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Parties may have been smaller but they were still festive

Many celebrations were scaled down last year, but that doesn't mean the soirees weren't special.

January 10, 2010|By Ellen Olivier

There are many measures of the "great recession of 2009" -- unemployment numbers, store closings and graduate school applications among them. But what about the parties and events for which Southern California is known? What about the skywriting, snow machines and ice sculptures?

Local party planners and event producers offer a mixed report: During the last year, $1-million bashes still took place, and individuals with money still celebrated weddings and birthdays in style. But many planners say that a majority of big party-givers -- whether private, corporate or nonprofit -- cut their budgets.

Party planners: A photo of a bar mitzvah that accompanied the Image section's Scene & Heard column on Sunday was credited to Radiant Photography. The company's full name is Radiant Digital Photography. —

"There is a sensitivity to perception," said Cheryl Cecchetto of Los Angeles-based Sequoia Productions, which produces some of the town's biggest soirees, including the Academy Awards Governors Ball. "People don't want to be over-the-top and ostentatious."

So in some circumstances, the hosts pulled back a bit. "One typical corporate client had a lunch this year instead of a big holiday celebration," said Mistyka Garcia of Special Occasions of Beverly Hills. "We left a gift on the chairs with a tag that invited people to the conference room. We had the whole lunch spread out there and old Hollywood holiday films playing. It lasted about 2½ hours and it was more economical."

Mindy Weiss of Mindy Weiss Party Consultants says clients are proceeding with caution. On Nov. 1, she didn't have a holiday party on the books of her Beverly Hills-based business but wound up with a sudden rush of 11 events in December: six corporate and five private.

Weiss said her clients chose old-fashioned, traditional parties for the holidays. For Ryan Seacrest's company soiree, her firm arranged for classic Christmas foods and a Santa and Mrs. Claus to pose with guests for photos. With "old Hollywood" the theme, Weiss brought in palm trees, a faux "Rat Pack" to sing holiday songs, and a Marilyn Monroe look-alike to croon "Happy Birthday" to Seacrest, whose birthday is Dec. 24.

With fewer holiday gatherings overall, the result -- if unintentional -- was an impressive acceptance rate. "Things haven't kicked back in yet," said Michael Gapinski of Iconic Event Studios of Beverly Hills. "So when holiday events did happen this year, the RSVPs were through the roof. People were so excited to be invited to a party."

According to Ben Bourgeois of J. Ben Bourgeois Productions, "People are . . . still spending, but not in an obvious way. The days of Cristal, gold-plate and Beluga caviar are gone."

Yet he said there are times when big budgets are appropriate, for example, for a major product launch, such as the October introduction by Van Cleef & Arpels of a new line of jewels. With "California Reverie" the collection's name, Bourgeois, who is also based in L.A., staged a gala on a Malibu estate with "dancing fountains" that were similar to those at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. For a water source, the supplier built an above-ground tank to hold enough water to shoot multiple streams into the air, in this case in time to Beach Boys music.

"Van Cleef was doing something parallel to the quality of what they were showing," Bourgeois said. "You're looking at jewelry that's worth millions of dollars. You can't tiptoe that into the public."

Several planners and producers found that events such as weddings and bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs had fewer cutbacks and sometimes required more ingenuity.

For a summer wedding, Garcia said her clients wanted to make use of their swimming pool, so she hired models to dress as mermaids and lounge on risers inside the pool.

For a bat mitzvah, Mark Yumkas of L.A.-based Angel City Designs arranged for the girl-of-the-moment to play piano onstage and then, halfway through the piece, a curtain opened to reveal a small orchestra behind her. For a bar mitzvah, Yumkas re-created the seaside resort of Rehoboth Beach, Del., the family's vacation spot, by bringing in boardwalk arcade games, bumper cars and fast food from the town's restaurants.

Bringing a destination to guests, as opposed to vice versa, made even more sense this year. According to Yifat Oren of Yifat Oren & Associates of Sherman Oaks, "People don't feel comfortable asking their guests to travel to celebrate. They're a lot more cognizant of other people's hardships." That said, Oren still staged one four-day destination wedding in Jamaica.

Kathleen Sacchi of Glendale's Kathleen Sacchi the Fine Art of Events saw parties as numerous this year, but smaller. "I work with so many different caterers and know they were all busy. I'm not talking about the 200 to 500 people parties, but people were having parties, anywhere from 30 to 40, and nothing more than 70 to 80," she said.

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