Hollywood Clown: Seeing the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous From Inside a Barney Costume
Jason Lassen sits on an airplane in Colburn Park in Lebanon on Aug. 15, 2013. A Lebanon native who went to Hollywood with aspirations to act and ended as an entertainer at children's parties, he's written a book about it and is back in New Hampshire for the next week to promote it and see family. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
Jason Lassen in Colburn Park in Lebanon on Aug. 15, 2013. A Lebanon native who went to Hollywood with aspirations to act and ended up as an entertainer at children's parties, he's written a book about it and is back in New Hampshire for the next week to promote it and see family. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
It all went, more or less, according to plan. In Hollywood, all of Jason Lassen’s dreams came true.
To be sure, it wasn’t exactly the way the Lebanon native had imagined. Instead of a role on the big screen, Lassen’s costumes included Elmo and Barney suits, and his venues were children’s birthday parties around Los Angeles.
His upcoming ebook Hollywood Clown details the unexpected and at times demanding work of a party entertainer in what he calls the “competitive and political world” of Hollywood birthday parties. Last week, Lassen returned to New Hampshire to visit his family and promote the self-published book, which will be released and sold from Amazon starting Oct. 1.
Lassen grew up on Methodist Hill in Lebanon, on a family farm with pigs and chickens and a few cows. Sitting at a table in the Lebanon Diner, he didn’t exactly have a Los Angeles look; he wore a Rockers Moto Rally T-shirt and at 43, streaks of gray flecked his full, coffee-colored beard. Perhaps most distinctive was his laugh: booming and eager, rising into a high-pitched chortle that could almost be identified as a giggle.
I’m really just a big kid at heart,” he explained.
Long an aspiring actor, Lassen got started performing early on. He was cast in his first role at 5, playing Tiny Tim in a performance at Dartmouth College. Through elementary school, he wrote his own plays, filling the roles of actor, director and producer in productions performed on the front porch.
“On my report cards, my teachers would always say, ‘Jason has bad handwriting.’ So I became a performer to compensate,” he said.
After graduating from Mascoma Valley Regional High School in 1988, Lassen continued his arts education at Franklin Pierce University and earned a degree in TV and Film and a minor in Theater. He received his diploma in 1992 and a month later, he and his college roommate packed a car and left for Hollywood.
In Los Angeles, Lassen found a job as a tour guide at Paramount Studios, sharing a two-bedroom condo with 13 other young would-be actors and directors. For the next few years, he took jobs where he could find them, in Paramount and CBS mailrooms, installing movie theater sound systems, and performing in sketch comedy groups.
By 1995, after the death of a nephew and his roommate’s suicide, he had grown homesick and frustrated and ready for a change. So when a friend asked him to cover a birthday party as Barney, he acquiesced. “I was so beaten emotionally, I was like, ‘All right,’ ” he said. “I did my first one and said, ‘Hey, this is isn’t bad!’ ”
He was soon hired by Celebration Entertainment, a company that contracted out entertainers to perform at parties, often those of celebrities, around the city. Families would request a Winnie-the-Pooh, or Elmo or Santa or a Teletubby for their christenings, birthday and Christmas parties, and family gatherings, and Lassen would suit up.
He’d always enter to music and when he had the attention of the expectant children, his repertoire included parachute games, face painting, balloon animals and a variety of games. Lassen said he’d average three parties a day on weekends, but “I’d have to go into a party like it’s the only one.”
Mark Ruegg lives in Los Angeles and worked with Lassen at Celebration Entertainment, often performing with him when clients requested multiple characters. “Jason was always good at adapting to whatever the situation,” he said. “Whatever mood the kids were in, he’d find out what they wanted and adapt. It was always about the kids for Jason.”
Lassen grinned. “When you walk into a party as Barney, you’re a hero. And you do a lot of improv and sketches; it kept my skills sharp.”
From his seat in the diner, he showed off his Barney voice: “heyyyy, kids!”
At parties, he said, parents would wonder whether the character was automated. “They’d make me go into a garage and take off my head to see that it was empty.” Lassen chuckled again.
In a world of luxury and extravagance, Lassen describes parties replete with a snow-maker, an elephant, or an Olympic gymnastic team. Other times, he wasn’t so lucky. He tells of hours spent sweating in an uncomfortable costume, attending to raucous children, probed with disconcertingly frank queries, often a victim of families’ quirks and melodrama.
Nevertheless, Lassen’s interest in the rich and famous bordered on fanaticism. He relates stories of entertaining for Cindy Crawford and Steven Spielberg and the opening paragraph of Hollywood Clown describes Lassen dressed up as Pooh, playing peek-a-boo with Robert De Niro and his son.
“As a kid on a farm, Hollywood seemed so untouchable, so far away,” Lassen explained. “How I got there is I never gave up.”
Lassen took up writing after he eased out of the party business in 2000. He recalled one of his assignments during his freshman year at Franklin Pierce, when he was required to keep a journal detailing how he spent his time each day of the semester. The habit stuck, and in 2004, when a friend encouraged him to write a book, he had 16 years worth of notes.
“We’d always make fun of him,” Ruegg remembered. “After every job, he’d go home and he’d always sit down and write it all down in his journal. He wouldn’t want to skip anything.”
Starting in 2004, Lassen transcribed his journals from 1995 to 2000, for a first draft that totalled 1,200 pages. Over the next few years, in between jobs and auditions, he cut his second draft down to 600 pages. In 2011, Lassen underwent spine surgery, and unable to work or drive, he wrote. By the end, he cut Hollywood Clown down to nearly 250 pages, its final length.
As the book gradually unfolded, he continued working a variety of jobs, performing in two sketch comedy groups and two bands, acting for commercials, and working for a construction company comprised completely of actors.
“We’d all have a suit and other clothes in our car and when the phone rang, I’d crawl out from under the house we were working on, wipe the dirt off my face and go out to the audition,” he said.
He shrugged. “As an actor, I always had three or four jobs.”
In the next two weeks, Lassen will return to his home in Los Angeles with his wife and two young kids to continue with auditions and whatever else awaits. As the back cover of the book states, “he’s still waiting for his big break.’
“And I am!” He laughed. “Writing a book was one dream. I say, what’s next? Just keep ’em coming!”
“Hollywood Clown” will be released on Oct. 1 on Amazon. Opportunities for free advance copies can be found on Lassen’s website, thehollywoodclown.com.