Archive for May, 2010

If You’re Not Going To Dance – Don’t Have A Band!

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Often, only a few hours after pledging to stay together “for better or worse,” comes the first “worse” of the new marriage: the dance of the bride and groom. All alone on a huge dance floor, with every eye and camera lens focused on them, the wedding couple put on their fixed smiles and try to simply survive the next 2 minutes of pure hell. For many, it’s the hardest part of the whole nuptial experience and the one they are most glad to have behind them.

Sadly, it’s also one they were totally free to skip.

That’s right – if dancing in front of a gaggle of well-wishing gawkers is like having your heart cut out, then this is a self-induced cardiectomy. Simply put, you don’t have to do it, any more than the groom is required to go down on one knee when proposing, or the bride has to submit to being carried over the threshold. These customs and many more are part of a huge tapestry of regional, religious, and ethnic traditions that are observed by some couples – and totally ignored by others.

Just as you are free to write your own wedding vows, or to choose which clauses of an existing set to include, you get to pick which aspects of the reception best reflect who you are, and what makes you (un)comfortable.

So if you don’t wanna dance, at your wedding, you don’t gotta dance.

But understand, that – at your wedding – if you don’t dance, neither will anyone else. Dancing at weddings always follows the lead of the bride and groom. If you aren’t prepared to trip the light fantastic early and often to “prime the pump” on the old dance floor, then just don’t have a dance floor. Don’t have a band or deejay either. Both will only call attention to the fact that – like you – no one else is dancing. Instead, hire a pianist. Or better yet – a harp (the classiest solo instrument on earth, but not one that immediately causes guests to pack a dance floor.)

Having a solo musician makes for a quieter reception, facilitates conversation at normal – rather than shouted – levels, and usually costs a whole lot less than a band you’re not really going to benefit from, anyway. You can still proceed with all the other major events of the typical wedding gala: the champagne toast, cutting of the cake, big departure, etc. Without a band to remind folks that you didn’t dance, most of your guests won’t even notice.

But having a band (“for the guests”) won’t work. It will add needless noise, expense, and a gnawing sense that – because no one is dancing – that folks aren’t having fun. So, contrary to the swooshy shoe slogan, “Just DON’T Do It!” If your guests are such disco maniacs that they still have a need to boogie after your departure, they can always go club hopping later.

Face it – some “worses” in married life are unavoidable. But if dancing in public is sheer misery for you, this is one “worse” you can make “better” – instantly.

Speaking With One Voice To Your Vendors – Preferably A Professional One

Monday, May 24th, 2010

When planning a major social event, committees are great! The work load is divided among multiple individuals, meaning that – in theory – more folks are spending more time paying more attention to all the myriad details that ensure a great party.

But two problems arise with alarming frequency when semi-autonomous worker bees are engaged in largely independent planning.

First, one group may adversely impact another without either being aware of it (until it’s too late.) For instance, a venue has only so many power outlets and total amperes of power. Often, by the time the band or deejay arrives to set up the music for the evening, every single outlet and all the available power have been used by the caterer and the decorators. Even if we all agree that dramatic lighting is wonderful – you can’t dance to it. So it is much easier on all concerned when – before any other steps are taken – a survey is made of how much power, space, and set-up time are needed for the various vendors. Priorities and schedules can then be laid out. (For instance, those decorating the stage can know that they need to leave 4 power outlets for the band and be finished dressing the stage 2 hours before the event so that the band can then come in to set up.)

Secondly, diverse department heads commonly issue conflicting instructions to their vendors. For example, to keep the flowers from wilting, one chairman may have the venue lower the thermostat to a meat locker chill. Then, when another chair arrives, she will immediately chastise the banquets captain for having the room so cold. With no single person in overall command, the venue has no choice but to follow each and every order, no matter how contradictory they may be.

What’s the solution for these problems? Well, one answer is to rely on an experienced party chairperson who will not only coordinate between the different committee heads, but will be the one – and only – person designated to be the “voice” of the committee to vendors. If and when such a person is not to be found (or when committee heads refuse to recognize their superiority), a party professional is the best idea of all. Not only have they “been there and done that” with regard to the many details of organizing a successful event, but they are also a neutral 3rd party, removed from the internal politics of the hosts.

