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O.C. Is the King of Grad Night Spectacles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tradition started with the simplest of intentions: a parent-sponsored all-night party meant to keep new high school graduates safe on what is statistically one of the most dangerous nights of their young lives.

But grad nights, as the parties are called, didn’t stay simple--or cheap--for long.

As each new group of parents strives to outdo the previous year’s fete, volunteer-run decorating committees have given way to professional party producers. High school gymnasiums often are abandoned for more exotic venues, and for many Orange County grad nights this year, the price tag hovers near $40,000.

Every grad night shindig centers on one basic idea: The party lasts all night, and once you’re there you cannot leave until it’s over. That way, the new graduates will not be out on the roads, and they cannot drink. Most grad night parties end with breakfast.

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Beyond that, some parents will throw money at almost anything they believe will keep their young graduates happy and out of trouble.

The average grad night party in California costs about $20,000, according to Karen Dombeck, executive director of GRADS, a San Diego nonprofit group that runs seminars for parents on how to throw a grad night party. Students from many local schools, including those in the Santa Ana Unified School District, spend their first night as high school graduates at Disneyland. The amusement park stays open until 6 a.m. for these private events--at a price well below the cost of a blowout party.

But at dozens of other schools, all-out grad night parties are practically de rigueur. What kind of party would do without bungee jumping from trampolines, virtual reality pods, hypnotists, handwriting analysts, laser tag and videotaped karaoke? Not many, it seems, in Orange County.

“We would really like to get one of those bungee cord trampoline things, but they’re like $1,500,” sighed Mina Brooks, whose son Anthony will join the rest of his Irvine High School class at a grad night party at Palace Park in Irvine on June 23. But with a budget already at more than $38,000 for about 400 seniors, the bungee cord setup will depend on the number of students who purchase $75 tickets to the event, Brooks says. (Students who can’t afford it are routinely given scholarships.)

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At the Aliso Niguel High School party June 22 in Aliso Viejo, party-weary graduates will receive professional massages to perk them up. Other parties will feature rock-climbing walls, henna tattoos and funky hair stylists. Raffle prizes? How about a computer or a surfboard, compliments of a local merchant?

O.C. Teenagers Are ‘Difficult to Impress’

Nowhere, party planners say, does it get more elaborate than here.

“In Orange County, the kids are a little bit more difficult to impress,” said Hollie Keeton, whose Newport Beach party planning firm First Class Events will produce 15 area grad nights this year. “If you bring someone from the Inland Empire to a place 10 minutes from the beach, they’re happy they are at the beach.” Students from Newport Harbor High are less easily thrilled, she said. “They couldn’t care less if they were floating on a lily pad in the middle of the water.”

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Keeton can throw a grad night party for a minimum of $60 a student, but don’t expect bungee jumping and rock walls for that price. Many parties end up costing twice that as parents opt for more spectacular locations or additional attractions.

The most lavish grad night party on Keeton’s docket this year was for the 350 graduates of Santa Margarita High, a private Catholic school. That party cost more than $45,000. Parents chose the Amada Club in Buena Park for the party’s setting, a private glass-walled club with a waterfall and private theater.

Richard Lester of Lake Forest, one of Santa Margarita’s newest grads, says the party was a blast from start to finish. In keeping with the Hollywood theme, students stepped off the buses and onto a red carpet, where they faced a sea of camera- and microphone-bearing parents posing as paparazzi.

Especially hilarious, he remembers, was the hypnotist’s show in the wee hours of the morning, in which members of his class were induced to dance like ballerinas.

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While Lester admits that some kids in his class did a fair amount of drinking at other times in high school, he says there was no reason to bother trying on grad night.

“You had so much there that you could look forward to. It was a blast,” said Lester, who is headed to Saddleback College in the fall. While he doubts that he will ever attend a party quite that great again, Lester says he will return next year to help set up for the next class.

