May 08, 1989 12:00 PM

Jeremy Sage was not a happy child. He was overweight and homely, and he stuttered. His father, Harold, a Russian immigrant who peddled scatter rugs and underwear door-to-door through the poorer parts of Boston, did not understand him. On the rare occasions when he heard Jeremy laugh, he was known to turn to him and ask brutally, “Why?” The son remembers fleeing to nearby Revere Beach and yelling at the gulls and the water and the boats, “Why me?”

Intruding on this gloom was Jeremy’s mother, Esther, who had sung and danced in Yiddish theater. “She was a beautiful, sweet woman who made me laugh when I was sad,” says Sage. “When things were bad—and things were often bad—in the middle of trying to soothe me, she’d say, ‘What’s that in your ear? You shouldn’t put a Tootsie Roll in your ear!’ Then she’d pretend to pull one out.”

Years later, Sage stands front and center at Jeremy’s Place on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and works his own audience just as his sympathetic mother once worked him. At 43, he is handsome and model-trim, his voice a mellifluous baritone. But his greatest asset is his intimate understanding of exactly what this crowd has come to hear.

“Do you know what you’re getting for party favors?” he asks breathlessly. “YES!” they yell happily back. “Are they neat?” “YES!” “Are they awesome?” “YES!” Meaningful pause. “Yes!” echoes Sage. “You’re all getting—salad dressing!” The crowd, a bunch of very well-turned-out 5-year-olds, cracks up. Just loses it.

“Salad dressing is this year’s funny word,” says Sage, a former actor who appeared in the original Calvin Klein ads with Brooke Shields but now spends his days regaling small children. “Five years ago it was ‘pickle.’ ‘Tuna’ is funny. ‘Tuna-brain’ is a funny insult.” Reflective pause. “My peers don’t find me amusing at all,” he says. “But children have always found me—silly.”

In the cutthroat Manhattan industry built around birthday parties for affluent children, Sage isn’t silly, he’s an institution. Some of these kids have celebrated six birthdays in a row at Jeremy’s Place, and some have been to more than 100 as guests. “They love the repetition,” says one mother. They also seem to love Jeremy. First, children crowd into his brownstone, then they progress, with delighted shrieking, through a 27-foot simulated-stone tunnel decorated with glow-in-the-dark skeletons, dinosaurs and bugs. Then it’s into the “performance room,” where Jeremy holds forth on the stage. He plays the part of a bumbling magician, but that is just an excuse. “My thing is really verbal humor,” he says. “What’s King Kong’s favorite city? Hong Kong. His favorite sport? Ping-Pong, His daughter’s name? Ding Dong. You get a balloon. You get a baboon. You get a cartoon. You get a monsoon….”

You also get a bill. Last year Sage hosted 450 birthday parties, working seven days a week for 10 months and grossing well into six figures. Parents who are willing to pay $500 to $800 a shot for entertainment, favors and ice cream cake have been known to book a year in advance. New York magazine once described Jeremy as “more in demand than Tony Bennett in Vegas.” And why not? “I make kids feel good,” he says.

Esther would have understood. To make Jeremy feel good, she used to cook for him. “The day a boy stole my bicycle, she comforted me and fed me,” he says. “The day I did real good on my tests, she congratulated me—and fed me.” By his bar mitzvah, Jeremy weighed 227 lbs. Then he decided to go on a diet. Esther was baffled. She set a plate of stuffed kishke outside his bedroom door and wafted the aroma his way with a fan.

But Jeremy wouldn’t quit. At Brandeis he majored in child psychology (“I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me”) and spent his spare time acting. In 1976 he landed the role of Jesus in a touring production of Godspell—”1,438 crucifixions in all,” he says—and one day in 1977 found himself standing next to Brooke Shields in her Calvins. “I always felt great beauty must be as intimidating as great genius,” he remembers telling the teenage megamodel on-camera.

Not funny, maybe, but that commercial paid for Jeremy’s Place. See him there now, working his audience. “Have you ever been married? How many times? Do you have a belly button? How many belly buttons?” Says a 4-year-old blond, giggling madly: “He’s silly. He’s very silly.”

But not gregarious, Sage lives alone in a Manhattan high rise and doesn’t go to parties for people his own age. Children, unfamiliar with the cliché of the melancholy clown, might find it hard to understand that their Jeremy spends much of his spare time—even in winter—sunning on his terrace, watching the gulls and the water and the boats. Occasionally he takes the train to Jones Beach “to scream and kick sand and get stuff out of me.” Each morning he calls Esther, now 75. Sometime later he gets on his bike and, knapsack flapping, coasts the two blocks to the part of the day that gives him the most joy. And every afternoon he picks Tootsie Rolls out of children’s ears.

—David Van Biema, Joyce Seymore in New York

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