Party professionals are sometimes perceived as an unnecessary or added expense to an event. In truth, their experience often saves moneys wasted through overlaps and duplication. And – for the headaches, heartaches, and hard feelings they prevent – they are a priceless investment. So if you are lacking a qualified amateur volunteer-leader, ask a few good friends for recommendations of pros they have worked well with, who stayed within their budgets, and with whom they would be glad to work again. Both your vendors and you will be glad you did.

Parties go smoothest with a veteran hand at the helm. If your organization doesn’t have one – rent one!

Does Your Venue Have A Piano? If So, Do You Really WANT It?

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

There was a time when virtually every venue, even the banquet room of your neighborhood restaurant, had a piano. It may have been a spinet with a less-than Steinway tone. It may have been too fragile to move to the place where you really needed it. And it may not have been tuned since it left the factory. But – if you asked – you would be told, “Why yes! Of course we have a piano!”

Those days are – for the most part – gone. I travel to every engagement with a full 88-note Yamaha keyboard in the van with me. As long as I have electricity, I’m in business. If the venue has a decent piano, so much the better. But I never assume that they will. (And neither should you.)

A good piano, baby grand or bigger, adds the look of class to your party. Whether it adds anything musically is another matter entirely. To be useful, it needs to be in tune with itself, somewhere near the industry standard of A-440. (Otherwise, even if it sounds fine alone, other instruments may not be able to tune up with it.) It also needs to be where it will work best for your needs, and able to be pointed in the right direction. Many venues that have pianos point them so that their keyboards face the room. This is great for watching the pianist’s hands at work, but inevitably means that his back will be to you.

To facilitate moving their pianos without damaging them, thoughtful venues place them on Y-shaped steel frames with oversized, easy-rolling wheels. These wheels aren’t pretty, but they are extremely functional. (They can also be hidden by placing a little greenery around the base of the piano.)

But – if you want a real piano at your event – you need to run through a checklist with your catering executive.

1. Is there a piano? 2. Is there a charge for using it or moving it to where you need it? (And – if so – how much?) 3. Is it tuned regularly? (Otherwise, you may need to add $200 to your budget to be sure it sounds as good as it looks.) 4. Can it be pointed a different direction, if necessary? (For instance, I like to face my audiences, not have my back to them.) 5. Can it be placed on a stage for better visibility? (And – if so – are there charges for this?)

If having a real piano is important to you, but your venue can’t oblige, you can rent a piano for the night. It will be delivered, assembled, tuned, dusted, placed exactly how you want it, and then removed afterward. It will also add significantly to your budget.

So – just in case the price of having an authentic and aesthetically pleasing piano becomes prohibitive – be sure that your ivory tickler has a perhaps not-so elegant (but very portable and always in-tune) keyboard handy. What such instruments lack in beauty, they more than make up for in reliability and economy.

Avoiding Budget-Busting High-Pressure Sales Tactics

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Certain realtors of my acquaintance love for the first house they show prospective buyers to be one which is from $10k to $50k above their clients’ stated price range. Naturally such homes have more architectural features, amenities, and square feet than every subsequent house viewed, making all the rest look seedy in comparison.

Surprise, surprise – certain wedding and party vendors indulge in similar tactics, to sell you more and bigger of everything your event needs. And, if you let them, they’ll have you buying truffles (even if you have a Triskets budget.)

How then can you avoid being bankrupted by unscrupulous salesmen who care only for their bottom line – not yours? Well, it will help if you simply read on.

1. Know the “tricks.” The classic high-pressure sales pitch, whether used by the late Billy Mays or The Music Man‘s phony Professor Harold Hill (“Ya got trouble my friends – right here in River City…”) starts with getting you to believe that you have a problem. Madison Avenue survives by its ability to convince us that “waxy yellow build-up,” “ring around the collar,” hair where we don’t want it (or no hair where we do) is a terrible and embarrassing blight on our good name. Where parties are concerned, this manifests itself in getting the “right” venue (even if it is too big for your needs), music (in which “right” actually means “most expensive”), wardrobe, and more. Without all these “right” touches, the high-pressure agents and sales reps will claim, your party is doomed to failure. Once you are hooked, you are then told that only one miraculous cure exists for this condition, a “cure” that often leads to other problems, of the financial kind. By recognizing that aggressive sales personnel derive their income by getting you to spend ever more – and that such salespeople may not really have your best interests in mind – you are better prepared to counter their pressures.

