Archive for May, 2007

What Does The Guest Of Honor Do For Fun? NOTHING!

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

I was once hired to write a comic song for a 40th birthday honoree – a very driven and successful businessman. While his professional skills were well-known, I had never heard anything about his private interests. So I asked his wife for some insight into his hobbies.

“He has none,” was her reply. I tried again, seeking information about how he relaxed and what he did for fun. “Nothing,” said the spouse. “He just makes money.”

She wasn’t kidding. At the party, poster-sized photos of the birthday boy told his life story from infancy to multi-millionaire. Guests enjoyed a seafood buffet, laughed politely at my song, and drank the honoree’s very fine champagne. Meanwhile, the object of everyone’s attention paced the room like a caged cheetah. Clearly, a good time was had by all – except him.

Before leaving, I expressed my regrets to “Mr. Fun’s” wife that she put so much apparently-unappreciated effort into her husband’s event. “Oh,” she exclaimed. “Compared to his 30th birthday, he was a party animal tonight! By the time he is 50, he may actually smile!”

I took three life lessons from this encounter:
1.) You have to know where someone started from to see how far they’ve come.
2.) Just because you don’t want to celebrate your own special occasions, those who love you should feel perfectly free to do so. And
3.) There are times when the most uptight, humor-challenged, and undeserving among us still manage to find a loving, caring partner – in spite of ourselves. (Even caged cheetahs.)

“Here Comes The Bride” (And Other Nazi Melodies)

Monday, May 28th, 2007

Adolf Hitler l-o-v-e-d the big, bold, bombastic music of Richard Wagner (pronounced “REEK-hart VOGG-ner”). Mark Twain, on the other hand, once famously remarked that “Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds.”

If Wagner had confined his bluster to the Ring Trilogy and other operatic works extolling the superiority of Aryan Germans, he wouldn’t be held in such personal disrepute today. Unfortunately, his anti-Jewish rantings – which Hitler also found brilliant – were as numerous and noisy as his musical compositions.

Which brings us to “Here Comes The Bride” (“The Bridal Chorus”). Wagner composed it for his opera Lohengrin. Millions of brides have marched down the aisle to this familiar tune. Few of them, however, were Jewish. And I strongly recommend that any bride who is Jewish, is marrying into a Jewish family, or expects Jewish guests at her wedding, should go to “Plan B,” (which is:anything but Wagner, please!)

Or – perhaps I should say – almost anything but Wagner. Because most American brides and grooms promenade back up the aisle at the conclusion of their wedding to a recessional written by Felix Mendelssohn. This, too, poses a problem.

The composer’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a brilliant Jewish scholar and philosopher. Felix, however, repudiated the faith of his ancestors. For a Jew living in Germany in the 19th century, this was a shrewd – if weasel-like – career move. It opened doors for him which would otherwise have remained shut. But it didn’t win him any points for personal integrity. Thus Mendelssohn is also a poor choice for any wedding with a Jewish component.

But, if the two most common pieces of music for American brides are off-limits, what can you play? Well – how about these?

Pachelbel’s “Canon In D” is a majestic work and a wonderful processional. Vivaldi’s “Spring” from “The Four Seasons” is lively, and works equally well whether the bride is entering (the pro-cessional) or exiting (the re-cessional.) You should also check out Bach’s “Arioso” and Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy.”

“Trumpet Voluntary” is frequently used for the entrance of the bridesmaids, but – especially with real trumpet(s) – it makes a terrific processional. The similarly-named “Trumpet Tune” was composed for the wedding of the Prince of Denmark. If you have already hired a trumpeter anyway, it makes a great musical bookend as the bride and groom depart.

Depending on the rules where you say your vows (and some places have LOTS of rules), more modern music is also a possibility. In fact, one mature bride of my acquaintance got a huge laugh recently by entering to Etta James’ “At Last.”

Best of all, none of the above-named pieces will involve you in a major religious controversy (when all you really wanted to do was get in and out of the ceremony!)

