Your child has a birthday coming up and you want to do something really special. It looks like it’s finally that birthday. The year that many parents eventually face; you’re going to hire a clown. But where to begin? I mean, where do you even find clowns? What’s the process? What’s a fair price? What should you expect from your clown? How do you make sure you are hiring a pro? And, most importantly – how do you make sure you are providing your child, and your child’s guests, with a safe experience?
For someone who has never hired a professional entertainer, the process can seem foreign and intimidating. Before I became a professional entertainer, I would have felt the same way. But I somehow stumbled into the world of children’s entertainment and I am pleased to share my knowledge of the entertainment world with you. If you follow the tips laid out in this article you should have a smooth and (much) easier time when you begin the process of hiring a pro to entertain your birthday boy or girl.
There are several advantages to hiring a professional clown. They have skills that the average person simply does not have. (Most of us wouldn’t know where to begin if someone asked us to make them a balloon animal.) Then there’s the sheer delight a child feels when they have a real clown at their party. To a child, a clown isn’t quite human. They are almost like a cartoon character, come to life. But do you want to know the best part of hiring someone to entertain the kiddos? Your life gets a lot easier. Imagine sitting down and actually enjoying yourself at your child’s party – instead of running from place to place, frantically trying to keep twenty young ones happy. A real professional can deliver all of these things and more.
Not every age group is appropriate for a clown. Younger kids might find clowns to be scary; older kids might feel that they are too old for a clown and become sullen or embarrassed in front of their friends when one arrives at their party. What’s an appropriate age? Well, it can vary vastly. Since you are more aware of your own child’s fears and concerns, you are probably the best judge of whether or not your child is at the appropriate age. But there are a couple of guidelines to keep in mind…
Children under the age of five might be terrified by a clown – and I do mean terrified. No, it doesn’t apply to all children under the age of five but it’s definitely something you want to keep in mind if you have a group of three year olds. There are even older children, and the rare adult, who are frightened of clowns.
Remember when I said that children don’t really think of clowns as humans? Well, it’s true, and it’s not necessarily a good thing! Clowns are larger than life. They are so unlike anyone else that the average child knows, that they can seem almost alien. They wear large, brightly colored costumes, they might have body parts that don’t look anything like what a child has seen before, (think of big shoes and red noses), and they tend to be a bit louder and more animated than the average person. Children enjoy routine and, despite what they might say to the contrary, something so different can be very scary.
Older children are just the opposite. Your thirteen-year old daughter probably does not want a clown for her birthday; even if you think it is humorous to get her one. (There are rare exceptions and, again, you know your child best.) At that age, the opinions of their friends is very important to a child, and their friends just might laugh if you get them a clown. Or your child might see a clown as a sign that you think of them as a “baby”, since most older children tend to feel that a clown is something for “kids”.
In general, the appropriate age for clown is anywhere between six and eleven. I recommend that you broach the subject with your child, well in advance of their birthday, and gage how they react. If they seem excited by the idea of having a clown at their party, then you are in business. Now it’s time to start your search for the perfect entertainer. If they don’t seem interested, (or if they protest loudly), then move on to other ideas. There are tons of other options available. Ask your child what they had in mind!
If you do decide to book a clown, remember that there are different types of clowns. Not all clowns wear full whiteface! Auguste clowns, for example, only wear whiteface around their eyes and mouth. Personally, I think the full whiteface can be more intimidating for a child. I am an Auguste clown, and have found that most children respond quite favorably to me. If you are concerned about the fear factor for younger children then you might consider booking an Auguste clown instead of a full whiteface clown. The third most common type of clown is the tramp clown. If you remember Red Skelton’s character Freddie the Freeloader, then you are remembering a wonderful example of a tramp clown. Tramps usually have white around their mouths and/or eyes and almost always have a 5 o’clock shadow drawn on with greasepaint.
