One’s a magician who doubles as an insurance salesman. Another spends his free time watching kids’ cartoons to stay current on the latest kiddie obsessions. Still another has made balloon creations for nearly every audience imaginable, including a doggie birthday party.
These are the colorful characters that inhabit Cleveland’s rich community of children’s entertainers. They work the circuits of birthday parties, school and library programs and community events of all kinds, on a mission to make children smile — and hopefully even teach them a thing or two.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, allow us to introduce to you...
Ron “Flower Clown” Fowler
His act: Clowning, magic, humor and some of the best balloon creations you’ll find anywhere. He built his balloon-twisting skills watching a clown at a local arcade, where Fowler worked as a video-game repairman. “I offered to trade him tokens if he taught me more balloon animals. Within a month, I was better than he was.” His most elaborate creations? A likeness of Uncle Sam and an enormous turkey for Thanksgiving.
His name: An obvious play on his last name, Flower’s also a nickname that grew out of Fowler’s college days following the Grateful Dead. “I tell the kids I used to be a flower child; now I’m a Flower Clown.”
Occupational hazard: “I’ve been kicked in the crotch and even spit on once,” he says. “Kids are truthful, and they’ll tell you if they like you or not.”
A family affair: Proud new parents to baby Millie, born in November, Fowler and wife Stacy are already hatching plans to include her in daddy’s act. “I already have her stage name picked out: Silly Millie.”
Most unusual booking: A dog’s birthday party.
Fowler spends his winters traveling in Asia (Millie’s arrival kept him home this year) and is working toward clowning half the year there and half in Cleveland. www.flowerclown.com / 440-944-0278
Standard rates: It’s $200 for a one-hour birthday party with magic and balloons.
Terry “Jungle Terry” Sullivan
His act: A traveling animal show that brings about 15 mammals, birds, reptiles and insects to birthday parties, day cares and school assemblies for 45 minutes of kid-friendly show-and-tell. The former owner of Kincaid’s Pet Store in Perry, Sullivan became Jungle Terry more than 20 years ago, giving in-store animal care demonstrations to kids buying their first pets. Parents began requesting his show at their kids’ birthday parties until he finally sold the store and began performing full time. He now gives about 1,000 programs a year.
Life at home: Nearly all of the 100 animals that appear in Sullivan’s shows live on his six-acre property in Ashtabula, including alligators, snakes, chinchillas, tarantulas and more. But if you’re picturing some weird guy who sleeps with his snakes, that’s not Jungle Terry. “A lot of people who are into animals are a little different,” he says. “But I have a normal life, and I’m a fanatic about cleanliness.” However, he did have a bear named Goldilocks living in his home for six months.
Brush with fame: Sullivan appeared with his animals in the 2003 film American Splendor as a fellow guest with Paul Giamatti’s character, Harvey Pekar, on the Late Show With David Letterman.
In his spare time:
Sullivan collects antique trains and can often be found at Lake Metroparks’ Penitentiary Glen running his miniature steam-powered engine. www.jungleterry.com / 888-5-JUNGLE
Standard rates: The average is $185 for 45- to 60-minute show; rates vary based on travel time.
Bob “Zap the Wonder Chap” Durante
His act: A blend of kid-friendly magic and comedy customized for the age and type of audience. Durante’s school and library programs deliver educational themes such as “Reading is Magic” or “The Science of Toys,” while his birthday party act is all about fun. Ring a bell from your own childhood? It may, as Durante’s been performing for Northeast Ohio kids for 30 years.
An entertaining pair: As half of Cleveland’s “first couple” of kids’ entertainers, Durante is married to Sue “The Bubble Lady” Durante (see below). The pair met in high school —she juggled, and he was an amateur magician — and after tying the knot, they traveled cross-country doing street performances together.
Insurance policy: Durante keeps a day job as life and health insurance manager for Four Star Insurance Agency in Parma. It was magic that got him his start in insurance, when he worked for New York Life as their full-time corporate magician in the ‘80s. “I had to get all my licenses to talk about insurance in public,” he says, and he continues to practice while doing about 300 Zap shows a year.
The magician’s secret?
“You have to be able to work in any situation. You have to know what music and TV shows kids are into, and you really have to like people.” www.zaphq.com / 440-843-8749
Standard rates:For a 45- to 60-minute birthday party, prices start at $175.
