Party maven proves adept at pint-size swashbuckling

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Wrangling 70 pirates hungry for action can seem a daunting task even for Captain Jack Sparrow but Erin Gilhuly has proven adept at resolving any crisis with a stirring "Arggh, matey."

And that's especially challenging when some of those 70-yes, 70-pirates have runny noses.

Ms. Gilhuly, PR manager for Kiner Communications, Palm Desert, Calif., has spent more than half her 33 years arranging themed birthday events for children.

And with Johnny Depp following in the footsteps of innumerable book and film properties, pirates appear to be king these days on the kid-party circuit.

"The birthday party business began as a way for my sister and me to pay for our college educations," the executive said.

"I was in my senior year of high school in Los Angeles, and my mother encouraged my little sister and me to find a way to raise money for school. We had helped out in preschools, daycares and ran some kids' parties, and thought birthday parties would mean extra money.

"My entrepreneurial mom and stepdad ... put up the capital to open a children's theater in Los Angeles, specializing in fairy-tale-themed parties. We did 12-20 parties a week, both on and off premises."

But this isn't an audience that will sit still for a two-hour performance.

"The trick to engaging the kids is to have some quality group time with them in advance. We do a big introduction circle and play games. The kids get acquainted with each other, and it gives me a chance to assess which kids I need to work on.

"By the time they have pizza and cake, it's usually not all that tough to get everyone involved. My workaround is usually to involve the [hesitant] child as my 'helper.' [The kids] have a blast when they know exactly what to do."

Ms. Gilhuly brings to each party a fully stocked party bag: 25 musical instruments, face-painting gear, balloons to make blowup animals and a couple of balloon pumps, a limbo stick, a 12-foot parachute, and more. She also brings costumes appropriate to the party theme.

And, of course, it's great to be part of childhood in perpetuity. "I remember my big sister reading 'Peter Pan' to me when I was about 4. It was after I had been traumatized by watching 'Bambi,' and my sister was trying to ease the pain by reading a more appropriate tale. ... Now that I have kids of my own, the thought of 'never growing up' sounds terrific! I certainly wish I could freeze time for my own kids [Eavan, 5, and twins Brendan and Colin, almost 2] and shield them from the worries and pressure of real life."

When is Ms. Gilhuly most eager to walk the plank?

"I get a lot of: 'That's not how it happened in the movie."' She also noted: "It's cute too when kids want to change parts of the story, like where Snow White might be offered a grilled-cheese sandwich by the Wicked Queen instead of an apple."

Given that she's working with groups of excited children, there are other hazards of being the party maven.

"It's only happened once and it was many years ago, but it remains a big fear when a child relieves himself onstage. You definitely get a 'show must go on' attitude when that happens. You just have a lot of wet wipes handy and move on ..."

One last incident: "when the birthday boy actually threw up on stage during the final fight scene in 'Peter Pan.' He was Captain Hook, and I think his birthday cake didn't sit all that well with him. He sat the final moments out while the rest of the kids enjoyed the finale and took their bow. You just really have to roll with the punches."

Do you have an outrageous tale of getting through airport security on a business trip? What are the fashionistas in your office buying for the fall? How is your personal tech gizmo helping you manage your workload and home life? Witnessing a social trend come to life in your office? Describe it in an e-mail to Mike Ryan at mryan@crain.com.

Erin Gilhuly

Kiner Communications PR manager

Beyond the overwhelming cry for all things SpongeBob SquarePants, other popular kid-party themes include:

* Barnyard animals

* Curious George

* Ladybug princess

* Magic
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