On a recent rainy Sunday, Will Kuehne eased himself through the throes of turning 3 with the help of 18 compassionate friends, a room filled with vintage amusement rides, lots of birthday cake and two wonderfully helpful clowns.
His party provided birthday scenery of the 1990s: dads with video cameras, moms alert for sudden tumbles, children begging for turns on fancy rides, a professional level of entertainment.
It also gave a taste of the allure of being host to parties away from home, an option that has become quite popular, according to birthday party watchers.
Will's party was held at Ken-Zo's Party Place in Federal Hill, a two-story store and suite of party rooms run by Ken and Bernadette Horsman, former clowns who toured the world with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The two-hour celebration began with the guests riding rocket ships and other equipment, watching Heckle and Jeckle film strips and bouncing on the giant Peter Pan Fantasy Bounce. Next, everyone moved upstairs to a child-sized theater for a magic performance. Ken-Zo the clown pulled doves from his hat, amazed the audience with scarf tricks, juggled, demonstrated a magic box and turned the birthday boy into a stage hero. Brandy, the Horsmans' white terrier, showed the kind of stage savvy that children dream of coaxing from their own pets.
Then the lights were lowered, the mirror ball spun patterns across the room, the guests sang "Happy Birthday" and finally . . . The Cake!
It was one of those parties parents have difficulty duplicating the following year -- or the year after that.
Sharon Keech, publisher of the Baltimore's Child tabloid and mother of two birthday partygoers, estimates the metropolitan area has at least 200 birthday party services.
The mini baby boom has added considerably to the ranks of part-time clowns, magicians, makeup artists, puppeteers, storytellers, pony handlers, fortune tellers, jugglers, hula dancers and fantasy character impersonators -- kiddie professionals who charge from $75 to $150 to entertain at parties.
Some fashionable parties are built around such attractions as kung-fu demonstrations and group beauty makeovers, Ms. Keech says.
With such new and unusual types of commotion, it's not TC surprising that many parents prefer to hold their parties somewhere else.
"A dozen 4-year-olds is a lot of little kids to have around," Ms. Keech points out. "I have a teaching background, but many parents aren't prepared to have a birthday party at home. They don't know how to keep kids organized."
And a lot of parents, she adds, don't have the space -- either inside or outside -- to throw a birthday party for 10 or 12.
"I think the best thing about this party is that I didn't have to do any work at all," Will's mother, Susan Kuehne, said at Ken-Zo's. "I can imagine the amount of work getting ready for -- and cleaning up after -- 18 kids!"
There's also the matter of price. Ms. Keech points out that parents easily drop $100 or more just getting the food, cake, decorations and favors for a dozen children. Entertainment can quickly double the cost of in-home productions.
Although many restaurants, recreation and sports centers host birthday parties for children, fewer places provide live shows. The following is a list of some establishments in the Baltimore area that offer live performances. Most require making reservations several months in advance.
*Ken-Zo's Party Place, 1025 S. Charles St. in Federal Hill, offers birthday parties for a minimum of 16 children at $285. The package includes time with vintage rides and other amusements, a live magic and clowning performance in a special theater, and a theme party with cake, juice, party favors and helium balloons included. For details: 727-5811.
*The Cloisters Children's Museum, 10440 Falls Road in Brooklandville, offers a party with a half-hour of face painting and making play crowns, a half-hour playing with hands-on exhibits in the museum and a half-hour party. Price for 10 children and 4 adults is $75. Each additional child is $7.50.
A birthday party with a clown or magician is $175 for 10 children and four adults. Each additional child is $10. The museum provides a cake; parents must bring everything else. For details: 823-2551.
*Once Upon a Birthday, 7002 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville. Fantasy parties for children in rooms designed around such themes as a Pirate Ship for young pirates and mermaids and an Enchanted Kingdom for young princesses and knights. The party includes costumes and makeup for children, storytelling, custom-designed favor bags, balloons, birthday cupcakes and beverages. Minimum price is $149 for 7 children; each additional child is $3.75. For details: 371-6824.
*Little Theater at the Corner, 8217 Main St., in Ellicott City. A show performed by local children and teen-agers. The stage is offered for parties with a minimum of six children for a half-hour after the show. Parents must bring cake and all accessories. Price is $5.50 general admission and $5 for children 12 and under and $4.50 for seniors. Reservations required. For details: 465-8717.
*Act Two Dinner Theatre, 8014 Pulaski Highway in the Rosedale area. Shows such as "Hansel and Gretel," with child performers, run Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. A children's lunch is available at 11:30 a.m.; parents must bring a cake and decorate tables. Price is $7 per person. Reservations required. 686-1126.