I used to think that performing for children was a cute endeavour full of cookies, laughter and the Lollipop Guild. Then I became a children’s performer. As a member of The Monkey Bunch for the past 12 years, I’ve been making humorous, political music for kids, bringing joy, laughter and edutainment to children across Canada. But let me tell you, it isn’t all unicorns and bubbles.
First of all, there are the parents. They text, talk on the phone and occasionally flash a nipple (breastfeeding)—it’s almost like a Mötley Crüe concert. They consider showtime a good time to catch up on emails or take a much needed break. They spend a lot of time telling the sound guy “It’s too loud, my baby’s trying to nap.”
As for the kids? Stumbling patrons, a bit of pee or vomit, the sticky, stinky mosh pit—well, that’s right up there with Green Day audiences.
But whatever the event, as children’s performers, we live by an unspoken code to uphold a sparkling forcefield that preserves the joy of childhood and the sanctity of the stage. No matter how much a four-year-old coughs in my face, how many juice boxes get lobbed at me during a solo or how many goats escape from the petting zoo, children’s performers always stick to the code.
Things were going well for our band. Our second album had been nominated for a Juno, the National Post’s Ben Kaplan wanted us to be on the Polaris Music Prize list, and we were playing festivals, park openings and statutory holidays. We were starting to feel like old pros like Raffi, Fred Penner and Polkaroo. We could handle anything.
But even the purple dinosaur himself is eventually tested, which brings me to a Canada Day celebration I’ll never forget.
We arrived to find the busiest street in downtown Toronto set up with a massive stage, bustling with vendors selling lemonade, ice cream and maple leaf paraphernalia. We navigated our way backstage and began setting up.
There, we met three Disney princesses, complete with wigs and dresses, who looked exactly like the cartoon characters. With their rosy cheeks, lengthy lashes and shimmering lips, their likenesses to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White were uncanny, and their voices were pure, innocent and unassuming. Even their laughter sounded like little birds chirping. It wouldn’t have surprised me if a baby fawn popped out from under one of their skirts.
Next, I met Little Bear, Owl and Cat, who were in full mascot mode with their giant foam heads. We shook hands/paws/wings before they returned to dancing in a circle to rehearse their little forest jig.
The emcee, your typical aging clown/ringmaster, wore a top hat, suspenders and a dress coat. He let us know that he was going to run a tight show but that the mayor and sponsors might step up and say a few words. We did our vocal warm-ups, tuned our instruments, adjusted our feathers and wished one another to “break a leg.” The pre-show excitement was electric.
It was the perfect day, as families found seats and applied sunscreen, but something seemed a little off when our emcee jumped up and pulled a few ratty bouquets out of his sleeve. I was sure I heard him drop an accidental F-bomb under his breath before introducing us. He insisted on referring to our band, The Monkey Bunch, as “Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.” We weren’t sure if he was trying to be funny or was starting to lose the plot.
The event was powered by a diesel generator that filled our backstage green room with a familiar yet sickening smell. The millennial princesses gathered a crowd of little girls gazing longingly up at their tiaras. They sang a three-part harmony sweetly into their headset microphones. Then Little Bear and Friends did their song/story set to pre-recorded voices and music. Their cold, unblinking eyes stared out as they performed a semi-impressive two-step in oversized furry feet.
For our second set of the day, the host tripped on a bit of gaffer tape while struggling to introduce us without it sounding like swearing. With his hat hung to one side, he juggled bananas. He slurred his way offstage as we attempted to get the crowd caught up in our rock ’n’ roll environmental politics with songs about electric cars and recycling. The parents laughed and the kids held their ears—the drums were shocking after Little Bear’s canned music. We shuffled off to wait for our next performance.
We passed a couple of pirates talking conspiratorially on cellphones, a weird magician who would only speak to his slack-eared bunny and a family act dressed all in white. The father of the family was scolding his eight-year-old daughter for missing a punchline. Her blond brother pointed to his butt and then to her face. The mother sat holding a ukulele, smiling and staring into another dimension.
The day went on, the heat building and the smell of the diesel strengthening as we all took another turn at bat onstage. We only had a couple more hours, but even in the rising temperatures, my skin was prickling with an ominous feeling of what was to come.
The next time we exited the stage, I noticed that our host, who now smelled strongly of whiskey, was muttering angrily about the two-year-old asshole in the front row. This real-life Krusty the Clown juggled his now-blackened bananas and dropped the mic—and not in an ironic way. The pirates seemed to have been making drug deals on their phones all day. The white family had given up on being subtle with their dysfunction and were throwing salty insults at one another about someone starting on the wrong verse in “You Are My Sunshine.” The day had descended into a Hunter S. Thompson-type fairy tale.
Sleeping Beauty sat at her makeup station weeping, while Cinderella and Snow White consoled her. She sobbed, crying “I can’t believe I’m out there telling little girls ‘Someday your prince will come’ when I’ve been single for over a year and my last boyfriend cheated on me with my cousin. Lies!” Cinderella squeezed her shoulder. “Maybe you should try another direction?” She looked at me and winked.
Suddenly, the host was knocking over guitar stands and fake trees in the green room. “Where is Little Bear and his bastard friends? Those pricks are supposed to be on!” Minutes later, they arrived with pints in hand, cheering on Brazil’s World Cup goal. Owl had stripped down to only her black “feet,” bra and thong as she downed the rest of her beer.
And that’s when it happened: the scream of a child followed by tears. This is the sound that all children’s performers dread because it goes hand in hand with the sound of cheques being torn up and candy bridges being burned.
We raced to the back of the tent to see what grim foul had occurred. Owl’s head sat, upturned in the open tent door, teetering from side to side, almost mockingly. Father and son stood frozen, staring at the head. Panic and fumes hit us. This wasn’t a fallen ice cream cone; this was a beloved forest creature with comedic catchphrases beheaded. The rest of Owl’s still mostly naked body stood next to me with her marijuana-stained fingers over her mouth, desperately holding in a curse gasp. Little Bear crushed a beer can and intentionally threw it nowhere near the recycling bin.
Then something came over me. The code of the children’s performer is “No matter how underpaid, drunk, high, depressed, heartbroken and spurned, we must always bring joy, edutainment and wonder to young people. It is our creed, and we will die by it.”
I walked over, picked up the head in my hands and handed it to the boy. “I see you’ve found one of the hats we’re selling later,” I said. “You’re a lucky guy: You’re the first to try it on before we sell it at the booth.” The crying stopped. Dad realized what I was doing. Snow White floated to my side gracefully and, in a sweet voice that soothed like reclining butterflies, said, “Is this little guy the very first to try on that hat?”
The boy let me put the sweaty, beer-stained head over his. He looked out the dusty, screened-in eyes and laughed as his dad pulled out his cellphone for Instagram. I gently pulled off the head. “Sorry, we have to take it back now, but thanks for helping us out.” I gave him a sticker with our band name. The boy asked his dad if they could go to the hats booth later.
Owl threw her arms around my neck in thanks and the white family nodded their blond heads in quiet approval. I took a deep cleansing breath of diesel and we all headed back to support our fellow performers as the last act for the day was about to start. The three princesses glittered in the fading sunlight. “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.” I could hear Sleeping Beauty’s voice break as she choked back tears.
Shoshana Sperling is the lead singer of the Juno-nominated children’s rock band The Monkey Bunch.