Sue “The Bubble Lady” Durante
Her act: The Bubble Lady takes the childhood pastime of blowing bubbles in the backyard to theatrical heights. Using a variety of common objects, including strawberry pints, rope and even her hands, Durante blows bubbles of all shapes and sizes to the delight of her young fans. For the grand finale, she selects children from the audience to stand inside a massive cylindrical bubble.
Secret recipe: The recipe’s different for each type of bubble she makes, each discovered by trial and error. The most she’ll reveal is that the ingredients are always dish soap, water and glycerin, but the ratios remain a closely guarded secret.
Bubble demand: Durante’s been in the entertainment business for nearly 30 years, running an at-home entertainment booking agency along with husband Bob “Zap the Wonder Chap” Durante (see above). About 12 years ago, “I started getting calls from librarians asking for bubble shows, because this guy who did bubble shows moved away. So I figured there was a niche and started to develop the show.”
Children of all ages:
Kids ages 4 to 7 appreciate her show the most. But even when a school assembly puts Durante in front of middle-schoolers, “you can tell the older kids think this is really lame, but by the end they’re all on board. At any age, people love bubbles.” www.zaphq.com / 440-843-8749
Standard rates: A 45-minute bubble show starts at $195.
His act: He’s an object manipulation specialist — “just a fancy term for juggler,” he admits — who breaks the mold of traditional juggling with techniques such as “contact juggling,” in which he rolls glass balls along his hands and arms. His street and stage performances often include fire, machetes and bullwhips. But don’t worry, he leaves those things behind for a kindergartner’s birthday party.
Are those knives real? “I’m one of the few jugglers who actually sharpens my machetes,” he says. “I’ve found that anytime you bring out a big knife intended to be juggled, there’s going to be some doubt.” So he proves it, onstage, by slicing a lime.
Occupational hazard: Bonk once sliced the tip of his thumb off with a machete — and still finished the show.
Most embarrassing moment: He grabbed a reluctant audience member’s hand to pull her up as his volunteer. When she promptly sunk to the ground, he realized she used a wheelchair. “Now I always choose my volunteers from the second row.”
On appealing to kids: “You have to be authentic. If you’re not true to yourself, they see through that.”
Clumsy juggler: “I was a klutz before I started juggling. I still run into doorways. I was terrible at sports and couldn’t throw or catch to save my life. I try to relay that to kids, that you can do anything with enough practice.”
www.aaronbonk.com / 216-269-0453
Standard rates: Performances start at $175.
Bill “Capt’n Willie the Great Lakes Pirate” Morley
His act: Pirate-themed music, dances, games and more, sprinkled with lessons on water safety and Great Lakes conservation. A longtime deejay and Nautica Queen tour guide since 1989, Morley impulsively arrived at work in pirate attire during Tall Ships 2003. Nautica Queen management was skeptical, but let him give it a try. Morley’s hunch was spot-on: Cruisers loved it, and Capt’n Willie was born.
Where you’ve seen him: Morley’s a fixture on the preschool party scene, doing day cares, PTA parties, summer camps, library visits and community events. But he nabs his biggest audiences at water-themed events such as this month’s Cleveland Boat and Waterfront Lifestyle Expo.
Your dad’s a what? Morley’s 12- and 13-year-old daughters get dubious looks when they tell their friends their dad’s a pirate. “But once they get to know me and the character, they think it’s cool.”
Hey, look! It’s Captain Feathersword! “Yeah, I get that a lot. But he has way more money in his treasure chest than I do.”
His entertainer heroes:
Local entertainers such as Captain Penny, Superhost and Mr. Jingeling made a “lasting impression” on Morley as a kid, and he hopes he’s doing the same today. “I often wrap up my shows by thanking the adults for allowing Capt’n Willie to be a part of their kids’ memories.” www.captnwillie.com / 866-871-5040
Standard rates: Pirate birthday party packages start at $175.
Lisa “Sparkles the Clown” Ward
Her act: A clown act that combines magic, balloons and Sparkles’ specialty, face painting. Ward is an artist by trade who was asked to paint faces as a clown for a Wickliffe community event nearly 30 years ago. As a substitute for face paint, she grabbed the nearest handy lipstick, black eyeliner and some disco body glitter, which provided the inspiration for her name.
