It’s hard to convey the personality of Michael Cerbelli with only words on a page. There are wide gestures, big laughs, he’ll drop your name in when talking (which only serves to make a person feel special) … and he will segue from a serious topic into minute personal bits about himself (such as his Brooklyn accent: “Marthar Stewart,” anyone?) in a most endearing way. More laughs, more gestures, more personal anecdotes. Try to keep him contained? Never, never.
Never in a million years.
Like The Hot List™ that Cerbelli is known for—it is, and he is—best experienced LIVE.
You will get him live at Catersource + The Special Event when his The Hot List (THL) returns for its 20th anniversary on Thursday morning, July 22; but for the purposes of this feature…words on a page, some photos, and a video link will have to suffice.
The spark that brought Hot
First up, I had to ask Cerbelli about the origins of his very popular namesake event. After all, it’s his 20th anniversary; there has to be a bit of reflection and historical context to start any profile piece. “What happened was,” he says, “I didn’t really start doing conferences etc. until the mid-’90s. By the time 2000 rolled around, I needed tangible information. I was hearing war stories about an event and how they did it, but I wasn’t getting what I needed [to do business afterward].”
The first iteration of THL was born as Cerbelli sat in a classroom and watched a speaker set a vase on a table. The speaker clicked a switch and the vase lit up. “The audience went, ‘ahhhh!!’” says Cerbelli.
“Then the guy took out a little key and the vase started changing colors. He said, ‘This is going to be hot, guys—this is LED technology!’
“Everybody went, ‘LED technology?! What’s LED? That’s cool!’” Cerbelli laughs. He said he tried to get the name of the supplier but was unsuccessful.
“It frustrated me so much, Kathleen, that I said, ‘next year I’m gonna open up my little black book of ideas and do it myself!’”
See Michael Cerbelli's: The Hot List™, during The Special Event, co-located with The Catersource Conference & Tradeshow, on Thursday, July 22 at 8:00 a.m. Learn more
In August 2001, “Michael Cerbelli’s 101 Hot Event & Entertainment Ideas in 90 Minutes” debuted at the Event Solutions conference. “I literally gave away 101 ideas in 90 minutes! I was sweating by the end!”
First year, the room sat 300 people. It was packed. “Next year, we did 102 ideas and the next year 103 ideas and the room just started to grow and grow and grow because people were getting information,” he enthused.
“I had a typed-out list back then that we would do on the computer and would give it to everybody: here’s your
contact information.” He notes that some designers didn’t like that he was giving away secrets, but now, “In a Google society where you can type something in and find it, The Hot List takes it one step further. You don’t have to go searching for it. I’m sharing the wealth.”
Over the years, THL has evolved into a 90-minute format with about 36 hot ideas each with under four minutes on stage. It is just enough time for people to see the idea, evaluate it, and think, ‘I’ve got it now, this is how I can use it for my event.’
“Instead of watching a YouTube video or TikTok or something like that,” says Cerbelli, “seeing it live on the stage presented that way—they know it’s going to be quick, they know it’s gonna be fast, and if they don’t like it there’s a new idea coming in three-and-a-half minutes.”
Says Cerbelli, “I know I talk very quickly and very Brooklyn in the three-and-a-half minutes they are getting in that spot. They [also] realize that we woke up a very small percentage of the audience. But we always say that if there are 3,000 people [in the audience] and you get 12 phone calls, you’ve done really, really good. If you book six of them, you have more than paid for yourself to be there.”
Cerbelli notes, however, that THL 2021 will be a different beast than prior years. “People in this industry were immersed in a horrible year and are just getting their feet wet again. The caterer that had nobody to serve, event professionals that left the business and started new careers.
“It just hit me the other day, you know? We’ve been out of the pool for a year and the water is a little cold. Let’s get in the water and warm up until we can really start swimming again.”
To that end, he is, “creating a show that makes sense for 2021, really makes a wow, and has the right things up there [on stage].”
Life on the line
It isn’t just the knives he has had thrown at him on stage over the years, or being catapulted into the room, or shot out over the audience via a bungee cord—literally life on the line—but it’s also…personal life. A pregnancy was announced. He went 10 minutes over in 2015 when he brought a special someone onto the stage in Anaheim, CA at The Special Event…and then proposed marriage to her (his now spouse, Denise). His daughter, Kelsie (now 11) introduced his show at TSE in 2019. “It’s been amazing stuff over the years, Kathleen, really amazing stuff.”
With that, I asked Cerbelli to talk to me about his Top 10 moments over the past 20 years. In true Cerbelli fashion, there are (of course), more than 10 moments. Here’s a look:
Cerbelli Thinks I’m Hot
“I’ve got another Michael story for you,” he says.
Cerbelli explains that they were cleaning up their old NYC space in preparation for a move to TwoFortyThirty, a gorgeous event space in Manhattan that just recently held its first live event.
