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Lights! Camera! Party! : When companies and individuals celebrate, they're turning to theme events that draw a curtain on the mundane world.


As darkness fell on a recent Saturday, a stream of couples in elegant attire flowed into Simi Valley's Radisson Hotel. They were met by an alarming crew of campy makeup artists, a fumbling script girl and a megaphone-waving director in baggy pants. The startled dinner guests had their clothing, "lines" and walk critiqued as they approached the double doors.

Inside, they entered a dark ballroom transformed into a sound studio with camera props, klieg lights and a big boom microphone over a tinseled stage. A robust Mae West appeared and led the evening's entertainment, which included impromptu videotapes of members of the audience.

The theme of the event was "You Oughta Be in Pictures" and the relatively staid members of the Simi Valley-Moorpark Board of Realtors were "auditioning" for roles at their own installation banquet.

The Realtors had walked right into a theme party, and they aren't alone. Throughout the county and the region innocent revelers are being similarly seduced. Party-throwers are turning more and more to theme events that draw a curtain on the mundane world, often employing actors or professional planners to enliven the occasion.

"The human psyche needs celebration," said Shelley Smilen of New Directions, the Simi Valley firm that came up with the "You Oughta" theme. The business opened last year in the midst of the recession, logged an immediate profit and doubled its engagements in 1991.

"It used to be their idea of a party out here was a beer keg and hot sandwiches from the deli," said Marie Anderson of Fandango Party Props in Newbury Park. Now, she said, "you can't have a party unless you have a theme."

Anderson and Smilen are event planners--a relatively new specialty in an age of specialists. It is their business to create for clients what is known in the trade as "total ambience." They concoct themes and search out entertainers, caterers, florists and graphic artists who can hone them to a fine edge.

Sometimes things fall flat. Last year when Smilen and her partner, Shari Schultz, put in a bid to stage a Realtors' banquet, they put half a year's planning into an exotic program they called "An Arabian Night's Fantasy."

"We had tents, sheiks, belly dancers ready to go," Smilen said. "The graphics were completed."

By August, 1990, Desert Shield had turned their dream party idea into a nightmare. The board wanted a sudden theme change.

"We practically stayed up all night long for two nights," she said. "We went through the newspapers to see, What country can we use? "

With maximum effort, "A Carnival in Rio" emerged in time for the party. It was good enough to get the planners a re-booking, which is typical, Schultz said. Once a corporate client tries a theme, it's hard to go back.

Take the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce. The chamber had always themed, said spokeswoman Pam Campeau, noting a typical program with the title "A Tribute to Past Presidents."

Last spring, the same group gathered under the theme "An Evening with the Stars," arranged by New Directions. Screaming autograph hounds, recruited from Simi Valley High School's cheerleading squad, greeted guests as they stepped from their cars. Look-alike performers resembling Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable mingled with guests. It surpassed the earlier "Tribute" in popularity, and the chamber is re-booking for 1992.

In the current economy, planners acknowledge, corporate entertaining is down. Companies are choosing a holiday party or a picnic instead of both. If they choose a party, it will probably be held in a boardroom instead of a hotel. But private parties are holding their own.

The most elaborate affairs, after weddings, Schultz said, are bar mitzvahs. When a planner is called in for such occasions, it is to develop an extensive theme--anything from baseball to Hollywood to teddy bears. Booked at upscale hotels, such events can run as high as six figures.

Anderson also reported a surge in business, and Fandango recently moved into warehouse quarters. It was a relief, she said, to finally get the gorillas, palm trees and alligators out of the house.

Unlike most planners, Anderson and her son and partner, Ed Holland, maintain their own props, which they build from foam core, pampas grass and other raw materials. Their inventory includes a 26-foot Eiffel Tower, classic columns that convert to a Colosseum or Greek temple, a small herd of burros and an animated werewolf and witch that cavort around tombstones.

Holland is a stickler for detail. His tombstones have authentic epitaphs gleaned from old almanacs. (Here lies Bert/ We buried him raw/ He was quick on the trigger/ But slow on the draw.)

Often, Fandango's clients present favorite themes of their own, which the partners flesh out with custom props.

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