Warning: Budget-Bu$ting “Hidden Cost$” Ahead

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

It is hard enough to keep your special event on budget without “hidden” costs, which – for purposes of this discussion – will be defined as “any fee (no matter how small) which is not specifically and explicitly spelled out to you, prior to purchase.”

A few of these budget wreckers, found only in the fine print, are:

Gratuities. When you go to a restaurant, your waiter’s tip is based on the quality of his service. But the venue for your big event may include a predetermined level of “gratuity.” 15% is common, and you are charged whether the service is exemplary – or not.

“Corking” fees. You expected to pay for each bottle of wine or champagne. But what? You mean you actually wanted those bottles opened?

Valet. Some venues that offer “free” valet parking still charge you for each car. Three to five dollars per vehicle, multiplied by 100 autos = $300 – $500 more out of your pocket.

PA System. Want a microphone? That’s $35. Want it on a stand? $15 more. Your venue may not charge for this, but you need to know in advance if they do.

Electricity. If your band or deejay requires extra electrical power to run their sound and lights, many venues are happy to “drop” a quad box to them – for $50.

Staging. Would you like a podium on a small stage, with steps leading up, and an attractive black skirting around the base? What’s it worth to you?

Piano. Your venue probably has a piano. Can you use it? Sure! But what will it cost you? (Often, you are charged both for moving the piano and for tuning it.)

Food. No – not your food. We’re talking about the meal you agreed to provide your band or deejay (clause number 77 in their contract’s fine print.) If they also require a “break room” in which to enjoy this food during their intermissions, the venue can charge you for this, as well.

Taxes. After the venue, caterer, A-V company, and musicians are through destroying your budget – here comes the governor! State and local taxes add yet another 8% or more to your final costs.

Sadly, this is only a partial list of your potential “hidden” costs (be sure to check on cash bar and “security” fees, too.) My advice: ask lots of questions and get everything in writing. Otherwise, prepare for your budget to budge, bulge, then burst.

Taking That “Perfect” Party Theme One Step Too Far

Monday, May 21st, 2007

This year, February 14th fell on a Wednesday. The following Saturday night, nobody wanted to host an after-the-fact Valentine-themed event. But guess what? It was Chinese New Year! So what was the theme of a party I attended that weekend? You got it – “Welcome: The Year Of The Pig!” (I could not make this stuff up!)

Now… you may be saying, “Uh – were they Chinese?” And the answer is: of course not! They were simply a committee of local party veterans, trying to come up with a theme that hadn’t been done a zillion times before (ie. “April In Paris” or “Autumn Leaves.”)

“Finding a theme” is a job committees fret over much more than do their guests. It is also something which they – in their zeal – occasionally take too far for their particular crowd.

Actually, the Chinese New Year party worked pretty well for most of the night. The decor was colorful and the food sumptuous. The guests, a mature and well-travelled group, were decked out in saris and kimonos purchased in their world-wide treks. It looked like the planning committee had scored a triumph. All their efforts and creativity were really paying off.

But then came the “dragon ceremony,” in which a bunch of young Asian men with drums, bells, and a long undulating cloth “dragon” did the Conga through the crowd. The bells and dragon were fine. But the drums would have been loud – outside. In a medium-sized ballroom, they were deafening. For an older crowd, it was an unfortunate choice. After all, the committee wouldn’t have hired a heavy metal band. And they would never have wanted a Boeing 757 to rev its jets in the ballroom. But if they had, the effect would have been about the same on this audience: 110+ decibels of pain-inducing percussion resulting in massive early departures.

So the next time someone suggests “Chinese New Year” as a theme, survivors of this event will still have a bad taste in their mouth. And that’s a shame. After all, the won-tons were terrific. But next year, let’s skip the tom-toms.

My Big, Fat, Multi-Ethnic Wedding

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

Ethnic weddings are terrific!

They are filled with Old World charm and unique traditions. Food, decor, and music combine with centuries-old customs to create a direct, tangible connection to the participants’ rich cultural heritage. Such gatherings are the closest those in attendance will ever come to time-travel, as the sights, sounds, and aromas (of exotic dishes) transport them to distant eras and places. They also imprint a sense of ethnic identity and pride in those youngest guests who are otherwise “all-American.” As such, they perform an important sociological function.

