5 Prized Party Pros
Want to recreate Casablanca in your backyard or throw an intimate dinner party for a few hundred of your favorite friends? Look no further (but do read on).
By Lois Podoshen
It’s your 25th wedding anniversary party and you want to recreate the charming little French chÃ¢teau where the two of you got engaged. Or maybe it’s your only daughter’s wedding and she just has to have real fireworks going off when she and her beloved share their first kiss as husband and wife. Or perhaps it’s your son’s bar mitzvah and he has his heart set on a Harry Potter theme, only he wants the party held at a real castle with real owls flying around, and an appearance from J.K. Rowling herself (oy!). Who ya gonna call?
If you’re smart—or at least know your limits—you’ll hire a professional party planner. Forget about party hats and pÃ¢tÃ©—these creative professionals will provide butterfly dancers on stilts, live elephants on foot and pretty much anything else (okay, I’m not sure about J.K. Rowling) that their ingenuity and your pocketbook will allow.
But beware: “There are probably thousands of people who think they’re party planners in the metropolitan area,” warns Jerry Austin, a New York City-based music and entertainment producer for Lou Davis Music & Entertainment, who has been on the party scene for more than 30 years. “Anyone who does a party believes he or she is a party planner. But it’s more than just getting place cards and balloons. A real party planner doesn’t go through the Yellow Pages to find a source, and a real party planner stays with you until the last guest gets in his car or on a plane.”
So how do you find a real party planner? The phone book lists some 50 party planning ser-vices in Westchester, but you need to do more than let your fingers do the walking. “People find planners by recommendation as well as by talking to vendors including florists, caterers or banquet managers,” says Scarsdale party planner Debra Lewin Weiner. To evaluate a planner’s abilities, she recommends observing events as well as calling references. “But most importantly, interview,” she says. “You can learn about their style, personality and approach.”
Five professional party planners have caught the eye of the rich, the famous and the discerning party givers in Westchester. Just maybe, one of them
will have the right style, personality, approach and fee for your next special occasion.
The Enterprising Trio
Tricia and Steel Swift, Aidan Corish
If you’re planning a pool party for next summer and want to make a really big splash with your friends, you might want to give this Pleasantville company a call. Perhaps Tangram’s enterprising trio of environmental designers and fabricators can provide you with synchronized swimmers for your guests’ entertainment. “We used the French National Synchronized Swimmers for the 10th Annual Cannes Film Festival at Eden Roc in Caps d’Antibes,” reports Tricia Swift, one of Tangram’s three partners.
Based in Westchester, the company has offices in Cannes, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Vilnius, Lithuania. Although specializing in corporate work, Tricia Swift, her husband Steel, and their partner Aidan Corish are now entering the fundraising party-planning field.
“They make an ordinary event an extraordinary event,” says Lara McLanahan, who has worked with Tangram on fundraisers for both Northern Westchester Hospital and Rippowam Cisqua School. “Tangram is cost-effective because it can do everything in-house.” That house is a large building chock full of materials, workmen, and hundreds of paint chips and color swatches to match any decor.
12 Paulding Street, Pleasantville
EXPERIENCE: Plans private parties and charity events. Offers turnkey design, fabrication and project management for trade and museum exhibitions, product launches and retail interior environments. Specialty: in-house fabrication (e.g., custom lighting).
FEES: On an individual basis according to size of party, time involved and amount of fabrication necessary.
REFERENCES: Corporate clients include NBC, American Museum of the Moving Image, IBM and Nike.
The Details Maven
DEBRA lewin WEINER
So where would you hold your daughter’s bat mitzvah if she were the ultimate bookworm? A library? Good guess. But if you’re Scarsdale party planner Debra Lewin Weiner, you know it can’t be just any library. It has to be the quintessential dream of every booklover—the famed New York Public Library on 42nd Street.
Which is what Weiner secured for one young booklover’s bat mitzvah. She booked the Celeste Bartos Forum of the Library for the party. Guests walked past those famous imposing lions into Astor Hall where cocktails were served and then preceded into the Forum. The young girl’s party theme: butterflies. Thus, Weiner had butterfly dancers on stage dance on stilts as guests entered the Forum. She also made sure that special lighting created the look of stars, and Weiner herself wore a dress with a butterfly pattern.
“It was a thrill,” says Weiner. “This was the first and apparently the last bat mitzvah to be held at the 42nd Street Library since they have changed their policy.” (New library policy prohibits minors from attending a party where liquor is served.)
Weiner, who has been planning parties professionally for 20 years, says she was inspired by her mother, Constance Lewin, who has a business in fine engraved stationery and invitations and is herself a party planner.
