Monday, November 14, 2016

The Planning Of A 50th Birthday Bash – A Man’s Naïve Yet Unwavering Determination

I really needed a few days rest after the big event for Brenda before embarking on writing how I got the whole thing done.  I had a deep fatigue once it was all over. But I’ve now slept late for a few days and am back up and running.

The party was just incredible, and it went literally exactly how I planned.  It took a lot of energy and time to arrange, but it was worth it because she would only turn fifty years old once.  Being that it was my idea and execution, it was like planning an entire wedding when I had never in the past planned any event whatsoever.  Nothing bigger than, say, six people going to a movie together, and that was back in my twenties.  Actually, I remember helping arrange a barbeque related to Brenda’s aunt and uncle flying in from Oklahoma just a few years ago, but my role was simply to make a list of presumed attendees and what they might bring; hot dots, chips, buns, salsa.  You get it.  It wasn’t anything that took more than a half hour at the most to create and send out. 

The idea of Brenda’s "50th Birthday Bash" occurred to me about a year and a half ago.  It was, at first, a vague notion; the kind that one briefly daydreams about because it feels still distant over the horizon.  But time is a funny thing.  It creeps upon you, changing its perspective from a benign haze located somewhere in the fog of the future to the menacing reality of a freight train triggering blaring red lights and flailing crossing arms.  

I will describe my step by step planning of the party. 

In that first, foggy haze phase, I had given some thought to asking her uncle Johnny if we could do it at his ranch, which is a ten-acre spread just outside of town in the southern central valley.  I was sure that he would have happily allowed me to hold it on his stead.  However, there were a few reasons that I decided not to have it there.  One was just how far it was from any freeway.  Wasco, the town adjacent to the ranch, sits about eight miles to the west of State Route 99.  I didn’t like the idea of attendees having to drive that far from a major route to attend the party, or to go home from there after the party.  The rural roads leading to and from Wasco, of which I have twenty years familiarity, are all two-lane ribbons of dark asphalt which drive unyieldingly and hypnotically straight through flat agricultural fields.  When the sun goes down, it is dark there.  I supposed it is akin to how a pilot feels while nocturnally flying over a dead, flat, Pacific ocean in the blanket of darkness.  There are almost no bearings for one to anchor one’s position to. 

Secondly, in the past few years, there have been some issues between Brenda’s uncle with the ranch and other aunts and uncles on their sibling level; a complicating factor in getting people together when it involves this particular uncle. I wanted badly for the uncle with the ranch to attend, but it wouldn’t be worth losing three sets of other uncles and aunts since they would be unlikely to go to his ranch.  I began to realize that finding a neutral venue would be a better idea.

And thirdly, a large number of people were coming in from far out of town and would need to be able to stay overnight somewhere.  So with some thought, I settled on the idea that a large hotel would be a better venue, even though I would have to personally pay for that location, rather than borrow a ranch for a night. 

I had been to the Bakesfield DoubleTree by Hilton once before, I believe, when we were driving back to Los Angeles and the Grapevine closed to snow.  We had needed to find a place to stay, and this hotel was very accessible.  So I decided to go look at their set up.  The DoubleTree, like a lot of hotels has several event rooms.  I also looked at the Marriot in Bakersfield.  But the DoubleTree sits just to the west of the 99 in a slightly newer part of Bakersfield compared to those areas east of the 99.  I had also looked at the Marriot Hotel, but it sat in the latter area of the city and was less accessible from the freeway, though the hotel was very nice inside.

The other thing was that the DoubleTree has several event rooms that are side by side to one another, but which are separated by an accordion style separator.  The Marriot has those as well.  But the DoubleTree had this one large room called The California Room which was totally isolated from the other event rooms, sat closer to the front desk and restaurant and bar areas, and had bathrooms right outside of it.  It was perfect because we were going to have a loud band.  I was really lucky to reserve it back in about January because all of the event rooms sold out very quickly. 

So that was done.

Once I had the venue set, I could then design invitations.  I was decidedly going to work with Color Images in Burbank to create the invitations.  In my opinion, and in the opinions of a lot of people in the entertainment industry here, they are the best print shop around.  The young man who owns and runs it is not only nice and respectful of his customers, but he also has a nearly perfect internal clock for timing the store’s work in hitting deadlines.  Communication is one of his most valuable assets.  I have used their services for many years for both entertainment related projects, and for real estate related marketing.  Color Images always does a stellar job. 

