Bright ideas: Turning playtime into a profession

“All work and no play” may be your mantra, but one San Francisco woman has turned playtime into a profession.

Sophie Maletsky can turn a garage into a cave using newspaper and toilet paper tubes, or an old refrigerator box into a rocket ship. Her installations aren’t part of a grand movie set; she is in the business of planning high-end parties.

Maletsky began working on art projects with her schoolteacher as soon as she could sit at the kitchen table. In fact, both of her parents are artists.

After college she began an acting career in New York, often helping with props, lighting and costumes at off-Broadway theaters, but when her husband took a job in San Francisco, Maletsky moved with him and found herself out of work. She decided to start babysitting. Her clientele consisted of CEOs and celebrities.

One of the moms she worked for gave her a $500 budget and asked Maletsky to plan a birthday party for her daughter to take the stress off her plate. She turned to the girl she was babysitting to find out what she wanted for her party and the girl explained simply, “I want to be a princess and I want there to be a dragon and I want to lock all the boys up in a cage with bars.”Sophie_04

Some might have kindly explained that those things only happen on television shows and in movies, but Maletsky accepted the challenge and turned the family’s garage into a cave.

The party was a hit. Other moms noticed and began booking Maletsky to organize their parties too and that’s how her party-planning business, Sophie’s Stress-Free Soirees, was born.

“I mean it was all fantasy play, but the children were the ones who were creating it. They were giving me ideas. That’s how I learned to throw a party,” Maletsky said.

Twenty years ago, when she realized this could be a business opportunity, Maletsky says no one was planning elaborate parties for children, so she had to write the manual herself.

“I had no idea you could make a living doing this. I had no idea people would want it. These moms who were at this party said, ‘my kid has never been to a birthday party where they have been engaged for the entire time,’” Maletsky said.

To capture the attendees’ attention she has created jungle scenes with monkeys and turned pool patios into pirate ships, using high energy and quick wit to take kids’ wildest fantasies and make them a reality.

IMG_0022The business took off. It began with a few events costing $10 per hour. Now Maletsky has six full-time employees helping with more than 200 events a year. A typical bash can cost more than $1,000. She’s also planning corporate events and bar and bat mitzvahs, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars and require more help, with Maletsky bringing in up to 60 part-time employees. Who knew taking advice from kids could be good for business?

The demand for party planning doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon, she’s booked for bar and bat mitzvahs through 2015.

Besides event planning, Maletsky has turned her knack for know-how into a brand. She started a YouTube channel for do-it-yourselfers, with videos instructing viewers on how to make paper bag owls and Mod Podge glassware. She even has a book called “Sticky Fingers: DIY Duct Tape Projects” that teaches readers what they can make out of, what else, duct tape.

Maletsky is flattered by comparisons with Martha Stewart, but she says being prim, proper and perfect is not her style. For her it’s all about getting her hands dirty. Her daily wardrobe: a pair of overalls. “I have always been one of those people that’s kind of a jack of all trades, master of none. I have never been an excellent x, y, z but, you know, I’ve been like a half-decent x, y, z, p, d, q, r, s and you know I could do it all.”

What brings a tear to her eye, though, is thinking about all the kids that she’s influenced over the years. Some have even tried to turn their own creative passions into profit.

“I think she sparks creativity in every kid she meets,” said Kendall Owings, who met Sophie at one of those early birthday parties, when she was just 5 years old. Since college, Owings has found work making Kentucky Derby hats, teaching sewing and this summer, she’s starting a full-time job as a costume maker with the New York City Ballet.

The trade has become much more than just a lucrative business for Maletsky, “How many people get to wake up and say that they’re gonna see the light bulb go off in a kid’s imagination every single day of their life?”

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