Tea party for two -- for $195 Business: Throwing a birthday celebration nowadays takes more than a cake and balloons. Children want hula dancers, Pocahontas and rain forests. Parents can provide those -- if they're willing to pay the price.

April 16, 1997|By JILL HUDSON | JILL HUDSON,SUN STAFF

Throwing a birthday party for your child used to be easy: bake a cake, buy some of those silly cone-shaped hats with the elastic chin straps and pray that a litter of 6-year-olds doesn't trash your house.

That was then. This is now.

These days, children expect the birthday party equivalent of a Broadway show -- a full-scale production with clowns, magicians, face painters and balloon artists.

And what used to be a small-scale business of part-time Bozos and amateur Houdinis is now a rapidly growing multimillion-dollar industry.

A Hawaiian Hula Party will buy parents a bikini-and-straw-skirted woman who promises to teach children authentic dances for about $125 an hour. Pocahontas will show up for about the same price, and the folks from the Rain Room in Potomac will convert your back yard into an Amazonian rain forest for the day for $600 and up.

Last weekend in Columbia, Teresa and Duane Brunot opened their home to Brenda Simmons, owner and mastermind behind Angel Teas, a 2-year-old company that specializes in Victorian-era tea parties for little girls.

The picture of late-19th-century elegance in a white floor-length lace gown, Simmons -- Miss Brenda to you -- has imported a white wicker table and eight matching chairs to the Brunots' living room.

Eight little girls -- 9-year-old birthday girl Kristen, her younger sister Kimberly and six of their friends -- are dressed in their prettiest frocks and have brought their favorite dolls. Simmons charges $195 per party, plus $10 per party guest. The dolls get in free.

Squeals of delight erupt each time Simmons' tuxedoed husband -- James, a former state trooper playing the butler -- comes around to serve pink lemonade tea, cucumber sandwiches, petit fours and pink cake on fine bone china and crystal.

"You'd never know all these girls were rambunctious soccer players," said Kristen's father, Duane. "They really get into it, playing like they're little ladies."

"I would have killed to have had my dad be a butler at a party with my friends," Teresa Brunot added with a laugh, as she took rolls of photographs. "When I was a kid, we got a cake and played musical chairs -- that was it."

Colleen Orme of Timonium recently booked the Fun Bus -- an old school bus converted into a playground on wheels -- for her son Tommy's third birthday

For $165, Orme got an hour of supervised play in the air-conditioned and heated bus parked outside their home, topped off with goodie bags full of treats.

Occasional indulgence

"Years ago, I think people married younger and had less money," Orme said, as 13 ecstatic children bounced on a trampoline near the front of the bus. "I wouldn't do this every year because I'm afraid it's just too indulgent for the kids."

Orme believes many parents are too busy to plan a party. "I just have to stand here and watch," she says. "It's great."

Dr. Joan Kinlan, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Washington and the mother of 10-year-old twin girls, says lack of time is a big factor.

"Many parents feel so hassled, harried and tired that they just want to buy everything and have someone else organize their kids' time," she says. "It's a different world now."

So much for a blindfold and a pinata. Ellen Douras, who quit her job as a computer systems analyst 15 years ago and now runs an entertainment business from her Columbia home, says the pressure to throw the perfect party can be intense.

"Kids' birthday parties have become these major social events instead of the old days when you'd sit around and watch your kid smash their hand in a birthday cake," she says.

The going rate for parties usually falls between $125 and $300 an hour, but can cost much more.

Bernie Cox, owner of Bernie A & A Amusement in Fairfax, Va., says one client in Potomac spent more than $3,000 for a party for his 3-year-old and 100 of the child's closest friends.

The party featured a dunk tank, three mechanical rides, clowns, cotton candy and snow cone vendors, pony rides and a hot dog stand.

Many of the clients of Hugh Turley of Hyattsville -- aka Turley the Magician -- throw children's birthday parties in the ballrooms of five-star hotels, country clubs and million-dollar mansions. Turley's 45-minute magic show -- including oodles of party favors he tosses to the audience -- goes for $225.

Douras says her fondest memories aren't made at mansions and country clubs but in modest homes in inner-city Baltimore where working-class parents also go all out for their children.

"Their kids really appreciate you," she says. "In a wealthy home, a lot of the kids have seen it all and done it all by the time they're 3. Some of them are so jaded, all they want to do is pull off your nose."

Childhood memories

Child psychiatrist Kinlan believes that parents with two incomes tend to be more tempted to throw elaborate and costly parties than families with stay-at-home moms.

"Some parents think their children will be more charmed and thrilled with fancy gifts rather than just being together and having fun playing games with one another," Kinlan says.

In the end, the aim is to provide the stuff of childhood memories.

"The memory of a good party lasts long after a performance is gone," says Turley. "But I counsel parents to do other things for their kids, too, like take a small group to see the symphony or a baseball game."

But he adds: "When I was a kid, I never knew a magician or a clown came to people's houses. It's kinda cool."

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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