely on these sites to help raise cash.  In return for their monetary gift a donor might get tickets to a show, a t-shirt, backstage access or some other type of premium.

Recently celebrities have joined the crowd-funding bandwagon to help fund their own pet projects.  Zach Braff took to the internet and asked fans to help him raise the money himself, so he could retain creative control.  He ended up surpassing his original goal, eventually raising over $3 million on the website Kickstarter.  After his fundraising ended, he accepted a few additional millions from traditional investors.  So whether they gave him $1 million or $4 million they are sill going to want to have some influence.  The last film he wrote, directed and starred in, Garden State had a budget of $2.5 million but went on to gross $35,825,316 in box office sales.  With a film that successful under his belt, did he really need to resort to begging the public for money?  He is also not a poor man with a net worth estimated at $22 million.

And now Adam Carolla, with an estimated net worth of $15 million, is hoping he will be just as successful raising $1 million for his latest project on  fundanything.com.   His last film, The Hammer, although critically well received grossed only of $442,638 in box office with a $850,000 budget according to imdb.com.  It would definitely be harder to get financing for a film if your last one lost money, regardless of film reviews.

Another thing that makes me a little annoyed by this is that Carolla and Braff are not only multi-millionaires with contacts and relationships in Hollywood we could only dream of having, they are also members of the one demographic with the easiest time getting their stories on-screen – white males.   Women and minorities have a much harder time getting hired as writers, actors, and directors, much less getting movies produced.  It’s not exactly as if Braff and Carolla are trying to tell the life story of an obscure black poet, migrant farm workers, or the women’s suffrage movement.

Of course people can spend their hard-earned dollars however they want, and there is nothing wrong with what Caroll and Braff are doing here.  They have every right to use whatever means necessary to get their projects up and running.  I just don’t understand why anyone would give them money.  A popular incentive is to get a chance to meet the celebrity at an after-party or other promotion.  It might sound exciting, but as a person who has met a lot of celebrities over the years – I’d save my money.

Plenty of directors have completely self-financed their own projects.  Sure it’s risky and maybe they might have to cut back on a few luxuries, but even if their films bomb, they don’t end up bankrupt.  A lot of people make career risks from time to time, but most of us would never dream of asking our friends and neighbors for help.  We usually only ask for help after a disaster or devastating illness.

Instead of donations, would it be unheard of to sell shares in a movie’s profits?  Small investors wouldn’t expect any artistic control, they could still be a part of a project they really love and they might get something in return besides free tickets to a movie they would have paid to see anyway.  Wouldn’t it even make good marketing sense to have thousands of ambassadors around the country begging their friends to see the latest film they have a direct stake in?  It might be an accounting nightmare, but it could be a publicity bonanza. 7/10/13 A couple of different readers have point out that apparently profit sharing in this way is currently not legal.  I have known a few small companies that have done exactly what I am describing, but it’s not available for something like this.  

Maybe this is the new normal, and soon dozens of small independent films will use this method of fundraising.  After all our media is already saturated with celebrity obsession.  Once a person is famous they shouldn’t have to risk, or take chances when they could just ask their fans to help them out.  In return the fans get a tiny speck of the drug that is elusive and inviting – fame.

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Melissa McCarthy is Obese – So what?

Actresses Melissa McCarthy and Jane Lynch atte...

Actresses Melissa McCarthy and Jane Lynch attend Audi and David Yurman Kick Off Emmy Week 2011 and Support Tuesday’s Children at Cecconi’s Restaurant on September 11, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo credit: Audi USA)

In his recent movie review for the newly released Identity Theft Rex Reed refers to comedic actress Melissa McCarthy as tractor-sized, humongous, obese and a female hippo.  Rex Reed hated the film, tearing apart the screenplay, the direction and even the very premise.  He has every right to his opinion on the film as a whole; however, he goes too far when he attacks the weight of one of its stars.

According to OutofAfrica.com the average hippo is 15 feet in length and weighs about 3.5 tons, or 7,000 pounds.  Hippos are also incredibly aggressive towards humans making them one of the most dangerous large animals in Africa.  I don’t know Melissa McCarthy’s weight but I would take a wild guess that it is nowhere near 7,000 pounds.  I also doubt that she would be considered dangerous or aggressive.   The average weight of a farm tractor is 18,661 pounds, or roughly 2.5 hippos, so she is not quite as heavy as a tractor either.   His use of the term, humongous is subjective I guess, but it is especially harsh since the origin of the word comes from combining huge with monstrous.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines obesity on a person having a Body Mass Index or  (BMI) of 30 or higher. The CDC lists the average weight of an American woman at 166 lb. with a waist circumference of 37.5 inches.  I don’t know McCarthy’s height or weight, but based on photos I would have to make a guess that she would probably be classified as obese.  The CDC estimates that approx. 35.9% of adult Americans would be considered obese.    Since such a significant portion of the population has a BMI of 30 or higher, is it really so extraordinary that an actress of that size appear as a lead character in a film?  Wouldn’t one-third of the country want to occasionally see someone who represents what they look like on the silver screen?

