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Company seeing big growth in family entertainment: Firm supplies parties with oddball acts from acrobats to mimes to ventriloquists

April 21, 2008

When Kathy Fitzgerald has a group of 85 day-camp kids to entertain, she needs someone who can hold their attention-easier said than done considering they range in age from 6 to 13, not counting the 12 young adults who work as camp counselors. If an act bombs, the result can be chaos.

That's why Fitzgerald, assistant park manager for Broad Ripple Park, has locally based FamilyTime Entertainment Inc. on her speed dial. FamilyTime can deliver a fully produced magic show, jugglers or singers at a moment's notice.

Last summer, company co-owner Don Miller did an outdoor show at the park that mixed magic tricks with music and lots of spraying water.

"He had every single face looking at him; even the counselors were into it," Fitzgerald said.

Miller gave such a great performance that Fitzgerald hired him to train Indy Parks camp counselors on how to get and keep kids' attention.

Professionalism teamed with an array of oddball performers on call-everyone from mimes to caricature artists-has helped FamilyTime grow revenue about 30 percent a year, reaching $347,000 in 2007.

Miller and business partner Mike King are FamilyTime's only employees. They talk to clients and line up entertainers for special occasions. Pricing is based on the event. A simple birthday party can be as inexpensive as $160, for example, while full-day extravaganzas can cost $30,000 or more.

The company works with about 30 performers regularly and has another 20 in reserve. Its roster includes some hardto-find acts, such as stilt-walking jugglers, ventriloquists and even a guy who does a show with a bullwhip.

FamilyTime has a large storage room at its near-east-side office, with stacked bins holding the props for different shows. The labels read: "Chimpanzee Show," "Pirate Show," "Dinosaur Show." Miller also keeps a huge collection of magic kits, books and magazines dating back to the 1930s.

Miller, 55, has performed magic shows since the early 1970s as a sideline while holding a "normal" day job. He worked as a producer at WTHR-TV Channel 13, as a copywriter for a local ad agency, and then as the vice president of marketing for locally based SerVaas Labs Inc.

"I kept doing more and more magic and [was] making a good living at it," Miller said. "I decided it would be a lot more fun" to concentrate on the performing.

So in 1998, he dropped the day job and started FamilyTime, where he produces shows, books performers and still takes the stage himself. Miller didn't have many startup costs, since he already owned many of the props.

Miller wanted to build a company that could book gigs for himself and others, meeting clients' demands while helping other artists build their careers.

"FamilyTime was a dream because we wanted people to be able to be family entertainers and make a living at it," Miller said.

Finding a partner

As the firm and its roster of outside performers grew, Miller had a hard time juggling the office work and performing.

"Our talent base was getting bigger and bigger and we needed an operations manager," he said.

That's where King came in. A former high school teacher and coach, King was working as a commercial property manager for F.C. Tucker when he met Miller at a FamilyTime event in Plainfield. He liked what he saw and invested in the company, becoming its operations manager in 2001. King, 60, now handles most of the booking and logistics, as well as staffing some larger events.

Miller works with performers, writing and producing some shows himself and coaching performers on the acts they develop.

From the start, his goal has been to increase performers' professionalism and offer them a steady stream of gigs. Miller said a good, full-time performer can make $60,000 or more per year from the largely seasonal work. Most shows are in the summer, when kids are off of school.

For musician Paul Odenwelder, who plays a guitar and sings, working with FamilyTime has allowed him to spend more time with his family. He used to do road shows full time, opening for big country acts such as Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn. Once he had children, though, he wanted to stick closer to home. In the five years he has worked with FamilyTime, the company has lined up about 90 percent of his work.

"I've probably done close to 400 shows with them. Never once [has FamilyTime] sent me to the wrong place or somewhere at the wrong time," he said. "There's never a headache involved and performers can focus on what we need to do."

Singer and ventriloquist Marc Thomas-and his sidekick Max the Moose-have been part-time FamilyTime performers since they moved to Indianapolis in 2001 and wouldn't have it any other way.

"They want to help people develop their careers," he said.

The agency accommodates his personal commitments as Thomas tries to balance performing with taking care of his 8-yearold son, who has Down syndrome.

"I can tell them what my challenges are in terms of time," he said. "They're understanding when I turn down work occasionally."

Beyond family parties

FamilyTime regularly plans shows for libraries, schools, parks and museums, but it also tackles adults-only events, such as emceeing corporate parties or hosting retirement roasts.

Miller also has branched out into minimagic shows to spice up trade-show booths for everything from low-fat Archway cookies to Nutrena hog feed.

"It's a soft-sell approach," he said.

While growth has been strong, Miller and King hope to do more company and private events. FamilyTime has focused on building its Web site and has done some direct mailing.

"It's easy to target libraries and schools, but marketing to individuals is much harder," King said.

Most of the firm's marketing is through word of mouth, King said. And while the economy is slowing, the firm isn't taking a hit yet.

"With the exception of Sept. 11, 2001, it's a pretty consistent business," Miller said. Even in a slow economy, "family events continue to happen."

FamilyTime's owners want to open branch offices in other cities and even start a "seal of approval" program for family entertainers nationwide. For it, they'd vet performers by doing criminal background checks and then reviewing their acts to make sure the quality is up to snuff.

While drawing up expansion plans, FamilyTime's biggest marketing hurdle is bad performers. People can't seem to forget the one party with a magician whose

act flopped or a clown that got no laughs.

"Our real competition is bad entertainers," Miller said. "Everyone has seen a bad magician at least once. Very few have seen a great one."
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