Once upon a time, the only parents who rented a carrousel for their children's birthday parties were people like Joan Crawford, whose kids then grew up and wrote fascinating books about them. But no longer are such extravagant affairs limited to celebrities. Nudged perhaps by guilt, working mothers have begun to throw more and more elaborate celebrations of their children's birth.
The current baby boom has given birth to yet another boom: A boom in party entrepreneurs, who for anywhere from $40 to $100,000 will sell you the illusion that your child is having fun at his birthday party.
The predictable chaos of gatherings at McDonald's, Gymboree and Chuck E. Cheese has been replaced by a parade of Las Vegas hopefuls who come to your home in a candy-cane rickshaw.
Deborah Cafferkey, director of A-1 Showtime & Party Group in Northridge, tells of one family who spent $80,000 on a party which featured a complete carnival with a roller coaster and a circus with trained elephants.
Cafferkey is one of several dozen such party specialists in the San Fernando Valley, who have capitalized on the trend toward more lavish children's parties. "This year," she says, "our business has almost quadrupled."
Jo Caplan, whose answering machine greets callers with the strains of Disneyland's Electrical Parade theme song, is owner of Over The Rainbow Productions in Tarzana. Her prices start at $85, but she can entertain your guests for well into the thousands.
Caplan's company offers birthday party planners the services of people who impersonate Elvira, Michael Jackson, Thunder Cats, He-Man, Gumby, Pink Panther, Rainbow Brite, a Superman who sings "Alphabet Rock," and Barbie & the Rockers.
Caplan also boasts of designing "the one and only She-Ra Swim Party," which she says Cybill Shepherd hired her to arrange for Shepherd's daughter's birthday party. If Saturday morning cartoon characters aren't quite what the birthday boy or girl had in mind, Caplan will supply llamas, clowns, mimes, bagpipers or a petting farm zoo.
"But it's not just the rich and famous," said Caplan. "Parents used to do parties themselves. Now they're working and they need the help of a service. Can you imagine 20 years ago having a scarlet macaw with a five-foot wing span, doing an exotic bird show for your child's party?"
Terez Hampton, assistant manager of operations for the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., says the array of party possibilities is vast. "Name whatever you want. We customize parties because everyone wants something different. We can provide ice cream, cake, favors, animal-puppet shows designed by the Jim Henson group and animal shows. We can entertain on any budget, from $2.85 to over $1,000 for elephant and camel rides."
A quick glance at various local parents' publications reveals a profusion of ads for birthday party clowns: There's Whirlie, Bubbles, Twinkles and Dimples. San Fernando ventriloquist Patty Bell, with Mugsy the dog, promises to "unleash fun and whimsy at your child's party." And probably not for the faint of heart are the services of Johnny Skunk Productions. He runs an ad with a photo of a man holding some skunks and wearing a skunk-skin hat. The caption reads, "A unique children's entertainment service featuring singing, dancing and comedy acts."
Many parents are keenly aware of the need for each party to top the last one.
"We're getting away from the real meaning of birthdays," said parent and former elementary school teacher Christy Noll, 33, of Van Nuys. "I've always felt you should invite the number of children that your child has in years. Kimmie's worst day of her life was her second birthday. It was too big, too overwhelming.
"It's really a party for the parents. You're all celebrating the life of this child. But I think we need to be sensible, especially during the early years."
Noll's 3-year-old son, William, had an intimate family party, and friends who wished to bestow gifts stopped by during the week for some private time with him. "Presents weren't thrown at him, they were given. And then the giver of the presents enjoys it so much more, too," said Noll.
Some parents feel the advertised simplicity of hiring a party is a myth. Cynthia Rhine, 32, of North Hollywood, said she thinks a party is a huge investment in time that is now becoming a huge financial investment as well.
"No hassles? Baloney. You've still got all the food, paper plates, invitations, decorating, thank-you notes, ice-cream scooping--no way. It's no easier. Just more expensive."
Cafferkey acknowledges a little competitiveness among parents, but says, "When they go to a lot of kids' parties, they see entertainment and they want something different. Also, it's a chance to entertain their friends and children at the same time."
The children themselves give mixed reviews to the "produced" parties. Chris Brandt of Van Nuys, and John Taylor of Reseda, both 11, think the elaborate parties sound fun.
"Usually we just do sleepovers," John said.
Then his buddy's eyes light up.
"Hey--can you imagine some guy walking on a tightrope over your yard?" Chris said.
John joins in with more special effects, and soon the two of them have imagined an entire Star Wars Circus theme.
Another fan of the unusual party is Lara Aldmeh, 9, of Sherman Oaks. "I went to one party that had face painting. And at my last birthday party we had a clown. I thing they are more fun."
Michelle Don, 6, of Encino, went to one such lavish party and said, "The clown was boring. It's more fun just to play."
Mike Swain, of Swain's Swim School in North Hollywood, has worked with thousands of children, and advocates keeping parties small and intimate. But as for hiring specialists, he's all for it.
"There's a lot of spendable money out there," he said, "and if people want to spend it on their children, why not? If you try to take the party to the pony, your group gets lost in a crowd of 300 others. Sometimes it's better to bring the pony to the party."