2. Be prepared to walk. It’s always good to tell your vendors (up front) that you won’t even look at something above your designated budget. It’s something else entirely to actually walk out when they test your resolve with cunning and manipulation. But that’s the only way to protect your purse. Once they know you are serious, some vendors will behave with more restraint. But I wouldn’t trust them, and – if other vendors of similar services are available (who haven’t tried to screw you) – I’d go with them.

Economic hard times create a reduced demand for parties, and that means problems for party professionals. Just don’t let their problems become yours.

The Importance Of An Alert Music Provider

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Great band leaders and DJs are so tuned in to the parties they play that they almost seem – in some mystical, zen-like way – to become “one” with the event. And that’s exactly the kind professional you want at your important celebration.

Because they are usually elevated on a stage and have a commanding view of the venue (and also because they are typically facing into the room), music providers are often the best “life guard” your party can have. When a candle ignites the menu card one of your guests left leaning against a centerpiece, when an older guest faints or falls, or when an unsupervised little tyke is about to help himself to the wedding cake – 2 hours early – a timely word of warning from the bandstand frequently keeps potential problems from becoming major ones.

The stage is also a good vantage point for seeing “Kodak Moments” that your photo and video professional might otherwise miss. One reason I ask my brides for the names of those recording their event for posterity is simply so that I can alert them more quickly when a treasured shot presents itself.

But the biggest and most common way for music pros to help a party is to keep tabs on the mood of the crowd. All too often, the bride or host may be so overwhelmed by well-wishers that they fail to observe the subtle signs that their guests are getting antsy, bored, or just ready to “cut the cake, already.”

At a birthday party my band played last night, we were scheduled from 7 – 11PM, and were expecting an intermission around 10:00 for toasts to the guest of honor. But by 15 before that hour, so many guests were already saying their thank-yous and goodbyes, that I realized taking a break would kill what was left of the party. To keep any momentum happening at all, I had to hang on to as many dancers as possible.

I promised the band that they’d either get off early or be paid extra (even if I had to pay them out of my share), but that we were not going to take a break. The event did indeed finish early, but at least slowed down gradually – rather than ending abruptly (which would have occurred, had we stopped playing.)

The band ended the night happily, off a half-hour early. The hostess and honoree were likewise pleased that the band had stayed on stage for an extra-long set. And I was happy because they were all happy.

So – as you plan your next event – try to see your music professional in action, if possible. They should make wonderful music, for sure. But as you evaluate their appropriateness for your party, ask yourself: is this guy or gal “tuned in?” If not, then you should change the channel – immediately.

It’s YOUR Wedding – Not Your Vendors’!

Monday, May 10th, 2010

Let’s be real here: unless something amazingly unusual (like President Obama escorting the bride down the aisle) or really bad (like the cake giving all your guests food poisoning) happens at your wedding, do you really think any of your vendors (consultants, florists, decorators, music providers, etc.) are going to remember much about it – 10 or 20 years from now? When you consider that those same vendors will have worked hundreds of events since yours, it would be a very rare party professional indeed who would have anything more than a fleeting recollection of your ceremony and reception.

You, on the other hand, will remember everything – especially when your memories are aided by photos and video from the evening. Every future wedding you attend will only serve to reinforce (not blur) these recollections, as you compare what others do better, less well, or simply differently than you.

So who then, should be the ultimate decision-maker regarding your wedding? As you might guess, given the 2 paragraphs above, I vote for you. Vendors will never have the same emotional investment in your wedding that you do. And they will go on to other weddings the next day or following week. Your wedding is yours – forever.

So if any vendor tries to talk you into anything that busts your budget, or will add to the stress of an already-emotional day, you can and should exercise your power of the veto. It’s not “their” event – it’s yours. Any “statements” made there (by what you wear, where you choose as a venue, etc.) should reflect your tastes and bankroll, not the whims of a party professional seeking to advance their own agenda or career.

So sure – listen to their suggestions. And, especially when they draw on their years of experience to keep you from making what may be a costly (or needless) mistake, consider what they have to say. But ultimately, the real issue is whether they are the right vendors for you, not whether you are right for them. So you don’t ever have to do, say, or wear anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.

As long as you stay within your finances (and don’t break any laws), when it’s your wedding, your opinion trumps everybody.

Isn’t It Romantic (The Big Finish!)

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

In my last post, I went way out on a limb by claiming that I could and would authoritatively and definitively list the 10 Most Romantic Songs In The Movies – Ever. I then proceeded to offer my choices for places 10 through 6.

