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PARTIES extraordinaire

Like mother, like daughter.

When LouAnn Horton returned to her hometown in Alabama for her high school reunion this year, a half-dozen friends told her they wished they could go back to their school days just so they could attend one of her birthday parties.

"My mother's motto was always, "Beware of what you're eating,' " Horton says with a smile. "She might use mashed potatoes to make airplanes or use candy to build something. And she is wonderful at creating and decorating incredible cakes."

"No one did birthday parties like your mother, Lou Ann," her friends reminded her.

Well, someone does now.

Horton throws the same kind of pull-out-the-stops, wonderfully imaginative parties for her daughter, Hillary. The Hortons have friends who write Hillary's birthday on new calendars as soon as they get them, so they will remember to reserve one weekend a year for sheer fun.

Hillary turned 7 on Oct. 10. To mark the occasion, a mini-Mardi Gras took place in Woodgate Park on a bright, breezy, sunny Sunday, just around the corner from the Hortons' home.

At 2 in the afternoon, 18 little girls and boys who had received hand-printed invitations from a jester, arrived for a mini-parade, street festival, jester show and cake-eating extravaganza.

Hand-painted, life-size jesters and a "Happy Birthday, Hillary" banner greeted visitors at the park pavilion. The guest of honor was costumed as the jester featured on the invitations. A real-life jester entertained popcorn-popping, pretzel-crunching guests for an hour with jokes, stories, balloon sculptures and antics.

A three-dimensional cake in the shape of a jester was one of the party's highlights. Modeled after the traditional Mardi Gras "King Cake," it contained the figure of a tiny baby whose recipient, the Hortons explained, would be rewarded with an extra-special upcoming year.

"The children were so excited. They chewed every bite so carefully and watched everyone else eating the cake. This turned out to be a major part of the party," Hillary's mother says.

Plans for Hillary's October birthday party began in the spring, when John and LouAnn Horton took their only child to New Orleans.

"John and I had been there dozens of times, but it's totally different going with a little girl," LouAnn Horton said. "We wrote and called places in advance, to find things to do and see that would interest a 6-year-old."

On one of their outings they toured the warehouses that store Mardi Gras floats. When Hillary saw the floats, she begged her parents to let her have a Mardi Gras party and suggested she dress up as the jester. Her parents were just as enthusiastic.

While they were in New Orleans, the Hortons collected commemorative cups, brochures and Mardi Gras favors.

Soon afterward, the birthday preparations went into full swing.

"I tend to start work on party plans months in advance, when our schedule is a little more flexible and I have time to think about things without rushing," LouAnn Horton says. "By August our garage was Mardi Gras headquarters."

In June she tracked down a real-life jester and booked her for the party.

By July she had designed the jester figure she would use on Hillary's invitations and on the party's scenery, and her neighbor, Doris Davis, had begun work on Hillary's costume.

In August, Horton borrowed an overhead projector to enlarge and trace the jester design onto cardboard. Then she painted the life-sized jesters, birthday banners, and backdrop New Orleans-type scenery for use in the park pavilion.

In September, she interviewed bakeries to find one that would create a three-dimensional jester cake that was a replica of the party mascot. And she painted and embellished plaster face masks and Mardi Gras cups that would be filled with chocolate coins, beads and candy and given as party favors.

"But one thing I've learned is that you always have to expect the unexpected when you plan a birthday party for children," she says.

This year, the weather cooperated, but the breezes were so strong they carried away the clusters of balloons. The morning of the party, the cake designer called in sick. Horton had to describe the jester figure over the telephone and talk a substitute cake designer through the project.

"She did a great job, though," Horton says.

Because the theme was a street parade, during the jester's performance the children snacked on food that street vendors would sell: pretzels, popcorn and drinks. They went home happy, with Mardi Gras favors, brochures, and plans to ask their parents to take them to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

If you think this party was good, just listen to what the Hortons have done in the past.

When Hillary turned 1, her miniature guests were invited to accompany their favorite stuffed bears for an open house and teddy bear picnic.

For her second birthday, she donned a clown costume and became the ringmaster for a circus party.

For weeks in advance, John and LouAnn Horton cut and painted life-sized wooden animals and clowns. The day before the party, they erected a circus tent on their front lawn. As the children arrived, they too put on clown costumes, made from brown grocery bags (decorated with hair and hats, the bags had holes cut out for faces and arms). They played circus-type games and laughed at the antics of a real-life clown.

When Hillary turned 3, the Hortons staged a back-to-the-farm party.

John Horton had driven home from Alabama that summer with a mountain of corn husks on the roof of the family's mini-van, which he used to decorate the life-sized barn he constructed and LouAnn painted. Life-sized farm animals were painted on cardboard and scrap pieces of plywood, and accessorized with details down to the cows' udders, made from rubber gloves.

Guests were asked to come dressed in overalls and bandanas; they put on cowboy hats when they arrived and "milked" cows, planted seeds, had their pictures taken dressed as scarecrows, fished in the "Gone Fishin' " pond for bags of treats and got hayrides in red wagons pulled up and down the street by older children.

Among the treats were Rice Krispies bars wrapped like hay bales (with licorice string for twine) and haystacks made from Chinese noodles and butterscotch bits. Hillary's godmother created stick horses for favors.

For Hillary's fourth birthday, her friends were invited "Under The Sea With Hillary."

John Horton and several friends constructed a large castle for the front of the Woodgate Park pavilion, and LouAnn Horton painted figures of the Little Mermaid characters. Party guests retrieved candy from mermaid pinatas, pinned fish on octopus tentacles and went "diving" for deep-sea treasure (seated in a plastic kiddie pool, they used sifters to retrieve pennies from the sand).

The guests left with personalized cardboard treasure boxes filled with school supplies and money _ some paper, some real (pennies).

