Be honest now. Even if you have been really busy lately, would you turn down an invitation to a summer afternoon party at a Mexican-style villa overlooking the Pacific in Palos Verdes Estates?
Or at a landmark Frank Lloyd Wright home that resembles a Mayan temple? Or at a Dutch Castle in Beverly Hills, or at a Pasadena mansion where the "Dynasty" television series is filmed?
Few could resist such an invitation, and that is why many hosts are holding their most important social events at lavish private homes instead of at hotels and restaurants.
Caterers and party planners say that it has become an "in thing" to use spectacular residences for weddings, company parties, charity benefits and other special events.
"Homes have a warmer, more intimate appeal," said Ann Carlton of Canterbury Fare, a party-planning firm with offices in Manhattan Beach, Beverly Hills and Tarzana.
Have to Have a Contact
But not every owner of a palatial estate is willing to open his home to strangers, she said.
To obtain such properties for parties, planners "really have to know the owners," Carlton said. "You have to have an inside contact." An informal sampling of caterers and party planners found that most of them have access to a number of private residences, but when they do not have the right location on hand for a client, the search can be time-consuming and, sometimes, fruitless.
To get an inside track on these special properties, many caterers are turning to two companies that specialize in finding private homes and other unusual locations for parties.
Officials at the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills visitors' and convention bureaus said two rival companies are the only ones they know of in the Los Angeles area that specialize in finding privately owned mansions, castles, and estates for parties. They also offer other unusual locations such as sound stages, art galleries and historic sites.
The two companies, both based in Beverly Hills, are Marilyn Jenett Locations, founded by Jenett, a former professional party planner, and National Special Events Locations, founded by interior designer Maralou Gray.
Each has listings of many unusual party locations, some of which are exclusive to one or the other and some of which are available to both. Each said she has about 14 or 15 elaborate homes that are favorites among their clients.
Fees Range Upward From $2,000
Jenett said the home she lists are available for daily fees ranging from $2,000 to $7,000, including her commission, with one famous celebrity estate available for an astronomical $20,000.
"That's not an everyday booking," she said of the estate, whose owners wish to remain anonymous. The average home rental fee is $2,500 to $3,000 a day, she said.
Gray said her listings range from $1,500 to $5,000 a day, including her commission, and they include the "Dynasty" house.
Although some people might balk at paying so much just for the location, others say it is worth it because guests get such a kick out of getting an inside look at some of Southern California's most spectacular homes and estates.
The idea is especially appealing to executives and other individuals who can write off party costs as a tax-deductible business expense, party planners said.
Jenett said she came up with the idea for her company after working as a professional party planner for several years. She said she had requests for private homes for parties, but found that there was no central source for finding such locations. She decided to start her own company to fill this "missing link," she said.
"I drew my inspiration from film location companies that find places for television and motion picture filming," Jenett said. She added that at first she tried to find party homes through the film location companies, but found that many film sites were not available for parties.
Jenett's listings include the Georgian Colonial Home in Hancock Park that is Pam Ewing's (Victoria Principal's) home in the television series "Dallas"; an Italian Colonial home in Pacific Palisades with ocean views from the lawn that accommodates sit-down meals for 200; a Normandy home built in 1932 by architect Paul Williams, featuring a circular staircase, English country furnishings, a covered terrace and large garden; and an English Tudor home in Sand Canyon surrounded by a 2 1/2-acre park with a private lake and resident ducks.
One of the celebrity homes Jenett has available is owned by a veteran entertainer who occasionally performs for guests, she said.
Started in Madrid
Gray said the concept for her company originated many years ago when she entertained visitors as a hostess for the Spanish Ministry of Tourism and Information in Madrid. She realized how much visitors enjoyed home hospitality, she said, and so set up a network of hosts and hostesses across Europe.
Party guests like to get a look at places that are normally closed to the public, she said. "I lived in Europe for a couple of years, and I find that while I can't tell you much about one hotel I've ever stayed in, I remember every single home or place I've visited," she said.
"People are tired of banquet rooms, of four commercial walls."
Gray's listings include the Encino home where Al Jolson lived and the former Liberace estate in Hollywood. Her own home in Beverly Hills was once owned by "Tarzan" star Johnny Weissmuller.
She also lists the Palos Verdes villa, a home in the Hollywood Hills with lavish tropical gardens, a 50-foot waterfall and a panoramic view of the city, and a 102-year-old Victorian mansion with extensive wood paneling and leaded-glass windows on a walled estate in Pasadena.
Help With Expenses
Owners agree to open their estates occasionally for special events because they want to share their beauty with other people and because the fees help pay expenses on the properties, Gray and Jenett said.
For example, the 1924 Frank Lloyd Wright house in Los Feliz has required costly renovation, including the yet-to-be-done $135,000 repair of a wall in the courtyard, according to G. Oliver Brown, a former owner who donated the house to a nonprofit trust in 1980.
The $2,000-minimum daily rental for parties there is tax deductible and the money is used for maintenance and restoration, Brown said. Federal and state grants also are being used for the restoration.
The home, with its cave-like entrance and 22-foot-high ceilings and large art-glass windows in the living room, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a Cultural Heritage Monument by the Los Angeles City Council. Both Jenett and Gray book parties at the Wright home.
Substantial insurance coverage for the homes is always provided during parties, Gray and Jenett said. But damage is rare, Gray said, because "people are really on their best behavior" when they are guests at someone's home.
Owners Attend Parties
Property owners often like to attend the parties in their homes, she said.
At the $35,000 picnic that Hitachi recently threw for 400 employees and their families, for example, Malibu homeowner Frank Spallino rode around his estate in a golf cart as last-minute preparations were being completed by Bill Jones of Carousel Catering and his staff. Gray was on hand to oversee the arrangements and to serve as liaison between Spallino and party personnel.
Spallino, a retired travel company executive, said that now that his seven children are grown, he and his wife like to see other people enjoying their beachfront home. They open their estate about once a month.
The Spallino estate extends from Pacific Coast Highway to the beach, with the main house, a guest house and tennis courts on a bluff offering spectacular views of a series of coves along the coastline.
Makes New Friends
Asked why he would open his property to strangers, Spallino shrugged and said, "You make new friends . . . I like to see people other than our personal circle of friends have some enjoyment from the property.
"And," he said after a moment's thought, "it does help pay for the maintenance."
He declined to say how much his fee was for the Hitachi party, but said that beach properties command as much as $5,000 a day.
The money comes in handy, he said, because the water bills alone are about $500 a month, and two gardeners work five days a week to keep the estate in shape.
Spallino said he allows use of his home only when trusted professional caterers and party planners are involved. "If someone wanted to do their own wedding here, no way," he said.
When events are staged at private homes, every effort is made to see that neighbors are not disturbed. For the Hitachi party, guests were brought in by bus instead of cars to avoid adding to the heavy beach traffic on Pacific Coast Highway.
When someone gives a party at a spectacular location like the Spallino homes, few of the invited fail to attend. said Jones, who has been in the catering business 25 years.
"If you hold a party at the same old hotels, people may not show up," he said. "If you are going to spend a lot of money on a party, you want people to show up."