Weiner plans 15 to 20 events a year (“I really don’t have a favorite type of event”), including private dinner parties, weddings, significant birthdays and, she adds, “any occasion you have to celebrate and share. Planning a variety of parties, she says, keeps things “interesting and challenging.” Her most extravagant parties can end up costing several hundred thousand dollars, but most are in the $75,000-to-$175,000 range, and smaller or less elaborate events can be planned for well under $75,000, she assures. Weiner says she works hard to keep the price down. Jerry Austin, who has provided entertainment for Weiner’s parties for more than seven years, can attest to that. “A lot of planners are in it for the money they can make from the vendors,” he says. “But Debra is more interested in the success of the party. Her goal is to throw a successful party and save the client money.”
Debra Lewin Weiner
214 Old Army Road â€¢ Scarsdale
EXPERIENCE: Plans 15 to 20 parties a year, designs custom invitations and stationery.
FEES: Confidentiality is a priority; will not reveal names of clients or fees that others have paid. Charges flat fee for large events; smaller events are billed on an individual basis according to a client’s needs. Hourly consulting available.
REFERENCES: Available upon request.
The Celebrities’ Choice
David Tutera’s first party plan- ning assignment took place 19 years ago. “It was a bar mitzvah for a boy named Seth in Scarsdale,” recalls the outgoing events planner, who has offices in Mamaroneck and Manhattan. “Back then, I didn’t even know what a bar mitzvah was.” Today, Tutera’s clients also have names like Elton and Star (Jones, that is), and titles like The Prince of Wales. While he still plans bar mitzvahs, he also plans multi-million-dollar weddings, 5,000-guest Grammy parties and lavish film premieres. He and his staff of 40 plan about 100 parties a year.
“A good party planner allows for the entire process to be an enjoyable one,” Tutera says. And, he says, a good planner “creates a party that is an extension of the party giver.” There’s still one more thing a good party planner does: He throws parties that can make people feel as if they’ve been transported to another world.
That’s just what Tutera did on August 14th for Shellie Anderson-Tazi of Yonkers, her Moroccan-born husband Abdeltif, and their newborn baby Sherif. Tutera planned a special baby-naming ceremony for the Tazis and their 35 guests that took place under a colorful tent at a relative’s home in Yorktown Heights. “David helped boost my family’s spirit,” says Shellie Anderson-Tazi, who underwent a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy for breast cancer when she was pregnant with Sherif. “For nine months we held our breaths with anxiety and fear, but, the day of the party, we all exhaled and began to feel alive.”
The party was full of the sights, sounds and smells of Casablanca, reflecting the style, influences and heritage of the host. “Abdeltif’s family thought they were in Morocco,” says Anderson-Tazi. Miracle baby Sherif was named amid the warm glow of lanterns and the brilliance of exquisite Oriental rugs and brightly colored pillows. Plates of tender lemon chicken were passed around. The party, Tutera says, adhered to his “Rule of Three Es” for ensuring you have a great party: Essentials, Extras and Extravagances. “The extravagance was the red and purple poly-satin fabric we used in the ceiling of the tent,” says Tutera. “The essential was the Moroccan food, and the extra was the abundance of roses.”
“David made the party so memorable,” declares Anderson-Tazi. “The tables and the runway into the tent were covered with beautiful rose petals.”
But you don’t have to take Shellie Anderson-Tazi’s word (or mine for that matter) for Tutera’s creativity; you can see it for yourself on Tutera’s upcoming daily TV show, “The Party Planner with David Tutera.” It was on the advice of a friend that Anderson-Tazi went to Tutera’s Web site (www.DavidTutera.com) and filled out a form for a chance to be on his show and receive his help in planning her baby-naming ceremony. The Tazis were among 60 entrants chosen for this program, which will debut December 27 on the Discovery Channel. Lucky Shellie Anderson-Tazi; while Tutera’s fees start at $35,000, the production company paid for most of the party.
700 Waverly Avenue â€¢ Mamaroneck
EXPERIENCE: Plans approximately 100 parties a year, 12 personally, the rest with a team of experts. Twelve months notice is preferred.
FEES: Start at $35,000.
REFERENCES: The Rolling Stones, Al Gore, Barbara Walters, Kenneth Cole and Tommy Hilfiger.
The Complete Package
Moshe aeLYon of westport, ct, insists that his parties have a “wow” factor. Not for shock value, he says, but “to excite and stimulate.” Thus, Aelyon says, his parties always contain “little” surprises, e.g., unusual drinks (like sour cherry Bellinis and mango lemonade infused with vodka), dinner courses that move from room to room, and even that aforementioned elephant!
“The elephant was used for a 40th birthday party that was held in a summer home in Connecticut,” says Aelyon, who was born in Istanbul. “The client, who is English, wanted an ethnic atmosphere.” Aelyon set up a tent with a Moroccan spice market atmosphere. For entertainment, he says, he wanted something unusual. “We joked about a camel but realized the camel would be spooked by all the trees. I thought, how dramatic to have an elephant with a belly dancer sitting on top, with a candelabra on her head.” (Triple wow!)
