SPS Magic

By Samuel Patrick Smith

The Invitation

Birthday parties can be an extremely rewarding venue for magicians, clowns, and other variety artists. This report will look at 10 ways to be more effective in booking and performing birthday shows.

The main consideration before booking birthday shows is, Do you like children? The answer to this question may be more important in this field than in other types of children's work because you will be performing at very close range and sometimes the children will not be on their best behavior. If you do not genuinely enjoy the antics of kids, consider exploring a different market.

On the other hand, if you like children, birthday parties offer an excellent venue. The market for such shows is huge because a new crop of clients comes along every few years.

Birthday shows fall mainly on weekends, which makes it possible for you to have a regular job during the week and take on the “living room circuit” on we ekends. However, you may then find yourself working virtually all the time. Whether this schedule is acceptable depends on your family situation—when are others in your house also working?

If you establish that birthday shows are a market worth pursuing, here are ten suggestions to help you get more shows.

Ten Tips

(1) Advertise.
Successful birthday party performers get the majority of their shows from two sources: regional parenting magazines and yellow pages. Local parenting magazines or parenting newspapers are available from day care centers or bookstores, usually for free. Since the target audience is parents, advertisers in such magazines often include magicians and clowns.

Sometimes you hear people say, “I've found a great place to advertise, and there are NO other magicians listed!” Guess what? There's a reason! Magazines and papers featuring ads by other performers which have been running week after week, month after month are probably good places to advertise. These other performers wouldn't be advertising there if it didn't pay off, at least not over a long period of time.
Another source of birthday shows—and possibly the major source—is yellow pages advertising. Magicians who have advertised in the phone book hoping to attract corporate buyers have found that they were swamped with calls for birthday shows instead. If your market is birthdays, this is good news!

Yellow pages advertising is for the serious, long-term birthday party performer. If you're just wanting to test the waters to find out what it's like working birthdays, stick to advertising in parenting magazines for a while. Otherwise you'll be committed to handle requests from birthday moms and dads for at least a year, until the next phone book comes out.

Also, you'll need to get a commercial listing for your phone to run a yellow pages ad. This is substantially more expensive than a residential phone line. Although you're likely to book more than enough shows to make this worthwhile, you still want to make sure you'll be able and willing to do the shows.

There are other ways to advertise for birthday shows—shopping guides, flyers in party stores, notices on community bulletin boards—but local parents' magazines and yellow pages are likely to outperform all the other methods put together.

(2) Offer giveaways.
True, this is a form of advertising but not in the traditional sense. Offer stickers, coloring sheets, simple tricks, prizes, photo postcards, etc. to every child at the party. Just make sure your name and phone number is on every item. These will generate new shows as children plead with their parents to have the same clown that Bubba had.

If the giveaway can be tied into a particular trick, that's even better. David Garrard's Sketch-O-Magic and Silly Billy's Magic Party Picture are both excellent examples. In both cases, a colorful drawing ends up in a child's hands, and he can keep it as a souvenir of the show. If you've rubber-stamped each item, your contact information will stay in the child's home for years to come.

(3) Get referrals.
This is a simple way to get more shows: simply talk about it. When the birthday parent hands you the payment for your show and says, “That was just wonderful!” you have a perfect excuse to say, “Thank you, Mrs. Coulter, the children were a great audience. And if you have any friends who are planning parties for their children, I'd certainly appreciate your recommendation.” People are always glad to refer someone they like. I think people get a feeling of importance by helping the performer and one of their friends make a connection.

(4) Create confidence.
Referrals are much more likely to come when the client is pleased with what you do and—important—how you made them feel. Give them a feeling of assurance by conducting yourself professionally, getting all of the information from them on the phone, letting them know you're carefully writing down directions, saying back to them the day of the week, the date of the party, the time of the party, and the time you'll arrive. Call the day before the party to let me know you'll be there as promised. Get there in plenty of time. These reassurances will build a feeling of confidence in you which makes them more willing to refer you to a friend.

(5) Consider starting a fan club.
Atlanta magician John Cooper wrote up an excellent idea in his manual, How to Increase Your Birthday Party Business. He describes how to pass out applications for your “fan club” to kids attending the party. If their parents fill out the form and mail it in, the kids get a free magic trick and coloring sheet or some other giveaway. The form asks only for their name and address and the date of the child's birthday. A month or two before the birthday, he sends a postcard to the parents offering his show. If they're interested, they can call him. John does not ask for their phone number on the application. Read his entire booklet to get the full scope of the plan.

(6) Look clean cut.
A clean cut appearance has the subconscious effect of making you seem like a “safe” performer, someone parents want to have in their home. Besides the obvious—hair combed, teeth brushed, shoes shined—is your whole demeanor, including language on and off stage. Did you know that people who use profanity will think badly of you if you use the same words they just used? That's a weird quirk of human nature, but just because someone follows a certain pattern of behavior, it does not follow that they will approve of that same behavior in you. I once heard someone complaining bitterly about a performer using profanity. In the process of telling me about it, he used profanity himself!

