The Big Zero: Planning a Milestone Celebration

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50th birthday party done up to look like the Breakers in Palm Beach. | Photos provided

Valori Zaslow likes planning parties with a big zero.

“The bigger the zero, the more fun people want to have with the event,” said Zaslow, who’s run ReEvent for 20 years. “People often come to me looking for something unique and creative.”

For a party planner, those are the magic words. While a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah may be more significant, celebrating a milestone — like a big birthday or an anniversary — takes on a different charm.

That’s because it’s focused specifically on the man, woman or couple they’re celebrating.

“The thing about birthdays is you can really enhance and enjoy the uniqueness of that individual,” said Sandra Steinfeld of Philadelphia Party Planners, a relative novice with three years in the business after 20 years as an attorney. “When you’re doing birthdays, it’s about someone who’s already established themselves. It’s about what makes that person who they are. I really like that.”

And the stress level is nowhere near as high as when you have to deal not only with the bride and groom, but their parents and who knows what else.

“There’s much less anxiety doing a birthday party for someone of multiple years,” agreed Lynne Brownstein of Arrangements Unlimited in King of Prussia. “But I’m probably not a good person to ask, because almost every event I do becomes so personal. I’ve been in business so long, there’s hardly a person in the community who hasn’t done something with us. Everybody’s looking for something to celebrate.”

They just all do it a little bit differently.

One anniversary couple might love to dance, so the party will have a dancing theme. Someone else might’ve been into art and culture, so the party will reflect that. Maybe they were into comedy or mysteries, so that will be the focus.

Whatever the customer wants, the party planner will try to make it happen.

Sharon Lee Daniels as Lady Gaga

“We can do a murder mystery or a character impersonator,” said Sharon Lee Daniels of Mae & Co., who’s played her Marilyn Monroe character so well that an older man once thought she was the real Marilyn. “Whatever they need from us.

“We can either do the whole production or just pieces. We’re doing a party soon for someone who’s turning 60 and having a ’50s theme. We’re making it seem like it’s in a diner and having the person’s name put on a record. This family loves to dance, so we’re also bringing in a Michael Jackson lookalike to do Thriller, even though he wasn’t even born in the ’50s. We take dramatic license.”

The clients don’t seem to mind as long as they’re entertained. Sometimes, the star of the night has no idea what’s coming.

“Doing surprise parties are a fun endeavor,” Zaslow said, “because you’re often creating another whole event to detain the person being surprised. The person being honored thinks they’re going somewhere else, so we’ll usually have a group working to coordinate and keep them away.”

No one has more fun in that case than the party planner.

“I’m not the one who has to keep the surprise,” Brownstein said. “That makes it more fun for me watching.”

But as men and women get up there in years the tone for the party may change.

“We did a 90th birthday once and it was lovely,” Zaslow said. “There was a big board with stars and everyone wished upon a star and put up a star for her. She had a small group of maybe 10 friends. It’s nice to be able to celebrate at that age. But I’ve never done one for someone who’s 100. A lot of families take it upon themselves then.

“It depends on the person’s state of mind and ability to get around.”

However, Brownstein, who’s been in the business 41 years, has experienced that.

“I did a couple of 100-year-old birthdays and both were in retirement homes,” Brownstein said. “Besides the family, we invited all the people in the home and had Dixie cups and lollipops that made it easy for them. It was very emotional to see all those people together and see how important it was.”

But you don’t have to be turning the century mark for a birthday to be emotional. And you don’t have to rent out an expensive venue and spend a fortune, either.

“It’s up to each individual,” Zaslow said. “If it’s a special birthday and people really want to celebrate and have the means, then the sky’s the limit. But most come with a budget in mind and try to stick to that. I’ve done some very nice at-home parties — an intimate dinner for 15 to 20 couples, where they brought in a caterer and music. I’ve done a lot of retro parties, where we had retro candy bars.

“People want to be creative, so we usually start planning four to six months in advance.”

Preparation and the ability to adapt on the fly is key, according to Steinfeld, which is where her legal expertise comes in handy.

“It’s all about planning,” she said. “Don’t wing it because it never comes out all right. So have contingency plans. If anybody believes they can pull off an event without one glitch happening they’re dreaming. Being a lawyer I’m trained in analytical thinking.

“I map out what could go wrong. I review all the vendor contracts. I need to know what is this person getting and what are they paying for? Then I put a whole schedule together.”

While party planners may put together weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs by the score, and even throw together an occasional divorce party, those milestone birthdays hit home the most.

“I lost my mother when I was very young and I miss her,” Zaslow said. “It really gives me a very warm feeling to see people who are alive and still able to celebrate.”

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