Case proves clowning is serious business

This Just In...

January 09, 2002|By DAN RODRICKS

AS THE NEW year unfurls, I am thankful for many things, including the fact that, as a paid voyeur of the Baltimore scene, I can learn something new almost every day about people, places and things. Yesterday, I learned the following:

1. "Balloonatic" is an accepted term in the entertainment industry.

2. There is an artistic difference between a "balloonatic" and a clown who merely makes animals out of balloons for children.

3. Despite their apparent composure, rabbits in magic acts generally do not perform up to standard in noisy rooms.

4. No two clowns have the same act, even if under the same contract.

5. A clown would violate the terms and conditions of her insurance policy if she handed a balloon to a child under age 8 or performed a magic act in a doorway.

These are things I neither knew nor appreciated until I listened to testimony in the matter of Kemp vs. Anderson, which was played out in the civil division of the District Court of Maryland in Baltimore. The producers of Judge Judy might kick themselves for missing this one.

The plaintiff, a medical technician named Cynthia Kemp, was unhappy with the services provided by a clown during her son Damion's birthday party at her home on Harford Road in October. She sued the contracted-for clown, Rhonda Anderson of Anne Arundel County, to recover the $135 clown fee, to gain $865 in damages for pain and suffering, and to "show my children you don't let no one get over on you."

The plaintiff and defendant in this case have some history - and of a positive nature.

Anderson had won acclaim for her performance at the birthday party of Kemp's 6-year-old daughter, Montaijah. That's why she was hired for 1-year-old Damion's Oct. 27 birthday party.

Anderson agreed to perform a magic act with live rabbit, to juggle, and to either do some face painting or some balloon tricks.

Kemp agreed to have no more than 20 children at the party and to pay Anderson $135 for a 1-hour performance.

But life and appendicitis being unpredictable, a problem developed between the time the contract was signed and Damion's party.

Anderson was hospitalized to have her appendix removed. Her recovery was difficult and slow and, finding herself unable to carry out her clownly duties, she arranged to have a "replacement clown" named Claire Pratt appear at Damion's party.

It's a tough life, clowning. One dons the costume and with it the burden of making everyone happy, including the working mother footing the bill.

Kemp testified that Pratt arrived about an hour late for the party, limited her magic act to "one trick with flowers" and no rabbit, did not do any face painting, did not interact with children, and did not provide a balloon sculpture to each child, including the birthday boy.

"I feel as though I been robbed," Kemp said, and she brought two witnesses to court to support her claims of the half-hearted clown.

It was in the presentation of the defense, by clowns Anderson and Pratt, that we learned of the surprising complexity of their craft.

Kemp's living room, the designated venue for the clown act, was crowded and noisy, Pratt said. She did not find 20 children there; she found close to 40. And those conditions made it almost impossible for her to give the optimum performance.

"There was not three feet between me and the children," Pratt said. And moving her "magic table" to the room's entrance was not an option because "my insurance says I cannot block a doorway."

She said she did an Asian-style magic act and a "double transformation with story." She considered some "audience-participation tricks," but ruled them out. "There was no room," Pratt said.

No room for juggling, either.

And no time for face painting because there were so many kids lined up for balloon sculptures. And no time for a grand balloon performance.

When one is hired as a "balloonatic," Pratt explained, one entertains with balloons, creating large and intricate sculptures as an audience watches.

But she wasn't hired as a balloonatic. She was hired to make individual balloon sculptures for kids.

But not all kids.

Not all kids can get balloon sculptures, Pratt explained, because her insurance covers only children 8 years or older. The birthday boy, Damion, was just a year old, so Pratt made a blue dog balloon sculpture and, per industry recommendation, handed it to his mother. "I told her, `This is for him but I cannot give it to him.'"

Who knew clowning was such a strictly regulated profession?

At the conclusion of testimony, Judge Gale E. Rasin posed what should go down in the annals somewhere as one of the most trenchant and on-point questions ever asked by a Maryland jurist in a breach-of-contract case. With only a few words, Rasin cut to the issue on which the half-hearted clown case turned: "Miss Pratt ... did you bring whatever you needed to provide a live bunny production?"

"No," said Pratt.

Well, in this city, I am happy to say, clowns better show up with the bunny when they say they will - or face the consequences.

Rasin ruled in favor of Mother Kemp, ordering that she get a refund but no damages. (You can't recover damages for pain and suffering in a breach-of-contract case anyway.) But the judge took a little off the top because Kemp had too many kids at Damion's party.

So Kemp got $100. The clowns got to keep $35. A plaintiff got to call a defendant "this clown" in a courtroom without being cited for contempt. And we all learned the word "balloonatic."

The year is off to a good start.

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