Another factor to consider, when booking your clown, is their sex. Children can sometimes be more intimidated by the deep voice or large size of a male performer. Females are often seen as more nurturing by children. Our higher voices and softer manner can often ease the fears of a frightened child. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that you might want to specifically book a female clown if you are worried about intimidating younger children. On the other hand, an older boy might feel much more at ease with a male clown than a female clown. Boys of around eight might see a female clown as too “girly”. Ask your child if they have a preference!
When to Book Your Clown
This section can be summed up in just a few words: Book your clown as far in advance as possible. Period.
Most people don’t think about the fact that clowns do almost all of their work on weekends and holidays. Sure, they might have the odd Tuesday afternoon gig… but most of their work is done on weekend afternoons, which is probably exactly when you will want to book them. Talented clowns often book up months in advance. If you wait too long to book then you might not be able to book a clown for little Timmy’s birthday, unless you are lucky enough to find an entertainer who has had a cancellation.
I can’t tell you how many times I have had to turn down a client who called on the week of their child’s birthday, frantically searching for a clown, after promising their child that they would have a clown at their birthday party. This is heartbreaking for the parent and the entertainer! We don’t like to imagine that little Timmy is going to be disappointed, but what can we do? There are only so many hours in a day and, with travel time between locations, we can’t usually perform more than three times per day.
In general, you are going to need to book at least a month in advance, but this might be cutting it too close at certain times of year. I recommend booking your entertainer three months in advance, (or even further in advance if you are trying to book on a major holiday or during the summer months). For whatever reason, there are always a few days out of every summer that, mysteriously, become very popular for no apparent reason. If your child’s birthday happens to fall on that day, you might be out of luck unless you had the forethought to book well in advance.
What is a Professional Clown?
There are several different “levels” of clowns. Volumes could be written about what these “levels” are called and/or how this defines the entertainers. I will not bother to add my two cents to this matter. There are plenty of people out there who are authorities on the subject and would vehemently disagree with my opinion. For the purposes of this article, I’m just going to include three “levels” that I will call “circus clowns”, “party clowns” and the”PTA mother clowns”.
At the top of the ladder you will find circus clowns. These clowns are the crème de la crème. They have honed their skills to the level of an artist. Their costumes might cost thousands of dollars. They do big performances in order to capture the attention of an enormous crowd. They may have attended. They generally feature a lot of physical comedy, sight gags and lots of good, old-fashioned silliness. They have frequently obtained degrees in the arts or learned under the tutelage of top-rate performers from generations past. This is not the type of clown you are going to be booking for a private party!
The second “level” of clowns I want to discuss are what I call “party clowns”. These are clowns that specifically hone their skills to fit into a birthday party environment. They may not include as much physical humor in their act. They might also perform face painting, party games, puppet shows, balloon twisting, magic shows or several other types of entertainment. Their shows are usually smaller, and tailored to fit in tighter spaces. This is the type of clown you will be hiring for your event.
Party clowns may have attended performing arts schools or trained under the tutelage of another clown… but they may have also been brave souls who jumped into a new career feet first and learned on the job. Lack of formal training does not necessarily mean that this type of clown is inferior, and a party clown with a degree in the arts isn’t always the best choice. The vast majority of clowns learn by doing. Just make sure that your party isn’t one of his or her first performances!
The last type of clown I want to discuss is the “PTA mother clown”. First, let me say that I have nothing against the PTA or moms, in general. The PTA mother clown has its place! Thank goodness for all of the PTA mother clowns out there, who dedicate their time and effort to making our children’s experience at a school carnival a bit more silly. However this should not be the type of clown you are hiring for your event! They are generally novices. They are usually dressed in inexpensive costumes or mismatched thrift store clothing and they do not have the training or skills to provide you with the best party experience.
In fact, a professional costume is the hallmark of a professional clown. You can always spot a novice by their inferior costume. A clown costume should look like it was made for clowning – and not as though it was once worn as street clothing by the average Joe. If your clown is wearing the same blouse that your Aunt Mildred wore to the last family reunion, then you probably have a novice on your hands. Costumes should not be glaringly mismatched. The pieces should look as though they coordinate, even if they are different patterns or colors. Professional clown costumes are made to coordinate in a silly manner … not give you a headache from pattern overload!
