It is a beautiful summer day and I am performing at an exciting Summer Family Festival. There is much going on. Too much. MUCH too much! On my right is a trampoline, and a long line of yelling children waiting their turn. On my left there is a face-painting table. Close in back of me is a little bandstand with five teenagers playing their own rock and roll compositions. They are amplified. Very amplified. About thirty feet in front of me are several food booths. Many people, tall and short and noisy are buying food.
And then there is me. I. Uncle Ruthie. In front of me, on the grass, are six children I am singing a song to them. There is no mike.
“Put your hand on the shoulder of the person next to you—”.A little boy from a good home starts to do as ordered, but suddenly the person next to him is gone. I continue singing and this child follows the first.
“Say ‘HOW DO YOU DO!!” No one echoes me. The remaining four children are looking around for something more meaningful to do. Three leave. I sing to the remaining child, “Put your hand—” and then I realize that this will not be possible. Before I can apologize, this child is in the trampoline line. There is too much happening at this wonderful outdoor festival. I put my guitar on its stand and join the food line.
You people who perform only for adults do not know how easy life is for you. You have no idea! Sometimes I do adult concerts. I love to sing to adults. They sit so nicely!
Often, at rehearsals or social gatherings, my fellow children’s performers and I tell horror stories about gigs gone wrong. They are very frightening and very funny. But they are only funny in the later telling. While they are happening they are nightmares. Wanna hear some? Well, you will, anyway!
I am at Saks Fifth Avenue on a Saturday morning, helping out my pals J.P. Nightingale by subbing for them at their steady gig here at Saks. I ask the person in charge where the stage is.
With a maniacal laugh she points to an empty space in front of a rack of little dresses. A small group of mommies, strollers, and crying babies gathers and I begin to sing:
Hello, How do! / I give my hand to you! / So take my hand and sh—
There is someone in back of me as I sing. A lady is rattling the hangers, and then she comes right up to my face.
shake my hand and—
“Do you have this dress in a size one?”
I stop and tell her that if she will just let me finish my song I will personally buy her a complete wardrobe.
It gets worse. We are doing our Hanukkah At Home show at a prestigious Valley temple. Me, Marcia Berman, Dan Crow, J.P. Nightingale and Fred Sokolow. A stellar cast if I say so myself!
What they have neglected to tell us is that, in addition to our performance in the big social hall, there is occurring also, the yearly Hanukkah Bazaar and Potato Latka Orgy. Our show begins. The sound system is at max. So is the audience. We cannot hear one another. Screaming children are running at top speed about the hall followed by their screaming parents. Some people, unable to find a table, are putting their plates and cups on the edge of the stage and eating their latkes literally under our noses! The latkes smell wonderful .There is so much saliva in my throat that I cannot sing. This is not really a problem. No one is listening. In silent agreement we shorten the show, pack up our instruments and props and silently steal away.
I receive a phone call from a woman who lives in the exclusive Trusdale Estates.
“My son has decided to have you perform at his fifth birthday party next month,” she declares.
“I’m sorry” I say politely, I really don’t do birthday parties. Just concerts and workshops.”
“How much do you charge?” she continues. I ask her if we have a bad connection. She says no, and repeats her question, “How much do you charge?” I realize that we have already established what I am and are just haggling over the price. The going rate for kid’s parties at this time is about fifty dollars. I decide to end this conversation and tell her that the fee will be eight hundred dollars.
“That will be fine” she answers, which is why, a month later I am ringing the bell of an estate with a swimming pool, tennis court and a genuine butler.
“The entertainer is here,” he declares and I enter a room filled with children, adults and cigarette smoke. Next to the door is a table piled five feet high with gifts. The children are waiting, and are actually very sweet and responsive. I only have to ask the adults to be quiet three times. At the end of the performance a bejeweled lady comes right up to me and the children and drops a check (no envelope) onto my lap.
“Here’s your money,” she says. I go home with a massive migraine, take an Empirin codeine number three and proceed to write my greatest children’s song The Very Best People. The last verse goes:
Oh, the very best people are sitting in the circle
Sitting in the circle, blowing kisses to the crowd
And sipping champagne, with their noses in the air
Going ‘Hoo Hoo Hoo!’; tapping their feet and
Clapping their hands!
I never really blame the children. Their inappropriate behaviors are the fault of their parents who simply do not insist on good concert manners. Probably because many of these parents also have no concert manners.
Like my friend Dot who dragged her current flame to one of my shows where, seated in the front row, he proceeded to read a very large book throughout the show, never once looking up. (I believe that was the exact moment I began to reconsider my position on capital punishment.)
Then there was the Avalon School music teacher whose classes were usually held on the stage, unless there was a performance or special event. She communicated her unhappiness by walking back and forth behind me during the show, until I intoned, in my best Wizard of Oz voice, “Pay no attention to that little woman on the stage behind me!”
Even with no children present, grownups can be clueless where manners are involved. Once, as I sang one of my thoughtful, serious adult songs at a Rotary Breakfast, a man in the front row yelled, “Hey, sing something FUNNY for God’s sake!” I told him to see me after my performance and I would sing him something very, very funny! Then I went right on with my serious song, but he never showed up, probably because I spoke to him in my Teacher Voice (which is also useful when singing for kids).
Excuse my oxymoron, but my favorite nightmare occurred during a Chinese Moon Festival performance. During my whole time on the big outdoor stage, the Chinese Opera Orchestra members were tuning their instruments because, I suppose, they were next on the program and wanted things to move along briskly. In my loudest voice I told my generic story The Day It Rained Mooncakes which at one point I actually threw mooncakes out into the audience. In the front row were several ancient Chinese gentlemen whose faces told me they were not understanding a word of my story, until I began to toss the cakes, at which point they all yelled, “Throw more mooncakes!!” I actually laughed, finished the tale, waved to the Chinese Opera Orchestra and went across the street to a favorite restaurant and consumed many mooncakes myself! [Ed. Mooncakes are Chinese pastries. Check out www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mooncake for more than you ever want to know about mooncakes. We did![
There are so many more horror stories, mine and those of my fellow members of the Children’s Music Network. Lately, we’ve been sharing these disaster tales on our e-mail site and we have also been talking about prevention. I’ll share our collective ideas with any of you who are deranged enough to perform for children.
First, insist that children sit with their parents! This is essential for both behavioral and participation purposes. Second, be sure that there is a special staff adult who can function as both bouncer and diplomat. Third, don’t be afraid to speak up yourself, at the beginning of the program or during it. If a child is about to bite through your microphone cord, or is crying nonstop, or if some adults are talking among themselves, ask them to help you, remind them that children love real adult participation and you do too!
In another article I will tell you about some of the really wonderful things that make performing for children worthwhile. But even the disasters have a positive side. They make great stories to tell at parties, and in newspaper articles!
Uncle Ruthie is the producer and host of HALFWAY DOWN THE STAIRS, heard every Saturday morning at 8:00 AM on KPFK Radio, 90.7 FM. She also teaches music at The Blind Children’s Center in Los Angeles. Ruthie does concerts for children, families and adults, as well as teacher workshops. She teaches beginning piano, and especially welcomes students with special needs. She can be reached at 310- 838- 8133, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.