What does her size matter in this or any film?  It is not like she is portraying a personal trainer, runway model or starving refugee.  In this movie, her weight is about as relevant as her eye and hair color.  If the role specifically needed a slim woman that he might have a point, but in this case her weight might have actually helped her get the part.  She is portraying a common thief in Florida, shouldn’t she reflect the weight of a more common American?  Not every story or character calls for the usual 22-year-old Hollywood waif.

I suspect that McCarthy’s gender may have played a role in being ridiculed for being overweight. Eric Stonestreet best known for his performance of Cameron Tucker in the acclaimed hit television show, Modern Family, is hardly svelte.  Stonestreet is heavily featured in the film’s trailer yet Mr. Reed didn’t see the need to call him a beached whale.  He didn’t even mention him in his review.

Could we just move on from talking about any actresses weight?  The average size of most actresses in American films is alarming slender.  When someone as slim and in shape as the awarding winning actress, Jennifer Lawrence complains about being considered a fat actress by Hollywood standards, clearly the criterion in Hollywood is completely out of whack.  Shouldn’t it be about talent or finding the best actress for any specific role?

Haven’t we had enough already?  Isn’t the success of the film Bridesmaids proof enough that an obese actress can not only be extremely entertaining but help make a movie into a blockbuster.  According to BoxOfficemojo.com the world-wide gross for Bridesmaids was over $288 million dollars.  Somehow I don’t think it would have been as successful without the hysterical McCarthy, no matter what her weight.

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Is Madonna Too Old for the Halftime show or is it just a Double standard?

Concert de Madonna à Paris Bercy, Août 2006

Concert de Madonna à Paris Bercy, Août 2006 (Photo credit: johanlb)

I never watch the Super Bowl, normally I could care less.  But this year the NY Giants were playing and after their dramatic win to the 49’s in the playoffs I was excited enough to watch the game projected on a huge screen with a couple dozen of my closest friends down at Coney Island USA.   I knew Madonna was going to be in the halftime show but she wasn’t the reason I watched the game.  But like her or not, the production value alone to her half time show put many if not most prior attempts to shame.  I mean she started the whole affair with several dozen beefy marching men dressed as Roman gladiators and had male and female dancers all over her ever-expanding and changing stage.  It was so over-the-top that love her or hate her music it was one hell of a show.   The group of people I was sitting with sat mesmerized, again for the stagecraft if nothing else.  They have something like seven minutes to put it up and eight to take it down, it was beyond ambitious and it seemed to go off without a hitch.  And if it was anything like her concerts, Madonna was instrumental in how everything looked down to the last detail.

I wasn’t surprised that there was controversy surrounding her appearance as Madonna always seems to court controversy.  Some were upset that another female performer, M.I.A. flipped the bird and screamed an expletive.  I hardly noticed it and Madonna can hardly be blamed as the rapper did not do either in rehearsal and she cannot be responsible for the actions of a another.   What I have found depressing is how most of the criticism was about Madonna’s age.  And I thought to myself well wasn’t “The Who”, “The Rolling Stones“, and Paul McCartney recently in halftime shows?  Then I went and watched clips of previous performances and well lets just say when compared to the “Black Eyed Peas” appearance Madonna looked like an absolute genius.  Even the “Rolling Stones” played it extremely safe as it was just the band performing on a stage in the middle of the field.  Which is their prerogative of course, as the original halftime shows were just marching bands.

But just for the heck of it, I wanted to do an age by age comparison of the male performers who have also graced the halftime stage with Madonna.  I know there were some critics who said the male performers were also a bit long in the tooth, but there is something about our society that holds women to a higher standard.  Women can’t be past a certain age, and if they are then they can’t go to any extraneous methods to try to keep their appearance youthful.  If she didn’t get plastic surgery people would say she looked old, if she does get plastic surgery people will complain that she has had plastic surgery!  She certainly doesn’t look old!  It is just a blatant double standard.  So here we go by the numbers, the ages listed represent the ages they were when they performed, not their current ages.

So a person could argue that the men weren’t trying to be “sexy” at that Madonna was trying to pull off sex appeal at 53.  Well I don’t think most female fans of the men listed would agree to that, and I hardly think Mick Jagger considers himself a non-sexual human being.  Not even close!  He doesn’t exactly just stand there and sing…HA!

Love her or hate her everyone is entitled to their opinion.  But calling her too old doesn’t make a ton of sense especially since she is a decade younger than most of the men who have gone before her.  And if you want to compare, look at some of the previous performances…most were extremely straight forward.  Madonna was hardly boring.  And if the producer want to keep with the age as a theme…Cher is 65!  Just saying…that would be interesting!  🙂

And just for a bit of fun…here is the super bowl performance of the Black Eyed Peas

And here is Madonna

NO COMPARISON! Even if you don’t like Madonna her production was flawless….the Black Eyed Peas…well…I will just say I think they are a much better group than that performance.


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Life of a Clown: Why are you an Elf?

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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