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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

party with cheese

So here we are with, you guessed it, the aftermath of my previous post, “clown with cheese.”
On Saturday afternoon, August 24, 1991, a mere three days after my three hours of somewhat useless clown training, I was slated to host my first Burger King birthday party. I was a bit terrified, not because I didn’t know what to expect, but rather because I knew exactly what to expect.
Most of my pre-college employment was spent working with kids, either as a babysitter or a day camp counselor... and for a brief spell in middle school, I also worked for Kiddie Catering, the brainchild of my friend’s Martha-before-there-was-Martha mom, whom we’ll call “Ms. M.” This was a very small one-van operation, wherein Ms. M shopped out birthday party entertainment in the form of an eager college student and her willing young assistant (me) that would come to your home and provide supervised games, a sundae bar, and a mini-show from a costumed character who danced and “talked” to a pre-recorded track. Guess who was inside the costumed character?

One memorable story from the Kiddie Catering days involved this costume, which was supposed to be a Care Bear but looked nothing like a Care Bear. It looked like a generic honey-brown bear that could have also been a dog if you squinted. My job, as the assistant, was primarily to help set up and get things going before slipping away to put on the costume and wait for the college student to press “play” on the boom box. Then I would enter and enrapture the youngsters with fifteen sweaty minutes of gesticulation and head bobbing. I guess it was a simpler time, those early 80s, because this was far more successful than it sounds.
Except for the day that we unpacked the van to find that we only had the bear head. The rest of the costume was missing. There was no time to go back to look for it, and Ms. M. wasn’t home. We had no choice but to plow forward. So when the time came, I swallowed hard and trotted down the hall into the party room wearing nothing but jeans, a blouse and a bear head. 
That was the moment when I learned an important lesson:
Even when fully clothed, one can feel totally naked.
It was that potential nudity I feared when I walked into Burger King that Saturday. I really didn’t know what exactly I was supposed to do. I knew I had to wear the clown costume and wig (thankfully none of it was missing) and I knew the party would last two hours. But beyond that, I had no plan. 
I was given an hour to prep: to put up some balloons and streamers in the party area (a corner of the restaurant that must have been originally designed as a smoking section), take the cake out of the freezer to thaw and write the birthday child’s name on it, assemble enough cardboard crowns for everyone, and pre-load all of the Kids’ Meal bags with toys... yes, two toys for everyone! Now that’s a party! 
That era was what I consider to be a dark time for the Kids’ Meals, when there were no movie tie-ins or licensing agreements with popular cartoons (though that would change in just a few months when a deal with Disney was made). Instead, all of the toys, bags, and even the crowns featured characters specifically created for Burger King: the Burger King Kids Club gang. 
As the era of political correctness dawned, a lot of children’s entertainment liked to show how diversity could be fun. Not only were the young characters racially diverse, but they would often also feature a kid in a wheelchair and a kid with glasses and a tomboy or girl who liked sports, just to make it socially diverse as well. I myself would eventually work on a program that featured a group which was frighteningly similar (The Puzzle Place), but the Burger King Kids Club really blazed that trail. While I knew their intentions were good, I’m not fond of the idea of boiling characters’ entire identities down to a single trait. For example, the kid in the wheelchair was named “Wheels” and liked to fix things... mostly his wheelchair.  The kid with the glasses was named “I/Q,” and he was the smart one. It makes you wonder what their fictional parents were thinking. What if you name a kid “I/Q” and he winds up to be dumb as a post?
Of course, this is all too deep for characters that were only created to be something for a kid to look at while he/she was eating fries.
As the party hour drew near and I was in the ladies’ room smearing on whatever makeup I could find in the clown kit, I started to get nervous. The curly rainbow wig was too small for my head, and my thick hair kept creeping out the bottom of it. The costume, worn over my BK uniform, was too long on me and bunched at the bottom. I was a lousy, pear-shaped clown. I didn’t even have a good clown name. 
Oh... the clown name. You have to remember that I didn’t want to be a clown, I wanted to be like Frank Oz. So, in a total lapse of creativity, I dubbed myself Ozzie the Clown. Worst clown name ever. It’s a miracle that no one asked me to bite the head off a chicken.
Granted, I wasn’t in a place of clarity at the time. My mind was frantically trying to dig up memories of the entertainment at my little sister’s birthday party many, many years earlier at McDonald’s, and all I could remember was the game where the person who could stack the most Big Mac boxes won a prize. But as I wrote in “change with cheese,” Burger King had recently switched out all of its sandwich boxes with paper wrap. I’d been in favor of environmental progress until this very moment. Damn timing.
It was zero hour. The kids started trickling in and I must confess that the party was a great big blur. Most of my job was taking burger and drink orders, fetching them, and serving, which killed some time. While the kids ate, one kid asked if I could write her name on a balloon. Ah, this I could do, as one of my carryover middle school talents was writing in bubble and block letters... so I grabbed a marker and went to town, embellishing with hearts and flowers, and as soon as I did one, every kid wanted one, so that killed some more time. Then I had the idea to play the “let’s keep the balloon in the air as long as possible” game, which worked for much longer than I expected. I was feeling better now. Maybe we could play “hot potato” after the cake. Maybe I could draw Sharpie hearts on the girls’ cheeks. Maybe this would work. Maybe the kids liked Ozzie the Clown.
But as soon as the cake was eaten, the only thing the kids wanted to do was go outside to the BK playground with the giant slide and open presents. They were done with Ozzie the Clown. I spent the rest of the party cleaning up the detritus while the parents watched me with pity and amusement. 
And then it was over. As everyone was leaving, a tiny sibling of one of the guests, or maybe of the birthday child, came up to me for a hug. Hey cwown? she cooed with her adorable little speech impediment. Wow. I’d reached one child. And that’s all it takes. Just one.
I lifted her up in my arms. Yes, sweetie?
You weaw haiw is fawwing out. 
And she grabbed the clump of hair that was coming out of my wig. I tried to laugh and explain that it was Ozzie’s roots growing in, but she didn’t buy it. My real hair was falling out.
I was naked again, fully clothed. 
Yes indeed. Welcome to me. 


  1. Hey cwown? You scenarios you describe are my nightmare fodder. There is no amount of money that could have made me take a job as a clown or a dancing bear, even a well-prepared one!

  2. 'Originally been designed as the smoking section...' DELICIOUS!