How to Build a 'Pacific Island Fantasy' in a Gymnasium

It's not every all-night graduation party that attracts a TV news crew or requires the police to direct the stalled spectator traffic on the street in front of the high school.

But then it's not every grad night that has a 30-foot-tall inflatable clown under whose legs the graduates will pass, a trapeze act and an elephant ride.

And that's just what could be seen from the street in 1985, the first year that Costa Mesa architect Jim Robinson and his interior designer wife, Deanna Tichy, were co-chairmen of Corona del Mar High School's graduation design and planning committee.

Inside the boys' gymnasium that year, Robinson, Tichy and dozens of other parent volunteers had built two 75-foot-tall tents and one 40-foot-tall tent made with strips of a polyester material. Entertainment included circus acts, a band, a video DJ, jugglers, a makeup booth with circus costumes and all-night dancing under a fourth tent set up in the girls' gym.

This year, the party theme is "Pacific Island Fantasy." Robinson and Tichy--whose 17-year-old son, Christopher, is a graduating senior--once again are co-chairmen of the planning committee.

The grad night party on June 18 may outdo the 1985 extravaganza.

"The whole idea is to create our own island," said parent volunteer Patty Gwin as she and others painted one of the more practical but minor party props: cardboard tropical ferns that will be used to cover the trash cans.

Since the end of March, the 15 committee members have been meeting two nights a week and on Saturday mornings in a large classroom at the former Eastbluff Elementary School in Newport Beach. They're about a third of the way through building and painting the elaborate sets, backdrops and decorations for the party, which will include a Hawaiian luau and entertainment.

As head of the committee, Robinson has been putting in more time than the others.

"I do it five nights a week, and Saturday and sometimes Sunday," said Robinson, who personally cut out all the dozens of cardboard birds, coconuts, palm fronds and birds of paradise that will make up just part of the decorations.

"This whole thing is done up like a regular architectural project," said Robinson, who spent four months planning the party and drawing an architectural layout of the inside and outside of the gymnasium turned-Pacific island.

Walking past a stack of flattened cardboard shipping boxes, Robinson said most of the material (including the cardboard) has been donated by parents and members of the community.

That includes large carpet tubes that will be transformed into trunks of palm trees. Smaller fabric tubes will become bamboo, and expanded refrigeration insulation foam will be painted red and black to represent coral and lava.

Excluding the donated items, the budget for this year's party is more than $15,000. That pays for food, entertainment, lighting and equipment. "If we had to pay for everything, it would run $40,000," Tichy said.

To help pay the bill, the parents of the graduating seniors were invited to a party early in the school year, which generated $6,000 in pledges, she said. Tickets for the party are $30 each.

The 1985 Corona del Mar High party attracted so much publicity and word-of-mouth attention that Robinson and Tichy say they received requests for advice from all over the country.

Because of the inquiries, they are videotaping this year's party--from planning through cleanup. Copies of the videotape will be made available, for a nominal cost, to other schools and to graduates who want to keep them as souvenirs of the night, Tichy said.

Although they want to keep the party as much a surprise as possible, Robinson shared a few tricks of the grad night trade:

The ceiling of the gym will be a star-filled night sky (dark blue polyester, laced with strands of twinkling lights.) By blowing up helium balloons and sewing them inside gauze, Robinson said, "You've got clouds."

Coconuts that will hang from the cardboard palm trees are equally ingenious: Blow up a balloon, paint it with glue and then dip it into coffee grounds. Sprinkle pencil shavings over and you've got hair on the coconut, he said.

The piece de resistance, of course, will be two "active" volcanoes outside the gym, one 30 feet tall and the other 20 feet tall. The volcanoes will be made of dark green plastic trash bag material stretched over a plastic sprinkler pipe frame. (One of the parents, he said, is in the plastic garbage bag-making business.)

Inside each volcano will be a smoke generator and a fan, which will blow smoke through the top. When the party starts at 9 p.m., Robinson said, the smoke will be white. As the night goes on the smoke will get redder and redder.

At midnight--well, that's supposed to be a surprise.

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