In general, it is always best to book a clown that you have been referred to, or that you have seen perform. This gives you foreknowledge of their skills and their personal appearance and demeanor. There is one situation where this is not an advantage though. If your child and all of their friends just attended a party at which this specific clown entertained, then booking them for your own event can be a setup for disappointment. Most clowns tend to stick with a core set of magic tricks. If you are hiring a clown that performs magic then make sure you ask them if they will be performing the same tricks at your party. Ask them if they can vary their show somewhat to provide a fresh experience for your guests.
If all of the children have already seen their magic performance then the result might be boredom or, worse yet, heckling. Yes, children will heckle a performer! (Unintentionally of course.) Calls of “I’ve already seen this trick” or “You’re going to make ___________ happen” can ruin a magic show – and leave you, your guests
and your performer feeling less than satisfied.
If you don’t know of a clown, and none of your friends can refer you to one, then the next best place to search is in your local phone book. Seems simple, but you’d be surprised by how many people never think of looking in their local yellow pages for an entertainer! Bigger ads don’t necessarily mean better performers though. It may just mean more overhead for the clown and higher costs for you, the client.
If you don’t find a clown that interests you in your local yellow pages, then do an internet search for clowns at your favorite search engine. Type in the name of your city and the word “clown” and do a search. If you live in a small town, which is located just outside of a larger city, then type in the name of that city too. If all else fails, look in your phone book, or online, for event planners in your area. If they don’t directly book clowns, they might still be able to refer you to companies that do. Or they might even be able to refer you directly to a local clown.
Now that you have found your local clowns, don’t be afraid to call and ask a few questions! But, first and foremost, ask if they are available for your event date and time! If they are, the some other important questions include:
· How long have you been clowning?
Longer is almost always better.
· Where did you receive your training?
Remember: Self-taught isn’t always a bad thing, but tutelage under a pro, at the least, is better!
· How often do you work?
Every weekend, or just once a year? More is better because you know they won’t be out of practice. Even a seasoned pro can get rusty.
· What sort of skills do you provide?
Balloon twisting, magic, face painting, party games, etc
· How long will it take you to provide that skill for X amount of children?
Make sure that your clown has a realistic idea of how long they need to be at a party. Make sure you do too. All of the guests can be entertained at once with a magic show or party games, but it takes precious time to individually face paint children, or make balloon animals for every guest. Be proactive and ask how long it takes for each child! If your clown is vague, you might be talking to an amateur. If you are expecting 100 kids at an event then you might need to hire more than one clown or nix face painting completely.
· Can you provide me with references?
Always, always, always ask. At worse, they will say no. Many private individuals are not interested in providing references, so you might not get a “yes”, but it’s always worth your time to ask. You can also try going to your favorite search engine again and typing in your clown’s name, the city you live in and the word “review”. You might get lucky and find an online review of their performances. Just keep in mind that there are a lot of clowns out there with the same name, so try to make sure the review you are reading is about the clown you just spoke to!
· Do you have a website where I can see photos of you? If not, can you email me photos?
It’s important to see how they are going to look when they arrive at your home, so you can judge whether or not you would like to hire them!
Lastly, ask them about price. Don’t be surprised when they quote in the triple digits. (Though this rate should only be charged for their actual performance time – from the time they arrive until they time that they leave your event. In some areas a clown’s services may cost over $200 per hour. In other places, they may cost as little as $65 per hour. Either way, this may seem like a steep price to pay – but remember that you are hiring someone with highly specialized skills expensive costumes and costly equipment and supplies.
Remember that you are also paying for a clown’s travel time and prep time when you book them, though they will not bill you directly. It can take an hour or more for a clown to get into costume and makeup. Their higher hourly rate helps offset the time spent preparing for and travelling to your event, and buying supplies and gas. Most entertainers do not charge an additional travel fee as long as your event is within a predetermined distance of their home. Outside of that area, you may incur additional travel fees in order to offset gas prices and time spent in travel. This amount is usually minimal, perhaps $10 – $20.
