Becca Cason Thrash is hosting a party tonight at her Houston mansion, and everyone who is anyone is here. Becca and her husband, John, are famous for having the most fashionable guests at their home, and it is the perfect place for a party. It includes a kitchen that is spacious enough for a small army of chefs, 13 powder rooms, and a black granite indoor swimming pool. The pool is situated in the middle of the dining room, where the Thrashes sit down for dinner with 250 of their closest friends. The pool itself is large enough for staging naval battles, but Mrs. Thrash confides that she never has so much as dipped a perfectly pedicured toe into it. That is not the purpose of the pool.
Hours after the first guest has arrived, the evening is not even beginning to wind down. Instead, a sense of expectation has set in, as if the cocktails, the sophisticated chitchat, the delectable dinner all have been preamble, for any minute now someone will . . . Splash!
Illustration by Gary Hovland. (Click image to enlarge)
There it is! Somebody has fallen—or has jumped or has been pushed—fully clad into the pool. Chances are, several more guests will wind up treading water in their Diors before the party has ended, and local society columnists, in breathless prose, will run a tally the next day of those who wound up in the drink. Nonetheless, says Mrs. Thrash, “I hope people aren’t coming to my parties just to see people fall into the pool.”
Only a churl would suggest as much. Yet the quest for a distinctive backdrop for your revels could lead you—and your guests—to try just about anything. Party venues can run the gamut from the avant-garde and grand to the unlikely and simply bizarre, depending on the event and the city. In West Palm Beach, Fla., for instance, one of the most popular party places was once a used-car showroom, until the owner, Ty Houck, staged his wedding reception there in 1989. Since then, the establishment now known as Ragtops has hosted hundreds of fund-raisers, birthday parties, Bar Mitzvahs, and corporate events, with its array of some 80 vintage LaSalles, Packards, Corvettes, Studebakers, Morgans, Jeeps, and other vehicles serving as a mise-en-scène. “People have even married at Ragtops,” says Polly Onet, a public relations consultant who travels in the New York and Palm Beach social circuit. “It’s a bright, cheery place, and who doesn’t like cars? It’s a natural.”
In Manhattan, it was in the finest tradition of Bohemian chic that global ad agency BBH once selected as the site for holiday merrymaking a run-down townhouse in the Meatpacking District, where Madonna was alleged to have had it on with tragic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The stairs were rickety, the floors uneven, candles burned everywhere, and the toilet was in a tent out back. Before the night was over, a New York Times correspondent’s coat and at least one other partygoer’s hair had caught fire from the candles, prompting the industry weekly Advertising Age to proclaim it the holiday party of the year.
Taken by themselves, these events are random, unconnected pieces of a vast cosmic mosaic. In the aggregate, however, they demonstrate something profound about the human condition: Deep down, man is a party animal. The need to celebrate with others, to commemorate a deed or a moment, is one of our more elevated impulses. And so throughout history—cue the kettledrums—some of the most imposing edifices were built not as military structures or demonstrations of wealth, but as places to party. Military victories, bountiful harvests, successful hunts, the births of children, the changing phases of the moon, Super Bowl wins—all have served as reasons for celebrations. And when nothing exciting had happened for a while, man invented the anniversary. The social benefit of the party was clear: Festivities brought him and his neighbors together to laugh, to bond, to dance, and to explore together the full spectrum of human expression.
Ultimately these celebrations became ritualized, repeated in the same places year after year, around obelisks and statuary and primitive structures. Thus early man’s first party venue was the temple, with religion dictating his most meaningful revels. The wilder the festivities, the more likely they were divinely inspired.Four thousand years ago in Babylon, a military victory would prompt male and female followers of Ishtar, goddess of war and sex, to gather at her temple and celebrate with singing, dancing, drinking, and much lusty rolling about on the ground. In later centuries it became popular for Babylonian women to serve Ishtar, at least briefly, as prostitutes, whereupon her temples became popular year-round.
Centuries later, the temple at Eryx in northwestern Sicily was a popular destination, first for the ancient Greeks and then for the somewhat less ancient Romans. The temple, said to have been built by Aeneas, was devoted to Aphrodite, as the Greeks knew her, or to Venus, as the Romans renamed her. Once on the island, the pilgrims would make straight for the temple and begin to pray—for a good time. More than faith was involved, for the goddess’s temple housed a thousand women devoted to answering her subjects’ prayers. Visitors would drink, dance, and carouse for days on end, and even find time for a little worship. Then they would sail home, no doubt reminding their fellow passengers that whatever happened in Eryx stayed in Eryx.