Today, I’ll just go ahead and saw that limb completely off. Because here are the rest of my choices:

5. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (Play Misty For Me, 1971) For his first directorial effort, Clint Eastwood chose a Hitchcockian chiller about the fury of a stalker scorned. Clint played a disc jockey who becomes the victim of fan-turned-fanatic Jessica Walter. 2/3 through the film, he (and we) think she’s been institutionalized, and it’s with a huge sigh of relief that we (and he) enjoy his romantic R&R with lovely Donna Mills. Their background music, from Roberta Flack’s 1969 album “First Take” (so named because her tight budget barely allowed for one pass on each song), was a category-defying song composed by British folkie Ewan MacColl for his wife Peggy Seeger (daughter of Pete.) With lyrics that could have come straight from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet (including a unique repetition of each verse’s last phrase), and aided by Flack’s vibrato-free perfect pitch, the song had exactly the effect Eastwood desired: it lulled us into a false sense of security so that Clint could scare the bejeebers out of us moments later.

4. Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956.) This was another Hitchcockian thriller, one directed by Hitch himself. And in this case, the song not only pushes the plot forward, it provides the solution for stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. Their son has been kidnapped and is being held hostage in the London embassy of an “un-named ” East European country (Russia – c’mon! We all knew they were Russkies!) Doris and Jimmy somehow wrangle invites to a soiree at the embassy, where Doris is – of course – invited to sing. And naturally, she warbles the tune she had sung to her son earlier in the film. Upstairs, the boy hears his mother’s dulcet tones and begins singing back to her, and they all live happily ever after. In non-musicals, songs have rarely been used to propel a story to its conclusion so effectively. It’s a shame Sir Alfred never tried it again.

3. The Shadow Of Your Smile (The Sandpiper, 1965.) The turbulent romance of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor sold forests-worth of tabloids, produced a few good films (and some real stinkers, too), and gave us one spectacular song. In The Sandpiper, Liz is an artsy-bohemian type who seduces a married minister (Burton, of course). While okay, the film is chiefly notable for offering Charles Bronson a chance to play against type as a beatnik sculptor. “Shadow Of Your Smile” won the Best Song Oscar and the Song Of The Year Grammy, both well-deserved. Paul Francis Webster’s lyrics (including a seldom-sung verse that ties in with the plot of the movie) are superb. But it is Johnny Mandel’s amazingly-constructed tune (what other song in the Key of G can you think of that starts on an F# minor 7th?) that lingers.

2. What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life? (The Happy Ending, 1969). The Happy Ending didn’t have one – either on-screen or off. A well-acted drama about Jean Simmons’ mid-life crisis, it never quite found an audience when up against Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, True Grit, and Midnight Cowboy. So most folks who know the song may not even realize that it’s from a movie. But they certainly know it is a supremely-crafted triumph of the songwriter’s art. The lyrics from husband-wife team Marilyn and Alan Bergman (who also wrote the words to “The Way We Were,” “The Windmills Of Your Mind,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” and other moody masterpieces) mesh perfectly with 3-time Oscar winner Michel LeGrand’s minor-to-major (and back again) melody. If anyone reading this is a student of perfect song construction, then said reader should check out this tune – now!

1. As Time Goes By (Casablanca, 1942). Herman Hupfield is alleged to have composed this tune in 1931. I say “alleged”, because it’s hard to believe the same guy who wrote “When Yuba Plays The Rhumba On The Tuba” or “Goopy Geer (He Plays Piano And He Plays By Ear)” could possibly write something so sublime. Of course, it also beggars the imagination to think that vacationing high school teacher and unpublished playwright Murray Burnett would hear the tune being played (in a club very much like Rick’s, by a pianist very much like “Sam”) and include it in “Everybody Comes To Rick’s”, the un-produced play which went on to become one of the best and most-loved films of all time: Casablanca (that’s pretty good work for a rookie!). But what is most difficult to believe is that veteran composer Max Steiner (“Tara’s Theme” from Gone With The Wind, “Theme From A Summer Place”) would even consider replacing the song in the finished film. Indeed, he never understood its appeal, admitting only that “…there’s something there…” that people are attracted to. Yes, I guess there is. And we’ve been attracted to it ever since Ingrid and Bogey and “We’ll always have Paris.”