Besides all that, they are really, really fun!

But – what if only one of the families is of a particular ethnic and cultural persuasion? What if the other is White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant? Do we serve both Wonder and rye breads? To complicate matters further, what if the marriage unites representatives of two very distinct groups (like Italian and Korean, for instance)?

My suggestion is simple, yet observes proper wedding protocol. Since the groom’s mom and dad give the rehearsal dinner, while the bride’s parents host the wedding ceremony and reception, let each family follow their own traditions at the gathering for which they are personally responsible. In this way, all bases are fully covered.

One further option is possible: let the ceremony combine elements of both cultures (with a rabbi and a priest or minister officiating, for example.) However, please note that I only say this option is possible. The bride can choose to do this, but she is in no way obligated to do so (please see my entry for March 14th, “Whose Party Is This?” for more on this topic.) With regard to the ceremony and reception, the bride’s decision is final.

Lastly, be assured that your guests will be enchanted by the unique elements of your cross-cultural wedding. This is one occasion when your “Roots” should be showing! Don’t hesitate to grab your “white bread” friends by the hands and lead them onto the dance floor for a polka, hora, or tarantella. Opa!! L’chaim!! Congratulations, y’all!!

Murphy Was An Optimist!

Monday, May 14th, 2007

Murphy’s Law says “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

Even if your town has gone 143 days without measurable precipitation, it will rain or your parade (or backyard party, wedding, family reunion, etc.) And if it doesn’t rain, you’ll have hail, locusts, or a dust storm. Worse yet, the disaster that befalls you may turn out to have been both preventable and man-made (like forgetting to turn off the timer on the lawn sprinkler.) For more reasons not to plan your event anywhere except a climate-controlled ballroom, please read my entry for March 12, 2007: “The Inconvenient Truth About Outdoor Events.”

However, just because you are indoors doesn’t mean Murphy will go bother someone else. At my first event this past Saturday – a festive afternoon gathering in the lobby of a high-rise condominium – beautiful piano music was supposed to fill the air. Unfortunately, no one had remembered to turn off the Muzak. And the only person with a key to the canned music was – of course – someone who leaves the building at 5PM on Friday and doesn’t return until Monday. So, the baby grand was in a perfect spot, and the piano tuner, decorators, and caterer had all done their jobs. Everything was ideal, except that there was one music source too many. Live piano competed with Memorex strings and the guests were the losers.

No such problem marred the evening event – a wedding reception at a local country club. In fact everything went splendidly, right up to the stroke of 11PM. That’s when the air conditioner turned itself off. Somebody, it seems, forgot to re-program the system. By the time the glitch was caught and rectified, the damage was done. The dancers – including the bride and groom – were miserably hot, and what had up ’til then been the “perfect” night ended on a down-note. Once again, a “little” thing – easily overlooked – became a big problem.

Of such tiny oversights are party disasters made. When the event is yours, becoming a nit-picky detail freak pessimist is not necessarily a bad thing. Never blithely assume that things will turn out all right or take care of themselves. Opportunity knocks but once – Murphy, however, comes back again and again. Only your obsessive attention to the “little” things will keep him from crashing your party.

“Different” Isn’t Always “Better”

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

Good News: The days of one-size-fits-all weddings and receptions are over. Feel free to be creative, original, and “different.”

Bad News: “Different” isn’t always “better.”

Ceremonies and receptions tend to follow a predictable pattern (with some variations by religion and ethnic background). From the exchange of rings to the tossing of the bouquet, each milestone cues the guests that the event has moved to its next phase. For your friends and family members, there is a certain comfort level associated with these familiar rites. They are somewhat akin to that sign at the mall entrance that says “you are here.” For example, cutting the cake signals the crowd that dinner is over, and the party portion of the evening has begun. They feel more free to dance or visit at other tables, rather than sit in their assigned seats.

For this reason, the wholesale shuffling of the usual order of events sometimes creates a sense of confusion among your guests. Instead of knowing “you are here,” they wonder “we are… where?”