I wanted the invitations to be kind of formal in the way of their presentation.  I gathered four cute photos of Brenda.  Three of them were from a new years eve we did last year in Jackson, Wyoming and were taken at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar there.  Their color hues of these photos were what set for me the theme of Brenda’s 50th Birthday Bash.  Pink, fuchsia, and purple.  These three photos I used for the front of the invitations, cleverly melded together into one image by my printers here in Burbank and with the title underneath that said, “It’s High Time We Get This Girl Good And Liquored Up!”  On the inside top of the fold, the card read, “Brenda’s 50th Birthday Bash!” and underneath that, date, time, location, how people could reserve rooms for a certain discounted rate by a specific date, and to return the RSVP envelope within.

The RSVP envelope contained in it a card where people could check, “Yes I’m coming” and the number of people attending, or “No, I’m flying to Minnesota to claim my inheritance from Prince’s estate that weekend.”  Just a current event-related joke to make saying no a little easier for people if they had to.  I also included a separate card with a map and parking instructions that I had the printers design from a Google map that I had chosen.  It was my proud and clear invitation package that went out to one hundred thirty of Brenda’s family and friends.

Next, I arranged for a live band.  I tend to quickly tire of those bands that just play covers of 70’s and 80’s tunes that are at weddings and birthday parties, and I had in mind that there was this band that Brenda and I saw here in Burbank called, The Unholy 4.  They played at this bar up on Magnolia called, “Joe’s Bar And Grill.”  It’s a very cool bar.  They have live bands every night of the week ranging from swing dancing to rock to country and western.  Brenda and I happened to be in there one night about three years ago when The Unholy 4 got up there and started playing this kick as Rockabilly music.  I was like, “What the…?  Is that Mike on guitar?”  And it was.

Who is Michael?  A quick flash back; I left my first private elementary school that I attended back in fourth grade.  However, I tended to go to the weekend parties that my old friends would hold and that my close friend, Nick, would invite me to.  One of the many newer students that I got to know was this guy, Michael.  This school has a great family view of themselves as a student body, and in fact, though I left in forth grade and went to a different elementary school, a different middle school and different high school, I have been invited to every reunion that the school has ever had. That means a lot to me. 

So anyways, this kid Mike loved to play guitar at a young age, and he was very good at it.  He had long, blonde hair, like many of the kids of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s sported, and he loved Led Zepplin, Cheap Trick, Queen, Boston…all of those tried and true rock bands, and he was a very nice guy.  I would often enter into Nick’s room and Mike would be sitting in a chair playing his guitar, crouched down and leaning into his guitar as if he were listening for some tonality that he was seeking and that was rather completely beyond the rest of our auditory comprehensions. 

But as with so many acquaintances that drift off over the years as life weaves complicated paths forward, I never had occasion to see him again or to know much about his life after about high school.  Just for the record, he ended up living in Europe for twenty-three years and toured in many countries via gig vans and with various manifestations of his mates and bands, one of which he had named for a time, “The Pleasure Fuckers.”  When he told me this later as we were having a drink at Brenda’s 50th Bash, I howled with laughter.  I loved it! 

So back to Joe’s Bar & Grill.  Brenda and I are sipping our respective refreshments one night anticipating any one of the cavalcade of great bands that this bar presents throughout a given week when Mike walked up to the stage with short, cropped, now more sandy blonde hair, and he played with a rockabilly band, and they just ripped it!  It was so energizing.  It was like Mike had just somehow manifested out of my early memories onto a stage right in front of me. 

So as I began planning Brenda’s 50th Bash, I thought about how great that band was and about getting Mike and The Unholy 4 to play at Brenda's party. I contacted Mike through Facebook and asked if I could hire his band, and he said yes.  I went through their manager and signed contracts, etc.  With most of these vendors, you have contracts for something this large.  So they were hired.  I gave them free hotel rooms to entice them, along with their payment, and they were happy to come to Bakersfield.  I really wanted a good band, and I had gotten The Unholy 4.  So happy!

Next, I had to think about exactly how to set up the venue itself.  So I met with the Senior Catering Manager of the hotel.  She was unbelievably friendly, professional and responsive.  I knew instantly that we could work together very well.  In most hotels, this is the position of the person who plans major events.  She and I sat down, along with Brenda (I didn’t want it to be a surprise party because I wanted Brenda’s input, and also, I think it would have been impossible to make it a surprise party given that Brenda had to prepare her mother and her aunt Carol to come to the party because they are on the less able'd side of the spectrum).

