Just an Old-Fashioned Street Urchin Surprise Party

Posted by jdg | Thursday, February 02, 2012

Last Sunday was my daughter's seventh birthday (You heard that right, long-time sweet juniper readers. My daughter is SEVEN). She's really into "old fashioned" stuff right now and I've been reading her a lot of Victorian/Edwardian chapter books (Little Lord Fauntleroy, Water Babies, Horatio Alger), so we decided to throw her an old-fashioned surprise birthday party.

We were really fortunate to get to use the new banquet room at Slows BBQ: a long brick-walled 19th-century storefront. I started out by telling the young guests how hard it was to be a kid in the old days, how you had to work all day and never got to play any video games or watch television and if you were lucky enough to go to school you had to walk ten miles uphill in the snow in both directions. "By the time most kids were your age," I said, "They would already be drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and complaining about their arthritis." We printed out a bunch of Lewis Hine photographs and spread them out on the tables as proof. A few days before the party I found a bunch of newsie caps, vests, and other old-timey clothes at the thrift store so we had a huge box of dress up clothes for the kids to transform themselves into urchins (some even arrived in old-fashioned clothes). I set up a photo booth so I could take pictures of each kid in costume for a party favor. I wish I could share some of those pictures, but I don't want to upset any parents by putting their kids' faces on my "weird internet thing." Here are mine:

I got a few rolls of shiny new nickels from the bank and set up various stations for the kids to "work," including a newspaper-rolling station, a lego "factory," a cloth-flower-making station, and a human whack-a-mole game (the kids earned a nickel for being the mole).

I was going to buy a bunch of coal and make the kids go into this creepy tunnel in the building's basement to get it out, but my wife vetoed that idea. That was probably for the best. We served baked beans, cornbread, and mac&cheese. I wanted to make them eat slumgullion style out of tin cans, but my wife also made sure that didn't happen (another good call).

At the back of the room I set up a soda fountain (The L'il Sugar House) where the kids could exchange their nickels for gumballs, old-fashioned candy, and marbles. We served the birthday cake (made by Jess at Astro Coffee next door) with root beer floats, Boston coolers, chocolate milkshakes, and for the adults we had bottles of old-timey soda (dandelion, sarsaparilla, cream soda, and birch beer). Although we kind of threw the party together last minute, there was a rush of preparations so my daughter knew something was up. She thought it was just going to be a low-key gathering at our house with a few close friends. You should have seen the look on her face when she walked in the door and saw nearly all her friends and classmates in costume as they shouted Surprise!

My favorite part of the party was the silent cinema we set up in the back of the room. I blocked off one corner with curtains and put a few rows of chairs together. I'd put together a playlist of some of my favorite kid-friendly silent movies (Snub Pollard's It's A Gift, The Little Rascals in Dogs of War, the soda fountain scene from Buster Keaton's College, Fatty Arbuckle's Coney Island, the opening scene of Mary Pickford's Little Annie Rooney, the best parts of Chaplin's The Kid, Chaplin's dance of the dinner rolls, the eating machine from Modern Times, the clock scene from Harold Lloyd's Safety Last, and many more). Our friends who loaned us the projector even let us borrow their popcorn machine, which we served in little paper bags like at the real movie theater:

I stood there in amazement at a bunch of little urchins watching silent comedies and munching on popcorn in a makeshift theater:

I couldn't believe how much the kids enjoyed those movies. A few pictures I took of their faces show them as captivated as those kids Alfred Eisenstaedt captured so beautifully at the Parisian puppet theater. All during the party, kids wandered in and out of the little theater, and I couldn't have been happier about it.

I'll put a few more pictures up on the Sweet Juniper Facebook Page, if you're interested.

See previously:

For appetizers we served possum fritters and raccoon-stuffed mushroom caps