The American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 movie songs of all time lists the song Sam played when Bogey said “Play it again, Sam” (except – I’m sure you know – Bogey never said it) at number 2 – giving “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” top billing. Yeah – that’s a good little tune, too. But my list is for romantic songs only. And this one’s the best.

Isn’t It Romantic? (Part 1)

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Moses started the whole “Top 10″ list phenomenon. It has since spread to include J. Edgar Hoover’s Public Enemies and Mr. Blackwell’s Worst Dressed. And – many nights – it’s by far the best part of the Letterman show.

But I would have to be crazy to even dream of creating a definitive Top 10 Most Romantic Songs Of The Movies. Love songs are by their very nature so personal and idiosyncratic that no single list could ever hope to capture the 10 best, by any objective criteria. I’d be a fool to even try.

So that is exactly what I’ve done. What follows are my selections for positions 6 through 10. (The top 5 will follow, next time.)

10. (Our) Love Is Here To Stay. (The Goldwyn Follies, 1937.) George Gershwin spent the last 12 months of his life (he died of a brain tumor at age 38) composing songs for 3 Hollywood films. His creative output that year included “A Foggy Day In London Town,” “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and this gem. He arrived in a Hollywood where songs didn’t even have to be original to a film to earn a Best Song Oscar nomination. By his death, movie songs were pushing plots forward, rather than merely interrupting the storyline. I honor him both for this – his last – composition, and for showing the next generation of film composers (guys like Sammy Cahn and Henry Mancini) what was possible.

9. The Sweetheart Tree (The Great Race, 1965.) Speaking of Mancini, he both refined and defined the art of movie song composing. Along the way, we was nominated for an astounding 18 Oscars (winning 4.) “Moon River,” “The Days Of Wine And Roses,” and “Baby Elephant Walk” are but 3 of his catalog of hits. But – for me – the best of his romantic movie tunes occurred in the lull following a classic custard pie fight between hero Tony Curtis and comic villain Jack Lemmon. Natalie Wood, at her most hauntingly beautiful, picks up a guitar and strums this simple, yet elegant, waltz – almost whispering each line of the lyric. In what is otherwise a tribute to the knockabout comedy style of Laurel and Hardy (the film is even dedicated to them), it is 60 seconds of pure grace.

8. The Look Of Love (Casino Royale, 1967.) One of the great joys of any James Bond movie is its theme song, whether sung by brassy Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker) or sultry Carly Simon (“Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me). They almost always set the perfect tone for 007′s adventures. But it was the mostly awful ’67 “comedy” version of Ian Fleming’s first thriller (featuring 57 year old David Niven as 007) that gave us the best Bond song of all. Burt Bacharach was inspired to compose it while watching a film clip of Ursula Andress on a Movieola editing machine. (That would inspire me, too.) Dusty Springfield’s breathy delivery adds to the intimacy of Hal David’s lyrics, and makes the entire package one to savor like a fine wine.

7. I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You (Blue Hawaii, 1961.) If a “musical” can be defined as a film in which folks suddenly and spontaneously burst into song (accompanied by a full – if unseen – orchestra), then Elvis made more of them than anybody. This particular Elvis flick is no worse, and maybe a little better, than most of his output. But what really sets it apart is the moment when the Big E hands a music box-birthday gift to a mature Hawaiian lady and croons this love song to her with only minimal back-up (mostly from a celeste simulating the music box, Hawaiian “slack” steel guitar, ukelele, and vocals by the Jordanaires.) In its utter simplicity lies its eternal charm.

6. Unchained Melody (Unchained, 1955). 35 years before Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, and Ghost, and 10 years before Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield lent his soaring falsetto to “I n-e-e-e-e-d your love,” there was a little and soon forgotten prison flick called Unchained (hence the name, “Unchained Melody.”) Future Football Hall of Famer and then-current L.A. Ram Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch spent a few weeks of his off-season filming at the medium-security California Institution For Men in Chino (and no – he wasn’t singing this song to his bunk mate.) Soon-to-be “Della Street” Barbara Hale played the wife he longed to see. The film was quickly forgotten, but the song spawned over 500 different versions (by the Supremes, Roy Orbison, Elvis, and Cyndi Lauper – among many others.) Hatfield’s rendition topped the Adult Contemporary charts for 2 weeks in 1990 – an amazing feat for a 1965 recording!

Next Time: The Rest of the Best!