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The Peekaboo Paradox

The Great Zucchini actually does magic tricks, but they are mostly dime-store novelty gags -- false thumbs to hide a handkerchief, magic dust that turns water to gel -- accompanied by sleight of hand so primitive your average 8-year-old would suss it out in an instant. That's one reason he has fashioned himself a specialist in ages 2 to 6. He behaves like no adult in these preschoolers' world, making himself the dimwitted victim of every gag. He thinks a banana is a telephone, and answers it. He can't find the birthday boy when the birthday boy is standing right behind him. Every kid in the room is smarter than the Great Zucchini; he gives them that power over their anxieties.

The Great Zucchini's real name is Eric Knaus, and the last few analytical paragraphs will come as a surprise to him. Eric is intelligent, but he is almost aggressively reluctant to engage in self-analysis, even about his craft. What he knows is that he intuitively understands preschool kids, because he's had a lot of practice. He worked at Washington area preschools and day-care centers for more than a decade.

During a brief stint as a party host at the Discovery Zone in Rockville, Eric discovered his ability to entertain as well as baby-sit. He was making $2 an hour, so tips were vital. And he found that the most substantial tips came when he acted dumb, serving up laughter along with the pizza.

Four years ago, he decided to go solo. It may have been the best decision he ever made.

The Great Zucchini's clientele is mostly from affluent neighborhoods -- Northwest Washington, Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Potomac, Great Falls, McLean, Arlington. He's been to homes the size of small cathedrals and to parties where he was only one of several attractions, including cotton candy and popcorn machines, lawn-size moon bounces and petting-zoo sheep. Most famously, he did a party at the vice president's residence for a granddaughter of Dick and Lynne Cheney.

I first met the Great Zucchini at a location he chose, a coffee shop in White Flint Mall.

"In the beginning, I had almost no clients," he said, "and I would sit at a table like this in a place like this, and if a mom would be walking by with her 3-year-old, I would pretend to be talking on my cell phone. I'd say, 'Yeah, I do children's parties geared for 3-year-olds!' And a lot of times, the mom would stop, and say . . . 'You do children's parties?'"

When he first started, he found out what other birthday party entertainers were charging -- roughly $150 per show -- and upped it by $25. That worked; it seemed to give him agency. After a while, his weekends were so crammed with parties -- seven or eight, every weekend -- he felt overwhelmed. So, applying fundamental principles of economics, he decided to thin his business but not his profits by raising his prices precipitously -- from $175 to $300. It turns out that the fundamental principles of economics are no match for the fundamental desperation of suburban parents. He still was doing seven or eight shows a weekend.

Weekdays, he mostly haunts places like this, drinking coffee and tending to his cell phone. It rings a lot. It's ringing right now.

"Hello. Yes. Okay, sure, what date are you looking at?"

He flips open the tattered appointment book that is always with him. He's got dates penciled in as far into the future as October.

"I have nothing on the 12th, but I can do the 13th at 11 o'clock. Okay, good. You've seen my show? Excellent. Sure, I remember Dylan's party. Dylan's got short hair, right? Oh. Well, I remember Dylan anyway. He's got two ears, right? This party is for . . .? He is turning, what? Six, okay. Your name is . . .? Okay. And the dad's name?"

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