I drew a map of the room and told the Catering Manager what I wanted in each part of the room, partly to find out, since I had never done any planning like this, what exactly the hotel could provide, and what I would need to get myself in the way of vendors.  I told her I wanted a full buffet meal (I liked the idea of buffet so that people could go up and get more, instead of being served a finite meal), dessert as cake, and drinks of all kinds.  I wanted two professional photographers to be there to take both posed and candid (mostly candid) photos of everyone while they were there having fun. I wanted lighting for the room (it’s called “up-lighting”) so that the photographers had enough light and so that it would make the room dynamic.  And I wanted a small cake to present to Brenda.

I drew a map of the rectangular room, which I had just seen that day, and draw round tables in the middle, a stage to once side, which would sit in front of these big windows they have there.  I drew a bar, a buffet, a digital projector (to project images on from my computer…a sort of photo slide show), and I drew a gift table.  The catering manager said that she could provide the stage, the round eating tables, the buffet (all of the food and deserts), the bar for drinks, and the digital projector and screen.  She said that I would need to find vendor for a cake (not for cake as dessert, but for a cake that I could present to Brenda on with candles), and I would have to find a lighting company. I would also have to hire my own photographers.

So the first thing I did was to find a good photographer.  I used Yelp and found a really good photographer in Bakersfield called Valdophye Photography, who I could see from his website had done not only plenty of weddings, but had shot plenty of events.  I wanted to talk with him before hiring a lighter because I wanted to know what he would want as a photographer in the way of lighting.  I then found a good event lighter. The company was called, Freestyle Event Services. As I was searching, his company came up in conversation a lot and I talked with the owner and he sounded like he was very experienced.

The next thing that I did, which I think was very smart, was to tell Josie, the hotel point person, the photographer, and the lighter that I wanted all three of them plus me to meet at the hotel one day.  That was I think in March.  I told them we would all four look at the California Room and talk about what we were going to do.  I wanted especially the lighter and the photographer to talk with each other in front of me.  This was so smart, I suppose it was the producer in me, because all four of us were on the same page as soon as I did that.

The lighter was very understanding of what I wanted and he suggested that we do up-lighting all around the edges of the room because it would give the room a lot of dynamic depth, and he also showed us how he could bring in a trestle for the stage that would be erected from the left and right sides of the stage and project really colorful LED lights onto the stage that were sound sensitive and would change with the beats of the drums and bass.  Lastly, and I thought that this was really intuitive of him, I had told them all that I had this eight foot wide, about three feet high banner with early photos of Brenda on each end that read, “Happy 50th Birthday Brenda!”  I had it printed here in Burbank and it had a baby photo on the right side of the birthday message, and a teenaged photo on the right side.  The teenaged photo was particularly funny because in it, Brenda’s hair was permed almost beyond recognizability.

So this lighter noticed an alcove on the left side of the room, on a wall perpendicular to the far left of the stage, and he suggested that we hang the banner there in the alcove, and then he would bring what’s called a pipe and drape.  It’s basically a long, almost shower curtain type rod that hangs from one wall to another.  The walls of the alcove were about ten feet apart, which was perfect for the banner, and from the pipe he would hang essentially a white like half see through curtain.  Behind the curtain, he would up-light it in the party’s theme colors, which were pink, fuchsia and purple.  Those are the colors that he planned to use for the perimeter up-lighting as well.

Just as the meeting was finishing, I had a change of idea about something.  Instead of bringing in a digital projector to hook up to my computer, I asked Freestyle if they could bring in two seventy-inch LED flat screen monitors, and hook them up with a splitter to show my computer generated photo slide show.  This would have a smaller footprint and would run literally all night during the party.  I had six-thousand, seven-hundred and twenty-two photos that I had picked out from thousands of photos and which I had touched up in LightRoom.  This process had taken me months, literally from February to the beginning of September, to complete.  But my photo-show idea was very important to me because it helped round out the theme of “family” and “history” that I felt was at the center of the celebration. 

So with that, we finished our meeting, and I realized how good an idea it was to have gotten the four of us all together.

