IN THE AFTERMATH of a turbulent 2001, Mary Ross' client got ready for her birthday party by querying friends about the state of the world. “She asked what their thoughts were, and everyone said the way life is now is just surreal,” says Ross, co-owner with husband John of Napa, Calif.-based Five Star Productions, which has been producing the client's birthday bash for seven years. The assessment formed the thematic foundation of the 130-guest event, but it was up to Ross and crew to create a celebration out of the chaos of the subconscious.
Essential to the planning process was avoiding the clichéd images associated with surrealism, according to Ross. “I didn't want melting clocks and things,” she says. Fortunately, her client — a modern art collector and board member of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — was able to supply background on the works of surrealist superstars Salvador Dali, René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp.
About five months before the August party, Ross, a former art student herself, met with collaborator Pat Friday of Napa-based Pat Friday Flowers to begin hammering out the design concept. “We looked for themes that went through all of their works,” she says. “Bodies and body parts seemed to go through all of it — that whole fragmented juxtaposition of things.”
Friday and staff carried the body-parts motif through a series of centerpieces they crafted depicting surreal scenes such as a blue “diver” mannequin plunging into the midst of 150 plastic water bottles, and sky-patterned Styrofoam feet suspended over eggs painted to look like eyes.
While Friday's team toiled, Ross organized vendors. Suppliers included BBJ Linen, which provided shag-texture and psychedelic-pattern table linen, and Classic Party Rentals of Redwood City, Calif., which provided black bentwood chairs that were reminiscent of the 1920s — the era in which surrealism thrived.
According to Ross, interactive elements proved some of the hottest highlights at the “Let Surrealism Go to Your Head” event.
A dinner seating lottery — insisted upon by the client, but in the past a point of frustration to guests wanting to carry on conversations from the cocktail hour — became an opportunity to enhance the evening's design scheme. Instead of setting up the usual random drawing of name slips, Five Star filled bowls with ping-pong balls dyed to correspond to tables grouped by color. Once they chose a ball, guests could sit at any table in the corresponding color grouping, which “gave them a little more flexibility so they could sit with a few more of their friends if they wanted to,” Ross explains. The more flexible lottery also helped encourage guests to make their way from cocktails to dinner at the appropriate time — a problem at past parties, she adds.
A requirement that all guests attend the party in self-fashioned surrealism-inspired hats allowed the crowd of art-world guests to get creative and, again, played into the overall event design. Mirrored chargers at the dining tables reflected the high-concept hats back at their wearers. Above some tables, empty picture frames suspended at head height transformed diners into living works of art.
Most thrilling to guests, Ross says, was the parade of top hat-makers from each table, who strutted to the tune of rocker Joe Cocker's “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” From the parading contestants, guests chose a winner, who won a weekend for two at the appropriately named Duchamp Bed & Breakfast in Healdsburg, Calif.
Highly detailed design may have contributed to the impact of the $53,000 event. But with all the meticulous planning, Ross says, it was the ability to flex in the face of unexpected challenges that helped ensure success for the soiree.
Notably, she says, a sudden drop in temperature on event day from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to a cool 68 degrees threatened to put a chill on the festivities, held outdoors at the client's Napa Valley vineyard estate. During setup, Ross' crew turned up heaters and moved tables close together to create coziness. Still, the dinner's first course forced a quick decision. Napa-based Wine Valley Catering “had done these gorgeous ice soup bowls like [new wave band] Devo's hats turned upside down,” she says. “We couldn't not use those.” Additionally, she adds, event decor included spoons suspended above tables, which guests would have to cut free to eat their soup.
Ultimately, she opted to serve the risky starter, but change the evening's schedule to get guests out on the dance floor and generating heat right from the start of dinner, instead of after. The shift required flexibility on the part of her vendors and staff, but ensured a comfortable guest experience. “People were dancing all night,” she says. “It really worked.”
Five Star Productions 1952 Iroquois St., Napa, CA 94559; 707/257-2200; www.fivestarevents.com
Turn to page 64 for a list of resources for this event.
FEAST OF FANTASY
Chilled Vine-ripened Golden and Red Tomato Soup
Roasted Squab over Polenta with Red Carrots, Cauliflower Domes and Chinese Long Beans, Served with a Red Wine Reduction and Silver Thyme
Chocolate Raviolis on Coconut Cellophane Noodles Served with a Strawberry Coulis