But it wasn’t an elephant that wowed Amy Leonard and her sister Elizabeth Kiester, a magazine fashion director, who used Aelyon for Elizabeth and Tony Romando’s wedding (the groom is the editor-in-chief of Sync Magazine). “Moshe provides a complete package,” says Leonard. “With Moshe at the helm, we never had to worry about anything, and I mean anything.”
Leonard admits that at first her sister was hesitant to use a party planner. “She didn’t want the wedding to be a Broadway production,” she explains. “She wanted it simple but elegant, bold but refined.” She got that—plus lots of little surprises that, Leonard reports, some guests are still talking about, especially the tower of polka-dotted cupcakes, the long dramatic table that sat 100 people, and the Gerber daisies that were strung from the ceiling. “These incredible details made everything unique,” Leonard says.
“There is no job too small,” says Aelyon, mentioning that he planned a dinner party for two once. “It was for a bride and groom we had worked with on their wedding who called us for their first anniversary.”
But, he says, there are jobs that are not creative enough. “If I truly feel I cannot make a difference in a project or give it a spin, I will excuse myself and offer referrals,” Aelyon says. “Each of my events,” he continues, “is an escapist experience taking people on a trip for four to five hours.” And his fee for this trip? “It averages 20 percent of the total cost of the event,” he says. Some of his parties cost $500,000—you do the math!
215 Main Street â€¢ Westport, CT
Experience: Has entertained politicians, former presidents (including Bill Clinton) and lifestyle experts. Plans 30-plus parties a year, ranging from dinners for 12 to galas for 2,500. Lead-time varies from three months to two years. Has been showcased in Bridal Guide, The New York Times and Coastal Living. Has appeared on the Fine Living Channel and local cable shows.
FEE: Approximately 20 percent of the total cost of a party.
REFERENCES: Upon request. (Sorry: Celebrity clients’ names are kept confidential.)
The Queen of Connections
if you happen to hear the words “Gung Hey Fat Choy” echoing from Greenwich next February, it’s a sure bet that Valhalla party planner Virginia Vetrano has been hard at work. Every February, Christine and Han Tjan host a Chinese New Year party for approximately 200 guests. (Han is director of corporate communications of DaimlerChrysler
“Virginia was recommended by the president of the Intercontinental Hotel,” says Christine Tjan. “She has taken over the party planning for the past four years. She hires all the staff from kitchen help to valet parking, she puts up the tent, checks the sound system and even blows up balloons. And she has fantastic contacts. We had a huge snowfall last year and Virginia put in one phone call and had someone here in half an hour to clear the snow. Because I have Virginia, I can enjoy the party.”
The highlight of the party, whose guest list has included ambassadors, diplomats and the CEO of EstÃ©e Lauder, are the “lion dancers” who bless the crowd. “The lion heads are so big that the challenge for the first year was to find a way to get them into the house,” says Vetrano. According to Christine Tjan, it was Virginia who came up with the idea to construct a tent to serve as an extension of the house so that the lion dancers could get in.
What Vetrano brings to the table, besides a 15 to 20 percent fee, is 20 years of planning and scheduling experience. She started out as a scheduling secretary in the Westchester County Executive’s Office, and subsequently honed her catering and planning skills managing sales and marketing departments in various hotels and conference centers, including Tarrytown House. But it was while working for Albert J. Pirro, Jr., as director of special projects and fundraising, that her planning career took off. “I started doing parties for the Pirros’ friends and clients,” Vetrano says. And, in 1999, she established her own company, Preferred Events, Inc.
“People hire planners because they have busy lives,” says Vetrano. “It’s like hiring a general contractor. If you need a tent or kosher catering, I can save you time because I have the information at my fingertips. I can also save a client money because I can negotiate a better deal.”
Vetrano has planned the Westchester Arts Council’s gala for the past five years, a masquerade ball at Donald Trump’s house in Mt. Kisco, and a bar mitzvah where there was so much caviar, guests could have eaten it on long baguettes. She even planned Barb Dwyer’s wedding. Don’t know who Barb is? Neither did Vetrano until she met her in person. “Barb Dwyer was a fictitious name,” says Vetrano. Bonnie Raitt’s wedding was held at Tarrytown House. Darryl Hannah
Preferred events, inc.
50 Legion Drive â€¢ Valhalla
Experience: Plans approximately 50 parties per year.
Fees: 15 to 20 percent of the total cost of the event.
references: Han Tjan (director of corporate communications for DaimlerChrysler), Albert J. Pirro, Jr., Hotel Thayer, Prudential Securities and Wachovia.
Freelance writer Lois Podoshen likes going to parties much more than planning them. Invitations can be sent to her in care of this magazine.