'Ninjas for hire' hit the birthday party circuit

September 30, 1992|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Move over, clowns and magicians. Make way for ninjas.

A local martial arts expert is offering "ninjas for hire" to entertain at children's parties.

Since launching his venture in mid-August, Brian Sutherland says he has been "overwhelmed by the response."

His "ninjas" -- actually, advanced students at his aikido studio in Woodlawn -- have already staged mock battles and demonstrated the use of exotic martial arts weapons at a dozen children's parties. Another half-dozen children's parties have been booked, at a cost beginning at $95, and even some adults are considering hiring ninjas to enliven their events.

The early success of the enterprise seems part of a youthful national fascination with the fearsome Japanese assassins -- a fascination that can be seen in the television cartoon series "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," the recent movie "Three Ninjas" and such home entertainment and arcade games as "Streetfighter II."

"It's the excitement; it's the mystique," says Mr. Sutherland, 34, who holds black belts in aikido, judo and karate and teaches a course in women's self-defense at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

"It's something different," adds Sam Stein, 29, a black belt in karate who coordinates the parties for Mr. Sutherland. "Most kids can't tell you what they did for their last birthday. But this is something they'll remember 20 years later."

Clad in hooded black uniforms, the ninjas for hire typically appear out of clouds and mist created by smoke bombs and fog machines. Depending on the terrain -- that is, the back yards -- some may rappel down trees or leap from the roofs of sheds before engaging in simulated hand-to-hand combat.

Afterward, partygoers are treated to demonstrations of such weapons as nunchakus, a weapon consisting of two sticks joined by a chain or cord; metal "throwing stars" with sharp, pointed edges; and "blow guns" that shoot arrows. There is even TTC a ninja variation of pin the tail on the donkey: a silhouette of a crouching ninja painted on a wooden backboard, which is struck by a plastic throwing star with rubber suction cups.

Those who have hired Mr. Sutherland's ninjas rave about the results. But some of his fellow martial artists, particularly serious students of Ninjitsu, are less than pleased, claiming the service overly commercializes and misrepresents the ancient art of survival.

Sherry Hoffman of Cockeysville had the ninjas entertain at her son Joshua's 7th birthday party in mid-September.

"I wanted something very special," says Ms. Hoffman, who had hired other traditional children's entertainers for some of her only child's previous birthday parties.

She wasn't disappointed.

"The kids loved it," she says. "I hired four ninjas. Three came down from trees, and one jumped off a roof. They took care of the party for an hour and 15 minutes."

Steve Bickford of Sparks hired the ninjas for the 6th birthday party for his son, Curtis, who had just seen the movie "Three Ninjas."

"It was a top quality service. My son and his friends were very, very impressed," he says.

But Bob Thomas, the senior student in a Howard County Ninjitsu training group and a fourth-degree black belt in the art, is less than amused.

"It bugs me. It's a commercialism thing. It doesn't represent the totality of the art," Mr. Thomas says.

Renegade Samurai warriors started the art of Ninjitsu about 900 years ago.

These stealthy warriors eventually became hired assassins who specialized in methodically stalking and killing their victims and retreating unharmed into the countryside. So effective were these killers that magical powers were ascribed to them, Mr. Thomas says.

"There's so much more to Ninjitsu than just unarmed self-defense," he says. "There's a reconnaissance element -- they were undercover spies -- and skills in living off the land."

In the movies, ninjas are depicted as black-clad figures whose faces are hidden by hoods.

But true ninjas, Mr. Thomas says, would wear camouflage green, not black, in daytime and they never wore hoods because they couldn't pick up sounds as well with their ears covered.

Mr. Thomas calls Mr. Sutherland "one of the most outstanding martial artists in the community" but dismisses his "ninjas for hire" as "part of the ninjamania."

Mr. Sutherland, a former self-defense instructor for the U.S. Customs Service, is well aware of such sentiment.

"The first impression people may have is that it's cheapening the martial arts," he says. "But it's also spreading the martial arts."

He makes a point of distinguishing his 380-student school, Atlantic Aikido, from his ninjas-for-hire operation, Citnalta -- Atlantic spelled backward.

"Atlantic Aikido is a martial arts school. Citnalta is an entertainment company," he says.

"We're not trying to say we teach Ninjitsu," he adds. "It's lighthearted. It's what kids see on TV and in the movies, happening right before their eyes."

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