The Peekaboo Paradox

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Great Zucchini arrived early, as he is apt to do, and began to make demands, as is his custom. He was too warm, so he wanted the thermostat adjusted. It was. He declared the basement family room adequate for his needs, but there was a problem with the room next door. Something had to be done about it.

The room next door was emblematic of the extraordinary life and times of the Great Zucchini, Washington's No. 1 preschool entertainer. The homeowners, Allison and Donald Cox Jr., are in their late thirties, with two young children -- Lauren, who is 5, and Donald III, who goes by Trey, and whose third birthday was being celebrated that day.

Tall and handsome, Don is a federal government lawyer. Short and pretty, Allison is an IT recruiter. Like most successful two-career couples who started a family later in life, the Coxes have resources to lavish on their children. When they bought this spacious colonial in Bethesda, the large area next to the family room was going to be Don's study. But it soon surrendered itself into a playroom -- filling, floor to ceiling, with entertainment for the kids. A wall unit became a storage place for dolls, games and action figures, all neatly partitioned and displayed like heirlooms. The floor is a warren of toys: There is a little girl's vanity and a tea table primly set with cups and saucers. For Trey, there is a ride-on choo-choo train. A fully functional mini-moon bounce occupies one capacious corner. In another is a wall-mounted TV.

The Great Zucchini's problem? This room has no door. Its enticing contents were visible from the room where he would be performing, and the Great Zucchini tolerates no distractions. So he asked Allison to hang a bedsheet across the open archway, which meant making pushpin holes in the sheet and in the walls. Good-naturedly, Allison obeyed. Parents almost always do.

When the Great Zucchini arrived that Saturday morning, Don had no idea who he was. Frankly, he didn't look like a great anything. He looked like a house painter, Don thought, with some justification. He wears no costume. He was in painter's pants, a coffee-stained shirt and a two-day growth of beard. He toted his beat-up props in beat-up steamer trunks, with ripped faux leather and broken hinges hanging askew.

By the time the show began, more than a dozen kids were assembled on the floor. The Great Zucchini's first official act was to order the birthday boy out of the room, because -- a little overwhelmed by the attention -- Trey had begun to cry. "We'll re-transition him back in," the Great Zucchini reassured Allison as she dutifully, if dubiously, whisked her son away.

At the back of the room, Carter Hertzberg, the father of a party guest, was watching with frank interest. He'd heard about the Great Zucchini. "Supposedly," he explained dryly, "all the moms stand in the back and watch, because they think he's hot."

Many moms were, indeed, standing in the back. And -- in a tousled, boyish, roguish, charmingly dissolute sort of way -- the Great Zucchini is, indeed, hot. (Emboldened by a glass or three of party beaujolais, moms have been known to playfully inquire of the Great Zucchini whether there is any particular reason he merits that nickname.)

At the moment, the Great Zucchini was trying and failing to blow up a balloon, letting it whap him in the face, hard. Then he poured water on his head. Then he produced what appeared to be a soiled diaper, wiped his cheek with it, and wore it like a hat as the kids ewwww-ed. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Great Zucchini was behaving like a complete idiot.

Trey's aunt saw me taking notes. "You're writing a story about him?" Vicki Cox asked, amused. I confirmed that I was.

"But . . . why?" she asked.

A few feet away, the Great Zucchini was pretending to be afraid of his own hand.

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