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July 12, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Seven years ago, Cheryl Piha said goodbye to the “beautiful chaos” of New York City.
The performer left behind gigs impersonating Marilyn Monroe on Wall Street and Madonna at a country club, starring in off-Broadway plays, acting as princesses at children’s parties and even appearing on Law & Order.
After spending some time in Florida, Piha arrived in Columbia, where she earned a master’s degree in theater at MU and launched a small business, Clifford Entertainment. Piha hires local theater students to portray characters from films, fairy tales and pop culture at parties for girls and boys ages 5 to 12. Piha says she hopes to do more outreach with a shelter, a children’s hospital or a library.
In addition to running Clifford Entertainment, Piha, 47, teaches dance classes and still performs. She’s been cast as Miss Prism in the upcoming production of The Importance of Being Earnest and assists with choreography for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, both with the MU Repertory Theatre.
How did you settle on princess-themed parties?
It’s the first identifiable thing for moms. A lot of little girls love the princesses. Princesses are very gentle and loving.
What’s the best part of your job?
I love a party and watching people enjoy themselves — certainly making kids happy. It’s a joy watching their little faces light up. I get this from my mom. My parents owned a company, and my mother used to entertain a lot. For my dad’s 50th birthday party, she actually hired a belly dancer to perform. She also had a “dip chick”: She had a woman come in and lie on our dining room table, and they put food on her and ate off her for two hours! She had a broken leg, so they covered it up with cold cuts.
How do you choose actors?
I’ve been fortunate that while I earned my degree, I’ve been able to develop relationships in the theater community. I’ve worked with a lot of the people I’ve hired. I’ve seen them onstage. I’ve watched how professional they are. You have to be outgoing to do this with kids.
What do actors gain from these types of performances?
A lot of these kids have never been to a big city. They’re going to LA and
New York, where if you can create your own self-contained act, an impersonation of Britney Spears or an athlete or a politician, you can offer that to the entertainment companies and generate income at big events such as weddings. The kids here go, “I thought I’d have to wait tables or bartend the rest of my life,” but you really don’t have to. In New York City, people pay for (entertainment) service.
What’s your history as a performer?
I went to Ithaca College and graduated with a BFA in acting. I moved to New York and spent the next 15 years there. Being in New York City as an actor, singer, dancer, sometimes you have to create your work. I’ve lived on a wing and a prayer. I’ve performed for low-income families and very wealthy families. I’ve been to mansions with my little putt-putt car.
You’ve said you’re thinking of adding educational components to your parties. What inspired this?
Being a university town, people are interested in more of an educational component. Also, little girls are taught by the media they have to look a certain way to be accepted. I think that’s unfair to them. We need to value children for their minds and the way they treat other people. I’d like to develop characters that express that, humorous characters and characters who will educate the children.
How do the kids react when they first see the characters?
The looks on their faces — they look a little stunned at first. Then they just run. The performers know what it’s like to be Elvis.
What other qualities are you looking for in entertainers at children’s parties?
The actors have to be good at improv. If a party is in someone’s home and you’ve never been there before, you have to think quickly in terms of your space.
Do you train with the actors?
There’s no formal training. Like any character they’d play onstage, they research their characters. Then, just putting on the ball gown with a six-bone hoop in it and gloves and a big crown on your head, it automatically helps you get into character. There’s also an etiquette. You greet the birthday child. You say thank you right away for inviting me to your party.
What do you normally have your actors do at the parties?
The performer will go into a magic show in character, and they make water disappear and lollipops appear. They do balloon animals and face painting. They talk about their characters and sing along with music. But they don’t come in and do a mic’ed show. You have to be very careful because you can’t scare the children, especially when they’re really small.
When you hire actors does the posting say, “Must know how to do magic tricks and own a ball gown?”
I teach everything. I own the costumes and music. I pride myself in very nice costumes. I don’t like anything going out the door looking like somebody wore it 50 times. I had someone from the MU Theatre Department make a Rapunzel costume. It’s gorgeous. I’ve bought a few online and some I’ve made myself.
How often do you get hired to do boys’ parties, and how are they different from girls’ parties?
For every 10 girls’ parties, I’ll probably have four boys’ parties. I have a cowboy, a Spider Boy, a Bat Boy and a pirate. We hide a treasure box prior to the show, and they go on a scavenger hunt.
You also provide singing telegrams. Are they as popular as the parties?
I want to do more singing telegrams. I think people aren’t sure about them, but I’ve had a few. I have a standard singing telegram song I use that’s not copyrighted. I also do personalized singing telegrams, so if you tell me a person’s favorite things, I incorporate them into the song. They’re about five minutes, but they’re fun. I had an Elvis singing telegram at a school. I did a Marilyn Monroe at a local business for a gentleman who was president of the company, and of course I sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”