“There were people cleaning. There are old Hot List shirts all over. I say, ‘Get rid of them! We’re moving!’”
Sara Meletis, Cerbelli Creative’s Director of Operations & Production, drops a box of shirts next to a Goodwill bin on her way home. The next day on her way in, she sees the box is gone.
“I’m zipping through the Holland Tunnel a few weeks later,” says Cerbelli, already starting to laugh, “zipping through, coming through, coming out of the tunnel and under the roads and there’s always panhandlers in the street. I’m looking around as I drive and what do I see? There’s a panhandler wearing a ‘Cerbelli Thinks I’m Hot’ t-shirt!”
Cue joyful laughter.
Top moments over the past 20 years
Ideas off the original 2001 program
- Chocolate fountain
MC: The first chocolate fountain I rented was for Mindy Ashley’s 40th birthday—I’ll never forget it. I did her wedding, I did that 40th birthday, I did the kid’s bar mitzvahs, I did a kid’s Sweet 16, and now I’m doing her daughter’s wedding. Okay, so the chocolate fountain I had to get from Andrea Michaels. She was the only one who had it! Hold onto your seat—$15,000 for a chocolate fountain! Now you can get ‘em for $39.99! Ha!
- Designs by Sean Human Floats
- The Passing Zone
- Ron Ben-Israel Cakes
- The Three Waiters
The Many Portraits of Michael Cerbelli (artwork created live on stage)
- Steven Brundage creating a Rubik’s Cube portrait
- Michael Papadakis creating a Sunscribe portrait
- The Chocolate Genius sculpting a chocolate bust, later then used at the Gala that evening for a great laugh
- Being made into a crayon
- Announcement of my daughter, Kelsie being on the way (“The next ‘Hot’ idea; she’s now 11”) who also then introduced me on stage in 2019 at TSE San Diego
- Proposing to my (now) wife Denise in February 2015 at TSE Anaheim
THL changed my business (bringing new talents to the Meetings
& Events world)
- Body Marbling
- Cirque Mechanics
- About Entertainment
- Vivid Fireworks in a Box:
MC: It was so well-received, he went out of business because he couldn’t keep up with the response!
- Extreme Beam 2015
- The Gantry Bike traveling over the audience in 2013:
MC: To explain to an audience what the Gantry Bike is just by showing a video was just OK. Anyway, I introduced the [previous] act and then I literally ran around the entire convention center—literally! Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom! And I climbed to the top of this Gantry Bike which was in the back of the room. Nobody knew it was a bike. Everybody just thought it was a big truss structure. They’re walking in underneath it, no one is thinking anything, and we knew no one would give it a second thought because they were looking straight ahead [to find their seats]. I climbed this thing, the act ends, I say, “let’s give them a big round of applause!” And everybody is looking for me and I’m talking but I’m in the back of the room now traveling over the entire center of the audience to the main stage! Acrobats flipped me off the bike onto the stage. Back then, the iPhone and iPad were new. Every one of them was in the air like this [he gestures up] it was a sea of people filming that moment. Those are the ‘wow’ moments of The Hot List that people will never forget.
- SNL Alumni Tim Kazurinsky reading Cerbelli’s biography in 2013
- Cards thrown at my head & below the belt
- Being popped up out of a toaster for the introduction
- Being shot out over the audience on a bungee cord
- The Skating Aratas closing
MC: It was about two weeks before the show and I still wanted one more thing. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I wanted to add one more act. I woke up early as I always do; it was like 4:00 in the morning. There was an email from this girl Jenny, “Heard about your Hot List would like to show you an idea.” Ah, okay buh buh buh and I got to the office. Sit down at my desk, press play on the video; I’m into it 30 seconds and I’m like ‘hmmm—what’s going on here?’ A minute into it, I’m like—’OK, this is good.’ A minute and a half in I couldn’t watch the screen anymore! I can’t believe he’s going to do this! And they did this live on stage, even though I knew I was gonna get into trouble with TSE show management. They’re a skating act and they’re on this kind of concave disc about six feet wide, and they travel the world with it. They skate fast but he literally spins her around and holds her and the last thing is a rope around his neck and a rope around her neck and as they are spinning he’s going this way and she’s spinning that way—in opposite directions! It’s the scariest thing ever and everybody in the front row was like—augh!—but it was an amazing closing to the show.
- Deadly Games threw knives at me
THL ‘Lifers’ (that have been on for MANY YEARS due to ROI)
- About Entertainment
- Cirque Mechanics
- Timestoppers 360
- Brett Culp & Harrison Greenbaum
MC: Amazing. I say to everybody that is one of my favorite moments of all time—Brett ending the show right as COVID shut down the industry, because [the show] couldn’t have ended with a better message that was never planned. λ