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Party Capital : L.A. Is a Trendsetter at Staging Blockbuster Bashes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With night falling, the garden party was radiantly alive. The rented Mediterranean mansion--one of the largest in the swank, gate-guarded section of Hancock Park--looked imposing and angular in white floodlights.

In the sprawling back yard, guests at round tables sipped wine and champagne while tiny candles flickered like fireflies. Over by the lily pond, a bartender was dispensing drinks; across the way, bodies gyrated on a dance floor laid out near the spa.

Shining down on it all was a crescent moon, like some Hollywood prop placed as a crowning touch on the $45,000 night.

“This is nice . . . gorgeous,” said a smiling Phyllis Reed, one of 500 guests who had come from as far as Edmonton, Canada, and Kansas City for the big blowout.

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This one happened to be a nuptial party, a midsummer night’s dream-come-true for Los Angeles residents Todd Crosner, 24, and his bride, Helen Pacleb, 23. They had exchanged vows in the gazebo and were now on a once-in-a-lifetime high, dancing under the heavens before jetting off to a honeymoon in Paris and Cannes.

But as parties go, it was just one more incredible bash in a city that might well be--hoist your glasses!--one of the world’s great party capitals.

Los Angeles is a place where $40,000 and $50,000 parties are commonplace, where $100,000 and $200,000 blockbusters occur with dizzying regularity. This is a metropolitan area, after all, of movie premieres and Beverly Hills wealth; where Malibu millionaires hire barges to shoot fireworks over the ocean; where social climbers dole out $2,000 to $6,000 a pop to rent party locations such as yachts, museums, mansions and even castles.

Perhaps no town, according to party mavens, has done as much to develop the art of the good time--the outrageous props, the theme bashes, the delirious nights highlighted with pink-dyed poodles, towering ice sculptures, neon lights, pyrotechnics, laser beams shooting toward the stars. . . .

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“At the risk of upsetting New York, Los Angeles is usually where the trends start with parties,” said Liese Gardner, editor of Special Events, the Culver City-based trade journal of caterers, florists and other professional party people. “L.A. does more theme events and the events seem to have a larger decor budget. . . . You put a couple of parties together and you have a multimillion-dollar (industry).”

In part because of the Hollywood influence, the art of the party has advanced enormously in the past decade, despite shrinking budgets because of the recession, caterers say.

In the tasteless past, “people would spend $10,000 to put an elephant in the driveway and serve hot dogs” to their guests, mused Giovanni Bolla of Bolla’s International Catering, who was handling this night’s wedding festivities. Nowadays, elephants--and schlock in general--are out. Fine cuisine and creative design are in.

Competition to build the better party has spawned the annual “Gala Awards,” initiated six years ago by Special Events magazine. Prize categories include Best Event Coordinated for an Individual, Best Event Decorated on a Shoestring (under $20,000 for decor), Most Imaginative Use of Special Effects, and Best Tabletop Design.

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Although Los Angeles has dominated the awards, other cities are said to be catching up. Last year’s competition attracted 400 entries from throughout the United States and Europe. Winners were announced at a black-tie celebration in San Diego.

“It’s a pretty exciting industry,” said Charles Compton, 40, a two-time winner who makes a living as a full-time party designer for California Celebrations of Marina del Rey. Already, Compton has his sights set on next year’s banquet in Orlando, Fla., thanks mainly to a party he put together this spring in a rented hangar at Santa Monica Airport.

The event was a nighttime bar mitzvah celebration for 300 guests, done with a cloud motif.

“Artistically, we brought the sky in,” Compton said. The entire hangar was lined with muslin and tinted a sky blue, and projectors were used to send moving white cloud images across the walls. Meanwhile, white neon clouds were hung here and there, and the bar and stage were made to look like clouds. A mist of evaporating dry ice crept across the floor like swamp fog in a horror movie.

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As the night grew later and the action moved to the dance floor (another cloud), flashing neon lightning bolts and thickening fog created the impression of a storm, Compton said. The celebration was dubbed: “Flying High With Josh.”

“Back East, parties tend to be more on the conservative side,” Compton said. “L.A. was the first to be wild and funky . . . more theatrical.”

With its seemingly countless subcultures, Los Angeles is the scene of parties of every variety--nights of belly dancing, quiet prayer, strip poker and carriage rides. Russian and Iranian parties traditionally last until 3 or 4 in the morning, Bolla said. “They like to dance . . . they are night people,” he said.

One night, a few years ago, 2,000 people gathered in a rented warehouse in Compton--a place “the size of a football field"--for a private Japanese sushi party, Bolla said. Earlier this year, he added, Giorgio Armani’s newest fashion line was celebrated with a weeklong extravaganza at a hilltop mansion in Bel-Air.

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That scene--a day-and-night kaleidoscope of champagne, celebrities and international cuisine--resembled outtakes from a Robin Leach highlight film. “In five days, he spent $225,000 with us,” Bolla said of Armani. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner every day . . . money was no object to him.”

Though parties go on every night in Los Angeles, no one has ever tabulated the overall dollar value, Gardner of Special Events said. For film premieres, Hollywood studios often throw money around like so much confetti--up to $500,000 for some colossal events. Three-time Gala Award winner David Corwin of Ambrosia Caterers has recently handled several blockbuster film parties.

For “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” Corwin turned the Hollywood Palladium into a facsimile hell--with smoke, simulated flames and attendants dressed as Grim Reapers.

“You entered through a time tunnel,” Corwin said. “Everything was transformed into reds and a feeling of thunder and lightning, a whole purgatorial effect. All the foods were spicy hot.”

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Invariably, Corwin added, such events are held during the week to assure media coverage, and they end by midnight. “You’ve got agents, producers, a lot of celebrities, studio executives . . . they’re all working, making connections, making deals, exchanging cards,” Corwin said.

“We compare (these parties) to the opening night of a Broadway production. You’ve got all the critics there--everyone’s real critical--and you throw all the stars in there, the paparazzi, the klieg lights. . . . There’s tremendous energy. And it’s over in a few hours. It’s always a shame.”

The party in Hancock Park was not nearly so intense. Straggling diners moved among tall swan ice sculptures to sample the last of the buffet delicacies, especially the poached salmon. At last, the cake was set out, four-tiered, imported that morning from Las Vegas.

It was beautiful, everyone said. Just gorgeous.

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Dancing continued. The band played “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” Just about everything was superb, said Tony Pacleb, 27, a cousin of the bride, except for one thing: He was waiting in line--and had been for too long.

“Not enough restrooms,” he groused.

Pacleb had driven down from Oxnard. This was the biggest wedding he had ever seen. He talked about his job up there, in electronics, until finally the guy ahead of him emerged with a cry, “Batter up!”

And Pacleb was gone.

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