BACK IN 1969 when he started theming sales meetings as part of his presentation to liquor industry clients, event planning hadn't even been invented, Richard Magid says. “There was a lady doing a basket of candy and putting balloons on it — that was your special event person,” he recalls. Magid, then a manufacturer of limited-edition collector liquor decanters themed for “first vehicles” such as the Spirit of St. Louis airplane and the first car to win the Indy 500, says the decision to decorate meetings was a fortuitous one. What started out as a way to up the fun factor of dry business gatherings turned out to be “how I sort of backed my way into the event business,” he says.
Now, nearly 35 years later, Magid and his Pompano Beach, Fla.-based company Famous Firsts Ltd. — the name retained from his decanter-business days — are experts in a genre of parties where the fun factor is priority one: bar and bat mitzvahs. Operating with a dozen staff members, Famous Firsts designs nearly 100 of the Jewish coming-of-age celebrations each year, most in the $5,000 to $30,000 range.
Magid says each event comes with its own set of challenges, which include creating an atmosphere that appeals to 12- and 13-year-old children as well as adults, while justifying “a major expense — like sending a kid to college.”
One design package that has proven successful in satisfying these demands is Famous Firsts' “carnival” theme. Magid cites the high-energy party as his company's No. 1 request among more than 200 theme choices. But while the theme may be a standard, he insists that each party is designed with a specific child in mind. “With carnival, that's just the basis for the decor,” he explains. “But we can make it a sports carnival or a personalized midway, depending on what the kid likes.”
However his crew customizes the event, clients can expect to see such highlights as a wooden-front carnival tent, balloon-makers, stilt-walkers, and three-foot-tall rotating candy-apple booth and Ferris wheel centerpieces.
While the carnival theme has proven an enduring favorite, Magid says some elements of bar and bat mitzvah planning have changed dramatically in his three-decade career. “Way back then, there were very few bands and not many venues. Also, temples were giving out bar and bat mitzvah dates three years in advance, because there weren't enough Saturdays to support all these kids,” he says. Eventually, he notes, the number of synagogues increased, and starting in the late 1980s an influx of vendors — caterers, photographers and full-production DJs among them — filled the gaps.
These days, savvy parents are booking as late as six months out, according to Magid. As for the kids, he says, “They go to two or three of these a weekend. They're professionals.”
Famous Firsts Ltd. 2200 N.W. 32nd St., Suite 1100, Pompano Beach, FL 33069; 954/974-1144; www.famousfirsts.net
“In the old days, everything had to be a specific theme — the linens had to match the carpet and the walls. That meant that every party had to be sea foam green and gray, because that's what the hotels were. Today you can mix hot dogs and ballet — it doesn't matter anymore.”
“I remember this [client] found these touch-tone phones for three dollars. I said, ‘You can't give these out — the kids all have $100 Sonys in their rooms.’ Of course, he bought a hundred of them, and at the end of the party, there were a hundred of them left. These kids are sophisticated. When we do a T-shirt or a sweatshirt as a favor, we make it more like a rock concert shirt. It can't say ‘I had a blast at Brian's bar mitzvah’ on it. The only people that are going to wear that are the grandparents and the kid.”
“Ninety-nine percent of my customers don't know what they're getting until they walk in the room. I get away with it because they know I don't short-change anybody. It averages out. For instance, with our carnival, we give unlimited prizes out. Sometimes we'll give out a few, sometimes we'll give too many. But so what? They had a blast.”