She really is Rory.
She skips across the stage, a silver top hat on her head, "Rory" in shiny letters on the back of her jacket, "Rory" in bold letters across the floodlights. "I'm a kid!" she leads the audience in one of her well-known refrains. "I just wan-na have fun! . . . . I'm a kid!"
Well, actually, she's 35. But Rory (who, in her other life, is Rory Zuckerman, of Bethesda, mother of two) has emerged as one of the leading entertainers in children's music. She used to be the sort of child who greeted her parents' dinner guests with a full-throated version of "Let Me Entertain You." She used to sing "Just the Way You Are" at nightclubs and bar mitzvah parties and bowling banquets -- an estimated 6,000 times. She used to perform jingles for car dealers, political candidates and Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips.
Now she's the pop idol of 3-year-olds.
"A kids' show is pretty quick, only 50 or 55 minutes," said Rory, who coined the word "Kidrock" to describe her style. "Once you cross that line and go over an hour, you can really lose an audience. It's sudden death. They're hungry. They're tired. They have to go to the bathroom."
Rory fans -- who seem to be named Alex or Samantha or Amanda -- go to her concerts with a studied coolness and a yammering excitement, for just under an hour, at least.
At a recent concert at a school in Potomac, there were lots of hair ornaments, stylish leggings, neon-colored jackets, many strollers and a few bottles. Quite a number of concertgoers sat on adult laps during the performance, snapping their fingers, swaying to the songs, doing the hand gestures for "You, You're Driving Me Crazy," and barking like a dog on command.
Audience participation at a Rory concert seems to be wholehearted, and fans usually know most of the words, but audience reaction also tends to be rather monosyllabic. An interview with Roxanna Javadi, 4:
Why are you here? "Rory."
Do you like her songs? "Yes."
Have you ever seen her before? "Yes."
Are you having a good time? "Uh-huh."
For Rory and Tom Guernsey, her songwriting partner, producer and guitarist in Rory's Rocket Band, this recognition has come fairly quickly, in fewer than five years. Their third album, which has just been released, is called "Little Broadway," and represents a departure from their usual original tunes, with standards from hit Broadway musicals.
But now, as before, Rory herself makes many of the deliveries of tapes and compact discs to children's stores and bookshops. Her company, Roar Music, which features a goofy lion as its logo, is "totally a grass-roots operation," she said. Her husband, Shelton Zuckerman, a builder and developer, serves as "major schlepper," and other family members help sell the Rory T-shirts at local concerts.
Still, "I'm Just a Kid" sold 25,000 copies, a respectable showing in the children's field, she said, and the second album, "Make-Believe Day," has sold 20,000 copies. Rory has appeared on the "Today" show and on CBS radio, and she has received a wealth of media attention. "If you like Raffi, you'll love Rory," declared the New York City Tribune, Raffi, of course, being the gentle Canadian folk singer and troubadour.
"My cousin once told me when I was pregnant with my first child, she said, 'The best advice I can give you is never talk down to your child, never talk baby talk,' " said Rory, who has two sons, Dan, 7 1/2, and Max, 3. "Tom and I feel that whatever we've done has sort of worked in that respect, that kids really seem to be much more sophisticated than we give them credit for.
"We also figured that if we were going to write this music, then our approach was going to be, 'We want the adults to like it as much as kids,' so that when parents are listening to this tape in the car for the 900th time . . . . "
Rory said she enjoys performing for children -- "It takes a lot more oomph," she said -- but not the self-promotion required as an independent in the fairly new field. "I hate looking at all these pictures of me," she said, sitting in her Rory-filled office in Friendship Heights. "It's just awful. I hate it. Yuk."
Did she say "Yuk"? That happens to be one of her biggest songs.
"Do you like yukky stuff?" she asked the crowd of 1,200 at the recent concert. "Do you like slime? Ooooh, then I think this is the song just for you . . . . "
Of course, she really is Rory. Her parents named her for the western actor, Rory Calhoun. The youngest of their three daughters, her nickname was "Smiley," said her mother, Bebe Kirstein, a former professional singer.
"I was a brat," Rory said. "I was a crybaby . . . . I was always a ham and I always loved to entertain, and I remember my parents' friends would come over and I would sing this awful song from 'Gypsy.' My mother will tell you it was great. I'll tell you it was horrible. I was probably the rattiest little kid, singing just what these people wanted to hear when they came over for dinner."
At the University of Maryland, where, she said jokingly, she was on "the 12-year plan," Rory began singing "The Way We Were" and other tunes with a Top-40 band.
She did that for six years. Eventually, she met and began working for Guernsey, a local producer who has scored television programs, cable TV movies and countless jingles. She persuaded him to help her with a children's album, and soon, a new career was born.
Sometimes, it still seems amazing to Rory that she is beloved by the very young -- and their parents. Kate Rizzi, of Bethesda, attended the concert with her daughter, Alex, 5, and schoolmate Amanda White.
Rory, she said, is "very cool, very cool, absolutely.
"The two of them pretend they are teenagers, going to a concert, and they change their voices and their names," Rizzi said. "One is Elizabeth today, and the other is Paula. They are so excited. This is the Bruce Springsteen, the Madonna, of kids."
And Rory has no regrets, she said, about leaving adult music. ("It was a dead-end zone.")
Besides, how else would she have gotten some of her best stories?
"One time, this kid came up to me, waiting in an autograph line," she said. "This kid hands me a sock, a dirty sock. I said, 'What do you want me to do with it?' He said, 'Sign it.' "