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The Birthday Party Arms Race

The ante has been upped on children’s birthday parties. But more adult guests mean more adult beverages. Just ask the dwarf.
By Marty Cortland |

There was a time when a child’s birthday party was a birthday party: 12 buzz-cut or pigtailed 5-year-olds in the basement of the split-level, Mom in beehive and heels, officiating over the dunking for apples, blindman’s bluff, some foot races in the backyard, homemade cake and Kool-Aid, presents, and the kids’ mothers in Olds Cutlasses and Chevy Impalas idling at the curb, early at 2 pm to pick up their hyperglycemic terrors.

Now a child’s birthday party is an event, a catered affair, the chance to one-up one’s friends, the child of honor almost an afterthought. At least, I rarely give the little legacy much of a thought as I beeline it to the bar, not waiting for the uniformed waitstaff to make their rounds. Because that is the biggest difference in the modern Dallas child’s birthday party: adults have to come.

Observing over the rim of my highball glass, I’ve watched these things evolve.  Jugglers and wandering sleight-of-hand magicians have given way to gourmet pizza cooked in brick ovens on the pool deck and train rides around Highland Park. Bouncy houses, once a novelty, are now as much of a given as the birthday cake itself or valet parking. Except the bouncy houses have gotten bigger and more elaborate, with gables and their own servants’ quarters. Bouncy McMansions.

One of our friends decked out their backyard like a farm, the guesthouse decorated as a barn, with a buckboard, hay bales, and the waitstaff in plaid shirts and overalls. They brought in a petting zoo and had two miniature ponies saddled up for horseback rides around a corral, the liability release forms stacked on a barrel at the starting gate. And, incongruously, a bouncy house.

The invitation for one recent party informed us it would be a “Prince and Princess Party.” Things in the Cortland family had already completed their journey downhill as we pulled up to the house with our two little ones. Our 2-year-old daughter had cried hysterically until we let her wear her Cinderella costume from Halloween. It was still stained with melted M&Ms. While pulling the 1-year-old out of his car seat, he tugged the top off his sippy cup and soaked his red satin prince tunic. And my slacks. I headed for the bar.

I was blocked by a Snow White they had hired to tell stories, sing songs, and lead the kids in games. They were in the middle of a scavenger hunt, which had caused them to mass in front of the bar while she read the rhyming instructions. Impatiently, I noticed that she had two children in dwarf costumes working with her. Except, on second look, I saw they really were dwarfs. Or midgets. I was at a loss, having failed to pay attention when the socially correct phrase for these people was discussed at my firm’s sensitivity workshop. I couldn’t remember whether “little people” was now the accepted designation—or, as it seemed to me, horribly condescending. They looked to be in their 50s. They probably wanted a drink worse than I did.

Later, when a few of us were smoking cigarettes in the corner of the yard, Snow White and Dopey joined us for a smoke. She looked impossibly young. The fathers, as things are wont to happen in this type of dynamic, started showing off. The conversation got a little randy, and I asked her if she did bachelor parties. I had crossed the line, of course, and Dopey stood up for her honor. It was awful. I imagined how bad it would look if I started duking it out with a dwarf at a 4-year-old’s birthday party. And what if I lost? I apologized, we got him a drink, and things calmed down.

Our daughter’s third birthday is coming up this winter. My wife wants to do a The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, White Witch winter-themed party. There’s a snow machine you can rent that blankets your yard with six inches of snow if run continuously for a day and night. There would be sleigh rides. An ice-sculpture carver. The White Witch herself, with Mr. Tumnus the faun. I knew it would be Snow White again, with the dwarf.

I suggested instead that we do a retro, ’50s-era party, with pin the tail on the donkey and dunking for apples. My wife, who was born in the ’70s, looked at me like I was insane. Maybe, but I bet she would look great in a beehive and heels.