Orange County’s public schools will celebrate their graduations in the next week or so. And when they do, it will be a culmination not just for students who are ending their high school careers but for the many parents who have worked for as long as a year to throw the best grad night parties they can.

Carmela Edwards, chairwoman of the Aliso Niguel High School grad night committee, says it has been a labor of love.

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And what a labor it has been. The grad night volunteers are constructing their own elaborate decorations and props for the Hollywood Nights theme party at the school. Twice they have been forced to move their operations when warehouse space for the sets--which include a tremendous movie marquee facade and 8-foot-high Oscar Award statues--was donated and then rescinded.

Parents began moving the sets into Aliso Niguel’s gymnasium on Friday, and Edwards said volunteer crews will be working around the clock until graduation day.

Before the set-building, though, there was the fund-raising. For most schools that started last summer, but at Laguna Beach High, parents of sophomores received solicitation letters earlier this year for a party more than two years in the future. The letter suggested that parents give $300, at a rate of $100 a year for the next three years.

Parent Barbara MacGillivray, a coordinator of the 2001 Laguna Beach event, said the early solicitations netted responses from only a dozen or so families. Next the group will have to move to fund-raising events.

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The party will be among the most expensive per teen in the county--MacGillivray is looking at a cost of $200 a student. But that’s in good part because Laguna Beach High is a small school with fewer than 200 students in each graduating class. Decorations and most entertainment cost the same whether they’re enjoyed by 200 kids or 600.

Is all this going too far? Should a one-night splash cost as much as a teacher’s yearly salary?

When MacGillivray’s older child graduated two years ago, she said, the price was a shock. “I was pretty appalled when I first started,” she said. “Then when you get into it, and you see what it takes, it’s worth it.”

But Christine Rice, director of high school education for the Santa Ana Unified School District, thinks some moderation is in order.

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“I think it’s hard on families, especially in communities like ours,” to receive the message that it costs thousands of dollars to keep their children safe for one night. “I think it’s not appropriate, but there are those who think it is.”

The locale of many grad night parties is a tightly held secret, with some kids boarding buses directly from graduation with no idea where they will end up. Not only does this add an element of mystery and excitement to the evening, parents say, but it prevents outsiders from crashing the party. It also keeps kids from stashing liquor there before the event.

Marilyn Marcus knows all about that game. This is the fourth consecutive grad night she has worked, and she says she has seen it all. Her youngest son, Jeremy, will graduate from Dana Hills High School on June 22.

Like many crepe paper-weary parents, Marcus and the others at Dana Hills have turned their $50,000 event over to professionals for the last three years.

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“There’s no way I am going to be constructing something the day my kid graduates,” Marcus said. “It’s too important to enjoy the day, and have dinner with him, to be pounding nails.”

Santa Ana Graduates Headed to Disneyland

At a lower price, Santa Ana will be keeping its own teens safe and happy. When school officials realized halfway through the year that they had scheduled graduation for a day when Disneyland would not be open for grad night parties, they went to great effort to redesign the calendar for the entire district. Graduation in Santa Ana, and the $38 grad night at Disneyland, will be Wednesday night.

Five years ago, before the grad night tradition took hold, party planner Keeton says many people complained that the more elaborate parties were too expensive. But peer pressure has created a domino effect. These days, Keeton said, “everyone’s always trying to one-up the other.”

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It’s a vicious cycle, Capistrano Unified School District Supt. James A. Fleming admits, but worthwhile.

Before moving to Orange County eight years ago, Fleming was a school official in Miami, where there was no such thing as grad night. “I recall that graduation night was always a very scary time because you would have kids going out to parties where there would be alcohol and other activities taking place,” Fleming said. “The parents in this part of the country are fortunate that parents and teachers have gotten together to provide such wholesome alternatives.”

His own daughter Christina is graduating from Aliso Niguel this year. “I anted up $60 for the ticket,” Fleming said. “I didn’t hesitate to do so.”


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