Next was to get the floral arrangements set up.  I first found a company that was an events planner that did centerpieces.  I met with them (I will not mention their name here), but a few things I didn’t like about them was, 1) I had to return the vases that the centerpieces came in, which would have meant my driving back up ninety miles from my house and back the following Monday, and 2) I got the sense that they outsourced their floral centerpieces business to a florist.  And in addition, there was just something that wasn’t synchronizing between me and them.  My feeling was that they didn’t exude any excitement towards me about helping me plan and pick out the arrangements at all.  I’ve learned in my very old age of fifty-one years that you have to listen to these feelings; these pits in your stomach tell you something.  So just after scheduling an appointment with them to discuss the event further on another date and walking out of their door, I told Brenda, “I’m not going to use them,” and almost immediately phoned them back and cancelled my future appointment with them.

Instead, I found a great florist in Bakersfield called White Oak Florist that was located in the Rosedale area of Bakersfield and went directly into their store.  Right away, I clicked with the woman who sat down with us as I showed her the now printed invitation cards.  Brenda and I worked with her to get the colors and shapes of the floral centerpieces just right for our party.  The company was great and easy to work with. 

Lastly was the cake.  I just needed an eight inch cake with a candle on it, and “Happy 50th Brenda!”  I found a place that had good reviews, and which, the DoubleTree catering manager knew about too.  The bakery was called, Tastries Bakery.  I loved the name, and the place smelled so good inside.  We met with a women there who helped us design a mostly white with pink trim eight inch cake that read, “Happy 50th Brenda,” and which would have a big “50” candle on the north end of the cake so that Brenda would be able to be presented with the cake and then blow it out in front of everyone.  The attendees were each getting as many slices of chocolate mousse cake as they wanted from the buffet, so everyone was covered, and they could have their cake and eat it too. 

All of these vendor items and services would be scheduled to deliver the day of the birthday party at about 12:00 noon, with the exception of the photographers who didn’t need to be there until about 4:30pm.  The event was from 5:00pm to Midnight.

Jumping to the day off, I got to the hotel around 2:00pm, and the entire venue was almost completely set up already.  It looked amazing.  The California Room had thirteen tables with ten seats per table allowing for the one hundred twenty-five people who had responded affirmatively that they were coming.  The stage was set up with the trestle and lighting.  The alcove with the banner, which we now called the “Photo Alcove” was set up with the pipe and draping and the fuchsia and purple up-lighting.  And all around the perimeter of the room glowed with the fuchsia lights, which were round barrels of LED lights planted on the floor and were focused up along the walls to the ceiling.  The gift table was set up, the bar was set up, and all of the gorgeous floral centerpieces were set up on the tables, along with the glasses, plates and silverware.  It was all breath taking to me.  It was yet again one of those lessons that in life; the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. 

I also had a couple of last minute ideas the night before the event.  Since I had printed many extra invitations cards just as extras, I brought them with me in a box and asked the catering manager to place two cards each on every table around the flowers.  They added to the color coordination within tables.

The other idea that I had was to pick out one table as the reserved head table.  I didn’t want the table to be separated from the group in any way, such as at a wedding, but rather, I would just pick the most center front table, the one that was directly in front of the dance floor and the band, and I would print up seating assignments.  The members of the family who would sit at this table would be Brenda, her mother, me, her sister, her three brothers, and their wives.  It was a perfect number of ten, the full number of people that any table was set for.  So, as I arrived into the room, I took the printed out place settings that I had created on my computer, and I placed them at the center table. 

Brenda was supposed to arrive at 3:00pm so she’d have plenty of time to get herself ready, but she had needed to drive to Tulare the day before and get her oldest aunt to bring down to Brenda’s mom’s house, so now she had two older women to try to hustle along.  Brenda arrived at 4:15pm and I had a porter taker her mom and aunt to their rooms while Brenda went up to our suite.

There was one point when I had just arrived up and out of the elevator and into the bowels of the hotel as the start time was only forty-five minutes away. I was moving briskly down one of the upper floor hallways looking for our assigned suite so that I could get dressed for the event when Brenda’s sister, Sandra, passed me in the hallway.  She looked beyond excited, even manic about what was to occur.  It was pretty funny and it gave me a chuckle inside.

