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The Peekaboo Paradox

He listens, wincing slightly at his own misstep.

"Okay, dad's not invited. We don't feature dad. Not a problem!"

Raising children has always been stressful, but these days it seems even more so, with single-parent families, two-career time pressures and a bewildering explosion of diagnosed childhood developmental disabilities. Things are hard, even if you have a nice income and a nice house in a nice neighborhood. In some ways, that can make it even harder.

I first found out about the Great Zucchini through a friend of mine who lives in Northwest Washington. She gave up a high-prestige job to raise her four young children. Because her husband has a successful career, they can swing it, if not entirely comfortably. She doesn't want her name used because she has hired the Great Zucchini three times, and, like many of the parents I interviewed for this story, is more than a little conflicted about it.

"It's an insane, indulgent thing to do," she said. "You could just have a party where you all played pin the tail on the donkey or musical chairs or something. But that is just not done in this part of D.C. If you did that, you would be talked about.

"The whole thing has snowballed into levels of craziness, and it's just embarrassing to be a part of it. I would never tell my father about this. He grew up in Arkansas during the Depression. It would physically cause him pain to know what I spent on a child's party, for some guy to put a diaper on his head."

What's indisputable is that the kids love the guy with the diaper on his head. They talk about him all the time. They repeat his dumb jokes. They recognize him on the street. They see him at their playmates' parties, and ask for him at theirs. "The Great Zucchini," said my friend's husband, who deals professionally with Washington's power elite, "is the most famous person my children know."

It is crazy, and a little unseemly, and the Great Zucchini knows that. When he was a kid in Bethesda, he says, his own birthday parties consisted of a cake and touch football with friends in the back yard, and that was just fine.

Not that he's complaining about his good fortune, or bashful about discussing it. The Great Zucchini can elevate self-confidence to amusingly Olympian levels. "Why shouldn't I charge as much an hour as the best lawyer in town?" he asks. "I am the best children's entertainer in town."

And: "David Copperfield couldn't keep these kids from running around wild. I can do that."

And, when I noted that he relies on many of the same routines, time and again, he said: "When people come to see Springsteen, they don't want new stuff. They want to hear 'Glory Days.'"

His business plan? To become the children's entertainer to the stars, a star in his own right who is flown first class to Beverly Hills, to do parties at $5,000 a pop for Angelina Jolie's kids, or Britney's.

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