Hillary became fascinated with puppets the summer before her fifth birthday.

The Hortons took several outings to the Frog Prince Puppet Theater in Tarpon Springs to see shows and learn puppeteering techniques. They chose Hillary's favorite Aesop's Fable, The Lion and the Mouse, for the party theme and hired a puppeteer to put on a show and teach guests about puppeteering.

John Horton constructed a stage; LouAnn Horton constructed mice out of ice-cream balls (using licorice for whiskers and tails), and guests constructed their own puppets (using Styrofoam balls for heads, straw and fabric for the bodies and markers to create faces).

When Hillary turned 6, the Hortons decided to take their birthday extravaganza on the road. They drove six little girls to Disney Village for a "Breakfast With The Characters" aboard the Empress Lily paddlewheeler.

"Taking children someplace and relying on someone else for decorations and entertainment is certainly easier than doing all the work yourself," Hillary's mother says. "I wouldn't do it every year, but the girls all had a wonderful time."

Hillary chose Cinderella as her favorite Disney character, and the cake the girls ate upon their return was a three-dimensional castle with a tiny carriage, Fairy Godmother, Prince Charming and Cinderella. The girls went home with a glass slipper filled with "precious jewels" and candy.

How will the Hortons top these birthdays next year?

"I just hope my creativity holds out until Hillary turns 18," LouAnn Horton answers, laughing. "We count on her to come up with the theme every year _ and sometimes that's the hard part."

Preparing for a Horton-type birthday party is time-consuming.

"It usually takes me about three weeks just to paint and create the scenery for the parties. I don't mind the work _ we look on it as fun family time," Horton says. "And we have a wonderful neighbor, Doris Davis, who makes all Hillary's costumes _ she has helped make these parties very special."

But if these parties sound extremely costly, you might be surprised.

Horton estimates that the Mardi Gras party cost about $9 per child _ "and that's more expensive than most of our parties in the past," she says.

"When you're working on a birthday party, the most important thing to have is imagination, not money. You can find wonderful, creative ways to cut back on expenses and do things very nicely."

Costumes are recycled for Halloween.

To save money and give a personal touch to the invitations, LouAnn Horton designs them herself, uses a copier and hand-colors each invitation.

Rather than buy staging or posterboard for her scenery, she collects large boxes from appliance centers and furniture stores, and John cuts them into appropriate shapes for her to paint. These she also recycles. The coordinator of volunteers for Hillary's elementary school, Horton already has converted the birthday jesters into clowns for the school's fall festival.

She creates appropriate _ but not necessarily expensive _ snacks for the parties. "Sometimes the simplest things are the best," she says. "Popcorn in a fancy bag tied with pretty ribbons is always a big hit."

Because she plans well ahead of the birthday, she shops sales for favors and accessories. "If I waited until October, I wouldn't find much of anything but Halloween items," she says. "It pays to shop early and well."

"I want to let people know that anyone can do this," she says. "If you're not artistic, the technique of using an overhead projector to enlarge a design works wonderfully well. All you have to do is trace the design onto cardboard and paint it in.

"Choose a theme that is dear to your child's heart; use resources available at schools and at the library and let your imagination run. It's that simple."

Is it worth all the work?

"Definitely. Look at how many years my high school friends have remembered my birthday parties," LouAnn Horton says, smiling. "Doing something individual, something a little different, makes each party a lasting memory.

"After all," she continues, "this is the one day in 365 that is dedicated to your child. What I'm doing is building happy memories for my daughter to cherish, the way I cherish memories of what my mother did for me."

Don't be shy to give the big party a try

Some of LouAnn Horton's friends are as imaginative in creating memorable birthday parties as she is.

Cheryl Good once turned her back yard into a dress shop the year her daughter Caitlin turned 5. The girls went from department to department, choosing gowns, trying on hats, draping themselves in shawls and "minks," smearing on lipstick and blush, and accessorizing their ensembles. Then the bevy of beauties sat down to an old-fashioned tea party.

Darlene Schrayer's daughter Kelly invited her elementary-age friends to experiment with glamorous hairdos and grown-up makeup, and then have glamorous snapshots taken.

There are as many creative ideas for entertaining little boys.

If you can tie birthdays in with upcoming holidays, you have instant themes. A fall birthday can be celebrated in a pumpkin patch, where children can ride in hay wagons, choose and decorate pumpkins and roast hot dogs. An October birthday can be a costume party. A Christmas birthday can turn little boys into elves crafting gifts for family members. A February birthday can make cards and candies for Valentine's Day.

Local organizations of all kinds offer special programs for birthday partiers. The Long Center on Belcher Road will organize a two-hour basketball-and-swim party for groups of 10 or more children. You bring the refreshments; they put up the decorations.

Children's museums, zoos, history parks, aquariums, petting farms, science museums and planetariums will all accommodate parties. For additional information _ or party ideas _ look up "museum" or "attractions" in the Yellow Pages or Chamber of Commerce materials.

Read local events and tie party themes to upcoming parades, exhibitions or events. I know of one group of youthful Civil War enthusiasts who took a picnic and a birthday cake to Heritage Park and witnessed the re-enactment of a battle. They learned something about military history and went home with their choice of Union or Confederate hats and some dramatic memories.

Party stores often can be gold mines for ideas on party themes, decorations and games.

Libraries offer shelves upon shelves of party ideas, recipes for innovative party foods, and tips for successful parties.

Teachers can be valuable sources of ideas _ and, especially tips on what activities are especially popular for various ages.

As LouAnn Horton says, "A little imagination can go a long way. What you do doesn't have to be expensive. Giving a one-of-a-kind birthday party takes a little imagination, a little work and a lot of love. But it's worth it; you're creating memories that will last forever."

__Cynthia Furlong Reynolds