If a clown is much cheaper than other clowns in your area, ask them why! Sometimes they are cheaper because they work out of their home and have lower overhead, or they might be in a price war with another local clown… but sometimes they are cheaper because they just aren’t as experienced or talented.
It is usually best to book directly with your clown, if possible. If you book through an event planner, please remember that they will be adding a fee to cover the cost of their time too. This means you will pay more for your entertainer, but it can also mean that you might get a better entertainer, since most event planners will not use an unprofessional entertainer more than once. They simply cannot afford the bad word-of-mouth. If you do book through an event planner, ask them to book you with a clown that they are familiar with and that they have used in the past.
Don’t Book on a Whim
Before you call to finalize a booking with the clown of your choice, make sure that you are absolutely certain that you want to book an entertainer. Most clowns do the bulk of their work on weekends and holidays, meaning that the hours during which they can book work is extremely limited. If, on a whim, you book a clown – then you later cancel, you could be costing that clown a lot of money! If you book my services as a clown and, later on the same day, someone else calls to book me for a longer event, I am forced to turn down that higher paying event. I have a commitment to you and your event. If you later cancel your event, because you weren’t fully committed in the first place, it can be financially devastating to me and my family.
How do clowns protect themselves from this problem? By having contracts and charging booking fees and/or deposits. Don’t be surprised if your clown sends you a contract in the mail and charges you a booking fee or deposit for their services. This is a very good thing! It shows that you are dealing with a professional. A contract protects you just as much as it protects your clown. It assures you that your clown is committed to your event and that they will be there when they say they will be there. It also lays out exactly which services you are going to be receiving for your money and when you should expect your clown to arrive and depart. Most importantly, a contract should spell out the terms, should you be required to cancel your event due to an emergency.
Many entertainers will require you to pay a deposit or a booking fee at the time that you return your signed contracts. Often, entertainers require that you make full payment in advance. Under most circumstances, deposits are refundable. Check the terms of your contract before sending in your money. Unlike a deposit, booking fees are almost never refundable. This is money that you will pay, regardless of whether you cancel your event or not. Please remember that this is a way for your clown to safeguard themselves against last minute cancellations by clients. Even if you have a family emergency, your clown has to pay their bills. Though you are unlikely to receive a refund of a booking fee, you may be lucky enough to find a clown who will give you credit toward a future booking. Don’t be afraid to ask.
The most important thing to remember about a contract is this: Until your entertainer receives a signed copy of your contract, with your booking fee or deposit, your event is not booked. Call to confirm that your entertainer has received your signed contract, along with any payment you may have sent. Ask that they send you a receipt for any moneys paid. Furthermore, make sure this receipt states whether the amount paid was a deposit, booking fee, or the total amount due. If possible, pay by check or credit card, so that you have further proof that payment was made. All of these steps help to protect you from unscrupulous people who might take advantage of you. Unfortunately, there are a lot of unscrupulous people in the world, and some of them wear a clown costume.
There are a few simple matters of safety to keep in mind when you are hiring a clown. If you are hiring an entertainer to provide balloon animals then you might want to keep a couple of things important things in mind:
Some people have an allergy to latex. Twisting balloons are made out of latex. Ask your guests if they, or their children, suffer from latex allergies. If several of your proposed guests do suffer from latex allergies, it is advisable to skip the balloons!
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about balloons is that they are a choking hazard! If a child bites a balloon and a scrap of latex lodges in their throat, the results could be deadly. Latex is flexible. The Heimlich maneuver will not necessarily result in a piece of latex being dislodged from a child’s throat. The latex might just flex, and stay in place, resulting in suffocation! Therefore it is highly inadvisable to give balloons to infants or toddlers.
If your clown is providing face painting at your event, then you should ask what brand of paints they will be using. The correct answer would be one of several varieties of professional face paints! Water color paints are not made for use on skin. They crack, stain and may cause reactions on sensitive skins. I’ve even seen some people using poster paints and permanent markers on children’s skin. This is not acceptable! Part of the reason you are paying such a high hourly rate for a clown is to offset the cost of their professional supplies. My favorite brand of face paints is Snazaroo, but there are several great brands out there. Ask your clown what brand they use and then be sure to research that brand. Just type the brand name into your favorite search engine and the word “review”. You will find out very quickly if the brand is made for professional use.