Parents are extremely protective of their children, and if they think you're a bad influence on their kids, you're out of the game.

Another example of this principle in action: If a parent (smoker or nonsmoker) smells smoke on your breath and clothes, it will cross his mind that you shouldn't have the smell of cigarettes on you when you're performing for kids.

(7) Get off to a good start.
At the beginning of the birthday show, it's important to do three things. First, do something magical, surprising, or attention-getting. Second, focus some positive attention on the birthday child. At least let everyone know why you're there. Third, get the children clapping and responding to the show.

Danny Archer's Birthday Banner is a good trick for this purpose. The effect is magical—a handful of birthday cards suddenly blend into a large “Happy Birthday” banner. It's an easy, almost-automatic trick, but it accomplishes all three goals within a minute or so.

You can say something like, “Hi, it's great to be at Scott's birthday today. I love birthdays because there are so many fun things about birthday parties. It's fun to look at the birthday cards [saying this, show the loose birthday cards], and it's fun to see the balloons and decorations. It's fun to eat birthday cake. It's fun to play games, and it's fun to watch the show.

“But do you know the real reason we're here today? It's to let Scott know how much we want him to have a very…happy…birthday!” Saying this, the cards blend into the birthday banner, a surprising and magical event.
“So let's give Scott a nice big round of applause to show him how glad we are to be a part of his birthday this year.”

(8) Be prepared for anything.
Parents are complete amateurs when it comes to running a birthday party. They may never have done a party before or, in the best case, they have planned only a few other parties for their children. In either case, their lack of experience means you need to help them make things go smoothly.

Adopt a “no problem” attitude. Be flexible and remember you're there to help everyone have a good time.

What are some potential problems which can pop up at Penny's party? Here are several possibilities.

• The parents booked you for a five-year-old birthday party, but most of the audience is comprised of the birthday child's older brothers and sisters and their friends. Solution: Always have some tricks or routines with you for older kids so you can gain their respect and maintain control.

• The birthday child is unhappy. This is a common occurrence because there's such enormous pressure on the child. Other kids at the party are carefree, but the birthday child senses that he must squeeze every available drop of fun out of this day. The pressure of making this happen may bring him to tears over the simplest of things. Solution: Go easy on the birthday child. Try to help him warm up to you but don't push it. The birthday child has enough problems without worrying about the clown!

• The show is really for the parents. I've been booked to do a show for a three-year-old. When I arrived, I found the parents had also hired a clown, a puppet show, and a band! The birthday child was huddled in a corner crying. The main point of that party seemed to be impressing the friends of the parents. Solution: Make the best of the situation and move on to the next party.

(9) Pack as you go.
Children at birthday parties sometimes think that they have free reign over the house. This is their time to do whatever they feel like doing, and your props will not be off limits. So it's best to have a compact show which can be completely packed by the time you finish. Then it's just a matter of closing your prop case and snapping the latches to keep the little rascals from starting their own show.

(10) Pepper Spray.
Just thought I'd get your attention! Seriously, allow the children to warm up to you, and accept the fact that some never will warm up. They're simply afraid of costumed characters or strangers. If you run after them or don't know when to back off, you'll have the same effect as pepper spray!

A friend of mine who used to be a circus clown said parents would often bring a child, shaking and crying, to see him. They would hold the child up right to his face and say, “Look at the nice clown!” as the child continued to cry.

My three-year-old niece had two bad experiences at a famous theme park. A large rodent kept pawing at her and didn't know when to back off. She was terrified. A return trip the next year didn't help as either Chip or Dale made a mad dash for her at the celebrity autograph area. Thereafter, she was terrified of all costumed characters and clowns.

Two years later, when we announced that my son was having a clown at his birthday party, she was very concerned. We finally told her she could stay out on the porch and watch the show through the sliding glass door! I forewarned the performer (Cynthia Keeler, aka “Big Red”) about my niece's clown anxiety, and she handled the situation like a real pro.

She made no attempt to try to involve my niece but instead allowed her to become interested in the show. I videotaped the whole sequence of events. First, my niece hid behind the couch. Next she moved to her mother's lap on the couch. Then to the floor in back of the group. Then into the group, and finally to the front of the group. Before the show was over, she was volunteering to participate, and as far as I know she has not since been afraid of a clown or costumed character. In fact, not long afterward at another party, she danced with Chuck E. Cheese and kissed his nose! I credit Cynthia with the professionalism of knowing how to let the kids be drawn to her, rather than trying to coerce them into joining the fun. This stems not only from professionalism, but from a genuine love of children.

The Drive Home

To pursue the subject further, I highly recommend John Cooper's How to Increase Your Birthday Party Business and Steve Taylor's Making Your Birthday Biz Go Ballistic!  Steve's telephone script alone is easily worth several hundred dollars to the serious birthday party performer.

Approached with the right attitude and forearmed with accurate information, children's birthday parties can be a fun and profitable venture.

Happy birthdays!

© Samuel Patrick Smith


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