Tough crowd: When she was getting started in the business, “I’d take anything, any kind of party in any area,” she says. One of her early parties got broken up by a drug bust, and another ended in a knife fight.
Clown fear: Changing her makeup style from white face to a more natural skin tone made fewer kids react fearfully to her. “It was a smart choice to change the makeup. I had kids saying ‘you’re so pretty’ and ‘you’re so nice’ and crawling up in my lap.”
Vocabulary builder: Fear of clowns is known as coulrophobia.
Big responsibility: “You have to always think of everything you’re saying, because kids are going to remember it. They listen to you. If they don’t listen to parents or teacher, sometimes they’ll listen to the clown.”
Standard rates: One-hour birthday parties start at $200.
His act: A self-described “man of many faces,” Reid is Cleveland’s go-to guy for just about any specialty theme you can dream up. He clowns and juggles, does magic, ventriloquism, stilt-walking, miming and more. “Just about everything but sing,” he says. Plus, he adapts his show handily with special characters and customized magic tricks.
His most unusual request? “One kid was really into the army because his dad was a soldier.” So Reid dressed up as GI Joe and did an army-themed performance. He’s been Prince Charming for a little girl’s princess party, delivered a pizza as Michelangelo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and created magic for the Muggles at a Harry Potter party.
Tricks of the trade: Men’s long-haired wigs are usually low-quality, says Reid, so he always opts for women’s wigs when creating a character. He occasionally trims and styles the wigs himself, using skills acquired from his mother, a hairdresser.
Working ‘round the clock: Reid works nights as a stocker at the Painesville Giant Eagle to keep his days and weekends open for parties and events, squeezing some sleep in where he can.
And in his free time?
“I watch whatever the kids are watching now — Barney, Dora, Avatar — so I can sit and talk to any kid about any subject.” www.manyfacesofentertainment.com / 440-259-3433
Standard rates: A one-hour birthday party starts at $150.
His act: Brown’s unique brand of “nature theater” teaches kids about natural and cultural history while entertaining them with characters, music and storytelling. By day, he’s a historical interpreter and naturalist for the Cleveland Metroparks, but he moonlights as a performer for schools, libraries and community events throughout the country.
His alter egos: He’s created such characters as Dr. Wildweed the old-time herbalist, Digger Gallagher the Canaler and Professor Horatio Habitat, which he uses in his storytelling about the land and people of Ohio.
His name: It may sound like a flower-powered stage name, but Foster Brown is his real name.
Jack of all trades: A longtime musician, a naturalist by training and a lover of theater, Brown began fusing the three about 15 years ago to try a fresh approach to teaching kids about nature. He’s since put out six CDs of songs about nature and history — several of which won Parent’s Choice “Recommended” awards — and plays as many as seven instruments in his performances.
“It’s music with a message,” he says. “I hope that I [don’t] just entertain kids but, hopefully, [that] they’ll walk away with nuggets of truth, things they can incorporate into their lives.” www.fosterbrown.net / 330-527-7191
Standard rates: 50- to 60-minute educational programs start at $250.
“Storyteller” is how Pease describes herself, but the story’s just the beginning. She delivers an energetic one-woman show designed to offer kids greater awareness of the music, stories and histories of other cultures, from early American immigrants to Australian aborigines.
Her start: An actor by training and a Native American by heritage, Pease got her start as a storyteller by designing a program of tribal singing, dancing and storytelling for her son’s preschool class. More teacher requests followed, until Pease and husband Tom decided in 1999 to form the nonprofit Kulture Kids to support her programs in schools, libraries, museums and elsewhere.
From the mouths of grown-ups: Forget the kids, it’s the questions from adults that really stump her, “like the one who said, ‘You can’t really be a Native American, because they’re all dead. Didn’t the cowboys kill them all?’ ”
Wardrobe malfunction: She’s had a few near-misses with her traditional costumes, nearly losing her skirt during a traditional Costa Rican dance. “I took the clip out of my hair and pinned it while I was still talking. No one even noticed.”
Pease brings textbook topics to life by incorporating the children as her cast. “I use anything I can to engage the child and involve them in the story.” www.kulturekids.org / 216-371-2867
Standard rates: Prices range from $100 for 25-minute early childhood programs to $350 for full school assemblies.