My biggest safety tip though, is this: Do not leave your children alone in a room with a clown. I can’t begin to recount the number of times I have been shown into a house, led to a room full of children and left alone with them. I am always slightly nervous by the trust my costume instills in some people! There are many reasons that you shouldn’t leave a stranger alone with your child and I assume you know them all, but here are a couple, just in case:
First and foremost, it is not the responsibility of a clown to discipline your child or their guests. Part of a clown’s job is to stay “in character”. If they are forced to step outside of that character, in order to control your guests then the illusion is shattered. Some clowns simply will not do this, because they feel it is inappropriate behavior on the part of a clown. I agree with them! I want to be seen as a means of delivering joy to your guests, not discipline.
Secondly, and most importantly, remember when I said that there are a lot of unscrupulous people in the world and that some are wearing a clown costume? Well, it applies here too. The vast majority of professional clowns are lovely people who truly adore children and find great pleasure in making people smile, but a person in a clown costume might not be a professional… or a nice person either. They could steal from you. They could hurt your children out of anger, or frustration, if they are not properly trained. They could curse, or behave inappropriately in some other manner. They might even do something to your child that is too terrible to recount here. Please – leave at least one adult that you know and trust in the room with your child and their guests at all times.
What to Expect on Party Day
Well, you’ve made it through the process. It seemed difficult. There was a lot you needed to know, but you did it. You hired a professional and tomorrow is your child’s birthday! So what should you expect from your clown on the big day?
First and foremost, you should expect them to be on time. When you book your clown, ask them if they will be arriving at a specific time or if they need a “window” of time for arrival. Some clowns will ask for a thirty minute window, in case of traffic or some unforeseen matter. This information should have been reiterated in the contract you signed. Expect your clown to abide by this arrival time. If they are going to be unavoidably detained then they should call you to let you know as far in advance as possible. (This might only be fifteen minutes in advance if there was a wreck on the freeway which is stalling traffic, but they should still call.)
If your clown does arrive late, for any reason, then they should be prepared to make up the missed time after their scheduled departure time. The only exception to this rule is if they are booked for another event immediately after your event. In that case, be polite, but make it clear that you expect a partial refund. Please reasonable if you ask for a refund though. Remember that your clown is not happy about being late either. They stake their reputation on their ability to arrive on time and perform well. If they disappoint you, they not only feel bad, but they know it could damage their opportunity to get referrals. If your clown was booked for one hour and they were only present for thirty minutes, then it is perfectly reasonable to ask for a 50% refund. It is not reasonable to use their services for thirty minutes and then ask for a full refund though.
There was only one occasion when I missed an event completely, but it did happen. It’s rare but it does happen, on occasion. In the case of a missed event, you are perfectly justified in asking for a 100% refund. This is also the only occasion when you should also expect a full refund of your nonrefundable booking fee. If your entertainer missed your event, then they dropped the ball, and you deserve a full refund. Berating them will not help the situation, so keep your temper in check. Trust me – your clown is not happy about missing your event either. On the single occasion when I missed a party, I cried, knowing that the birthday child was going to be crushed when I didn’t arrive. (For the record, I had a wreck.)
Hopefully you will not experience a late arrival or missed party though. If things go as planned – and they almost always do – then you will have a professional entertainer who arrives on time, delights your child’s friends, and creates a memory that will last a lifetime. Offer them a bottle of water and enjoy the show! Congratulations, you are going to be your child’s hero for at least a month… maybe longer.
If you think your clown did a great job then it is perfectly appropriate to tip them at the end of their performance, (usually 10%-20% of total bill), but it is never expected. You might want to put the tip in an envelope so that the children don’t see you passing money to the clown. It’s much more fun for them to think this magical creature came just to see them on this special day.