The hotel had upgraded us since I was doing so much business with them.  We had a large suite with an eating area and roomy bathroom area with a hot tub. I quickly got changed into my black suit and tie, my tie matching the burgundy of her dress-romper outfit that she would be wearing.  I had purchased for myself a large-faced Kenneth Cole watch and new belt for the occasion and I wore my Salvatore Ferragamo shoes.  As Brenda was in the room with me and pulling all of her clothes and accessories together, she became very nervous.  “How am I going to see all of these people?  What am I supposed to do?  How am I going to be able to talk to them all?”  I told her, “You’re only job tonight is to have a good time.  Happy Birthday honey,” I told her and I kissed her on the top of her head.  I’m sure she did not hear anything that I had told her in her overwhelming sense of temporary emotional chaos.  But that was okay; I knew she's get herself down at some point.  It was all too exciting to resist for much longer.

I got myself ready quickly and left Brenda to finish herself up while I went downstairs to greet people.  I got down there at about 4:50pm, so my timing was perfect.  A few people started to arrive early and I was all ready for them, telling them to sit wherever they wanted and to get some drinks up at the bar.  My sister and her two children arrived.  They were the only non-immediate Brenda family of hers that I invited since my sister knows Brenda so well.

The schedule included a social hour from 5:00pm to 6:00pm, then dinner at 6:15pm (a really good buffet with tri-tip, chicken, fish, lots of vegetables, potatoes, and more).  I would then make a speech and introduce the band.  Then from 7:30pm to midnight would be the band’s performance and lots of dancing. 

Another variable that I thought of prior to the event was that during the time people entered the party during the social hour until the band started playing, and also during band breaks, I wanted ambient music to play to the room.  So I had hooked up one of my old iPhones to the band’s amplifier set up onto which I had created a 50th Bash playlist of an assortment of country music and some 1970’s and 1980’s tunes.  It worked perfectly for the evening.  The moment that I turned the music on, it livened up the room right away and made everything seamless.  Again, the whole...the sum of its parts…

Brenda was a little late getting down.  She arrived down in the banquet room at 5:20pm.  Until then, as I greeted her various family members who were arriving and told them to pick a seat anywhere and to grab a drink, they asked me, “Where’s the birthday girl?”  I had to tell them as so many asked, that she was just finishing up getting ready and that she was nervous seeing everyone.  That fact seemed to ease everyone I spoke to, I suppose, because they too were nervous about such a large and formal styled reunion. 

Brenda had such a great time.  Since all of her family was there (with the exception of a very few who couldn’t make it), they actually represented three family groups for her; her biological father’s family, her mother’s family, and her step-father’s family.  She was absolutely radiant, and I took proud note that the attendees were excited and having fun all night.  I think having everyone in one place was exciting for a lot of people because, so many of them had not been together for many years. I was really happy to have done that for Brenda.

The night went on from the warming up drinking of family and friends during the social hour, to the eating and drinking of everyone at the delicious and varied buffet, to the dancing and drinking for the rest of the night to the band playing incredibly fun songs.  Notice that there was a lot of drinking that night.  Haha! 

One of the special moments of the evening was at 7:15pm, when I had asked the catering manager and her assistant to cue me.  I happened to be talking to two of Sandra’s close friends at a table when I was told reminded was time.  I got up, went to the stage where they had made the microphone hot, and I made a short speech.  I told everyone that I was very happy that all of Brenda’s family and friends (some friends who she hadn’t seen since just after high school) could attend on this night because family and friends meant everything to Brenda.  I also told them that I wanted to bring Brenda up so that we could all sing her a happy birthday.  Just then, the catering manager brought out the eight inch cake and we all sang to Brenda, and then she made her wish, and we blew out the cake.  She said a few words to her friends and family, with cheeks totally blushing, and we thanked everyone and I announced the band, The Unholy Four, as the best rockabilly band in the western United States, who then came up and started the first of their four incredible sets. 

The next morning was enjoyable because there were a fair amount of people who had stayed over in the rooms, given that they had traveled far…as far as from Oklahoma, Tulare, Hanford, Long Beach, and San Diego.  Brenda and I, along with her mom, her half brother who and his girlfriend, all talked a while in the lobby, which was relaxing after such a big night before.

It was a screaming success and it exceeded my expectations.  It’s poignant for me because from January, when I really started taking action on planning it all, until just before the party, I couldn’t believe that I had committed myself to navigating such a huge event, and yet, looking back on it, I completed it very successfully.  Two things were on my side; time, as I had started planning the event so early on, and my determined resolve to make this the best 50th Birthday Bash that Brenda could ever possibly have.