This is why it is wise to personalize your event, without totally ignoring the usual conventions. So, how can you make your wedding “different” – but not “too different?” Here are a couple of simple suggestions:

1. Offer the bridal bouquet to the longest-married couple, rather than just tossing it to your single friends (or not tossing it at all.)

2. At many receptions, the ceremonial “first dance” is between the bride and groom. This is followed by the “Daddy dance.” For a creative change, dance first with your father, then have the groom cut in. Not only does this alter the typical flow of the special dances, it symbolically represents your transition from daughter to wife.

By balancing your desire to be “different” with your guests’ wish to know “where they are,” you can create an event that is both unique and yet comfortingly familar. And that’s the best “different” of all.

Name That Tune (And Be VERY Specific.)

Monday, May 7th, 2007

For many brides, the most nerve-wracking event of their wedding day is not the vows or the honeymoon night. It is a rite which comes in between: the first dance. Knowing that all eyes will be on them, some brides and grooms rehearse endlessly the exact steps, dips, and dives of that spotlight dance, only to discover – too late – that the band or deejay misunderstood exactly which music the “happy” couple desired.

In my career, I have played Aretha Franklin’s “Baby I Love You” when the bride was actually expecting an Andy Kim song of the same name, and once performed “The Best Of Times” (a Broadway show tune) when a Styx anthem of identical title was desired.

Such glaring errors (there’s nothing quite like having the bride stop in her tracks and say “what the **** is that?” to get the reception off to a great start) are easily avoided. When requesting her special song, a bride must merely say something like, “we love Rod Stewart’s rendition of ‘Time After Time’” – which is a completely different composition from Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Even the right song can be played wrong – Michael Buble’s take on “Try A Little Tenderness” is very different from the Otis Redding or 3 Dog Night versions. So it’s crucial that your musicians know not only what song to play, but also which version.

Communicating the correct title is also vital. For instance, I know 2 separate songs called “Memories,” neither one of which are from the Broadway show “Cats.” (That hit is actually called “Memory” – singular.) If you want to ensure that Andrew Lloyd Webber is playing as you go into your choreography, Name That Tune accurately.

Otherwise, even before you get started, you could be singing “The Party’s Over” (which is either a Polly Bergen ballad or a Willie Nelson honky tonker. Take your pick – but both of them will start your first dance on the wrong foot.)

A Master’s-Level Class In Crowd And Clock Management

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

What do weddings and fund-raisers usually have in common? Typically, the persons in charge are have absolutely no experience whatever at planning such an event. They are first-timers.

So it was both a joy and an education this past weekend to be at a fund-raising event run by an organization which has amended their constitution to include the following officers: president-elect and past-president. This guarantees continuity and experience for their annual charity ball.

The president-elect has a full year of dealing with committees, venues, and donors before assuming the reins herself. Meanwhile, the lady in charge (this year’s president) can call upon last year’s edition (the past president) for her advice. With so much combined experience, the resulting evening smoothly stuffed about six hours worth of activities into their 4-hour event.

Cocktails were cleverly held in the Silent Auction area, affording guests the opportunity to peruse the many donated items and start the bidding early (which tends to raise the final prices.) The six Live Auction items were sold – 2 at a time – after the salads, entrees, and desserts were set at each table. Prior to their auctions, small items (an AKC-registered puppy, a diamond bracelet) were taken table-to-table by volunteers, so everyone could “ooh” and “ahh” up close. Finally, door prizes and the big raffle winner were announced during the band intermission at 11:00.

In this way, between 8PM and midnight, without anyone feeling either rushed or bored, a stunningly successful combination of fun and fund-raising took place. When I complimented the president on her amazingly organized evening, she shared with me the secret: continuity of key players. Her 50-year old organization learned over the decades that perfect parties don’t just happen – they take teamwork. So they made the necessary changes in their officer structure to ensure that their one big night of fund-raising is both enjoyable and profitable.

I was awed, and that doesn’t happen often. And just think – by her third wedding, brides will have this same kind of party-planning experience!