Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Big Party

Our 20th wedding anniversary was August 16. Because we had eloped to Las Vegas, where we got married in a ceremony that was witnessed by only our most immediate family, I thought now might be a good time to renew our vows. But I changed my mind when I realized I’d probably cry through the whole thing, making a fool of myself. Instead, we decided to go in another direction after attending a fabulous dance party hosted by our friends Mary and Roger.

We held our own party this past weekend and, although we didn’t dance as much as I wanted, we and our guests had a good time. The real story, however, was in the weeks of planning that always go into pulling off an event like this. And so here is a recreation of our journey as we counted down the days till our big anniversary party...

Three months to go:

I started to seriously think about potential party venues. Our house is too small to comfortably entertain more than twenty people, plus there’s no room to dance; so we needed to rent a space that didn’t reek of a Radisson ballroom or VFW hall. The historic Culver Hotel has a long corner room, but it, too, was too small. Mary then suggested the Rita Hayworth Room at Sony Studios, where they had thrown their party. We had attended at least one other event there, so were very familiar with the layout. But who knew non-Sony employees could rent it? I was thrilled, but decided to email Karen to see if she thought people would come to a party at the studio. “Are you kidding? EVERYONE will come!” she replied and so I made the call.

As it turned out, Wolfgang Puck had just assumed management of the Rita Hayworth Room and was not quite ready to whip up a quote. We did tentatively reserve a date, however: Saturday, September 2, which would allow folks to fly in and spend the Labor Day weekend in LA. We emailed a “save the date” message to several friends and family members and then waited for Puck’s quote. I insisted that we were “simple people” (i.e., poor) and so requested the least complicated menu (e.g., their famous chinois chicken salad and pizza). Still, it took several days for our contact to get back to me.

In the meantime, I made an appointment to check out the Culver Events Center, which the ever-resourceful Mary also recommended. The building, tucked behind the bright green Leaf restaurant on Washington Blvd., was a speak-easy in the 1920s and has lots of charm and character. Plus the owner, Alex, was very nice and accommodating. But I had my heart set on Sony Studio and so made no commitment. I did make sure, however, that the Center was available September 2 and promised to get back to Alex as quickly as possible.

Two months to go:

Still no word from Puck despite my, by now, daily emails and phone messages. I was starting to really worry about distant friends and family having enough time to make airline reservations, etc. Finally, on July 10, I received a lengthy email detailing the catering and rental costs for the Rita Hayworth Room. It was almost twice what Mary and Roger had paid and three times the cost of the Culver Events Center! Puck had apparently boosted the fee beyond reason—and obviously well outside our checkbook!—and so I called Alex to have him hold the date. My dreams of dancing again where movie stars used to dine were dashed.

We now needed to find a caterer, since the Center strictly rents space. Alex recommended a couple of places he’s used in the past. Tim then suggested Santa Maria Barbecue, one of our favorite downtown Culver City restaurants. So we made a little field trip to eat (of course!) and check out their prices and were pleasantly surprised by their very affordable menu. With a minimum party of fifty people, they would even cook the meat on site, plus provide all side-dishes, like salad, beans, potato salad, and (my favorite) garlic bread. We reserved September 2 on the spot and then waited for RSVPs to arrive.

One month to go:

Only 10 people had responded and, of those, several said they could not come because of other obligations. It was starting to look like throwing a party on a holiday weekend was not such a good idea after all! We called Santa Maria Barbecue and canceled the onsite cooking.

Although we each secretly doubted that anyone but us would dance, we spent hours going through our CD collection, looking for ideal rock, swing and salsa tunes that would (hopefully!) get people’s feet atappin’. This part was the most fun!

Three weeks to go:

I met with Alex to pick out linen colors and lay out the floor plan. The Center has a nice patio as well as two reception areas and a dance floor. Tables would be setup outside and in, since it was bound to be a beautiful night. He had lots of ideas how to jazz-up the place with lights, etc., but I wanted things to be as simple as possible. Besides, at this point, it was looking like it would be just us and a handful of guests.

Two weeks to go:

RSVPs start to pour in! We called Santa Maria and rescheduled the onsite barbecue. When the receptionist asked for details about the Center’s physical layout, I explained we’d like the barbecue to be setup in the patio. After describing the fence and three short steps to get into the patio, she proclaimed that the barbecue owner would have to visit the site before they could commit. I called Alex in a panic. He said not to worry. And indeed, a few days later, Mr. Santa Maria chatted with Alex and both agreed that the barbecue could be setup in the parking lot next to the patio. Phew!

I noticed an ad in the newspaper for personalized M&Ms and, though I can’t eat chocolate, proceeded to order five eight-ounce bags of M&Ms that say: “Tim and Cindy” and “20 years XOXOXOXO.” There was no guarantee they’d arrive on time, but I was willing to take the risk because they were just so darn cute...

One week to go:

Even though Santa Maria provides plates and utensils, I wanted something more exciting than boring old institutional white, and so headed over to Party Time on Sepulveda Blvd. There I spied some colorful paper plates on sale and went hog-wild picking out platters, napkins, etc., to match. By now it was looking like fifty people would be joining us at the party and so I bought mass quantities of everything. I could see the cashier trying to be tactful as I kept adding more and more stuff to my check-out pile. Restraining himself no longer, he asked, “Having a big party, are we?” I told him that it’s so big we had to rent a hall. He was impressed.

I then headed over to the nightmare that’s known as “Big Lots.” Alex convinced me to decorate with candles and so I was on a quest to find the cheapest, yet safest, candles possible. I also decided to create scrapbooks filled with pictures of Tim and me, since some of our guests would be relatively new friends. I bought six scrapbooks, thinking I’d put one on each table, forcing the partygoers to mingle if they wanted to see all the photos. When I got home, I asked Tim to help me pour over hundreds of pictures that I keep in an oversized wicker chest in our den. It was fun, but exhausting work. Ultimately, it was worth it, though, because the scrapbooks were the biggest hit at the party, getting people to reminisce and laugh.

Three days to go:

Tim tested the stereo system at the Center and was unhappy with the sound. I insisted that it was just his overly sensitive radio engineer ears; but he used some special electrical plugs on party day and all was well. We told Alex we’d bring beverages by at 1PM on Saturday and then headed over to the market to buy an assortment of soft drinks and beer.

One day to go:

The M&Ms arrived. I almost kissed the UPS guy when he knocked on the front door. I was now ready to party!


I went to Trader Joe’s to buy flowers and desserts as soon as it opened. Unlike weekday mornings, when no one but retired couples and stay-at-home workers, like me, go to TJ’s, the place was filled with puffy-eyed yuppies filling their carts with food for the long weekend. The vibe was definitely low-key even though the lines were starting to snake toward the door by the time I left.

As promised, we showed-up at the Center at 1PM with drinks and paper goods in hand. Alex was already busy setting up tables, etc. The party was to start at 6PM and so Santa Maria promised to start cooking by 4:30PM. We agreed to return between 4:00 and 5:00 to help with any finishing touches.

We arrived at 4:15PM to the smell of barbecued meat. It smelled so good that Alex predicted no one would get beyond the parking lot! I began decorating the tables with sparkly confetti and scrapbooks, but forgot the M&Ms (after all that!), and so Tim ran home (five minutes away) to get them.

Everything was ready by 5:45PM and looked just beautiful. The weather was perfect and the meat was almost ready to serve, when our first guests arrived. The moment we’d been waiting for these past three months was finally here.

Tim turned up the dance music and the party began...


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