It was not divine intervention but rather an engineering discovery—the arch—that led to the construction of Rome’s most celebrated party venues. With its enhanced load capacity, the arch could span much greater distances than the column-and-beam architecture of the Egyptians and Greeks, making it possible to erect public buildings with spaces that could accommodate thousands of people instead of just a handful of priests. The most impressive of these structures was the Colosseum. Completed in A.D. 80, the stadium could hold 50,000 of the wine-soaked Roman masses while the likes of Caligula and Nero and their retinues debauched in the VIP section, the forerunner to today’s luxury box.
With the fall of Rome, Europe slid into the Dark Ages. However, all was not doom and gloom, for one of the most significant structures that took shape during that period was a party venue. When King William II built London’s Westminster Hall in 1099, he intended it to be a theatre of modern revelry. With its cavernous, vaulting interior and gilded columns and walls, King William’s party place was created for staging feasts and celebrations on a scale Europe had never before witnessed. It served in this role for centuries. During one three-day Christmas bash in the late 14th century, King Richard II, with the aid of some 2,000 cooks, entertained no fewer than 10,000 guests each day. Through the years, the royal guest list shrank, until finally, in the last century, Parliament absorbed Westminster Hall. Used mostly for affairs of state now, it has become a somber place, displaying little if any evidence of the revels it once housed.
In Manhattan, on February 1, 1892, Mrs. William Astor hosted a ball at her Fifth Avenue brownstone mansion that would become one of the most talked-about social events in American history. But the event did not earn that distinction because of anything that was said or done that evening. In fact, Mrs. Astor’s galas were generally devoid of wit and intellect; she discouraged discussions of anything weightier than the weather, fashion, and who was marrying whom. The hostess herself hardly lit up a room, though with her ample girth festooned in necklaces and stomachers and brooches, she was said to resemble a walking chandelier. The evening is best remembered for the party venue itself: her ballroom, which held 400 guests. The ballroom’s capacity has taken on an almost cabalistic resonance ever since, with members of Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred being regarded as the crème de la crème of New York society.
Fortunately, say America’s entertainment pros, the modern party scene has evolved far beyond the mind-numbing constraints of a century ago. Wayne Foster, of Wayne Foster Entertainment in Beverly Hills, promises to deliver any kind of party you want, wherever you want it. Foster recently staged a birthday party for a yachtsman on a submarine. “There were a lot of politics involved in getting the sub,” says Foster, “but when it was done, we had a sit-down party for 100. Then we took the sub down, and everybody got to look through the periscope. Then we came back up, and when it surfaced, everybody sang Happy Birthday.”
As in any business, trends come and go. Raw space—an unfinished building or other hard-hat site—was a popular setting for fund-raisers years ago, but no longer, says Todd Fiscus, of Todd Event Design in Dallas. “That raw, urban look is passé. People want to return to luxury,” he says. “They want to look their best, and when you put on a pair of $900 Jimmy Choo shoes and find yourself on a bare concrete floor, it’s off-putting.”Lounging, which the Romans made popular 2,000 years ago, is back, says Rebecca Winik, senior events manager for Boston-based Circles, one of the country’s largest concierge services. “The very word lounge appeals to partygoers,” says Winik. “It’s got a Vegas vibe to it.” But the rediscovery of the virtues of lounging may have a downside, she observes with a smile. “I think a whole generation is going to grow up with back problems.”
Winik recently transformed a space at the Viceroy hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., into a casino lounge for a poker night. At one end of the room were overstuffed couches, low lights, a bartender pouring martinis and cosmopolitans, and a cigar area with Sinatra music piped in. At the other was a casino with poker tables and dealers flown in from Las Vegas. When not playing cards, the guests could, well, lounge.
Though serene by day, the Gansevoort’s rooftop can be a rollicking party venue. (Click image to enlarge)
Winik notes that for a corporate outing, she is considering the roof of a Fifth Avenue hotel. The rooftop destination has taken on such vogue that it may reshape the American skyline. Numerous hotels now on the drawing board will be topped by party facilities with pools, potted plants, chaise longues, and spectacular views. On the rooftop of the Hotel Gansevoort in New York’s Meatpacking District, 14 floors above the hurly-burly of Gotham, Victoria’s Secret model Giselle Bündchen celebrated a recent birthday. For the sake of the male guests, we hope she availed herself of the pool.
Despite the appeal of the new, the edgy, and the avant-garde, a party venue’s allure may lie in the traditions it represents. Thus, one of this country’s most tradition-laden social events, the Philadelphia Assembly Ball, returns year after year to the ballroom of the Park Hyatt Philadelphia at the Bellevue. There, Philadelphia’s oldest families, dressed in white ties and gowns, have been celebrating their pre-Revolutionary pedigrees since 1748. For generations the hotel had been known as the Bellevue-Stratford, but the name was changed when, after closing for several years, the Park Hyatt acquired the hotel. Should you ask, the members of the Assembly will allow that they are happy to have the old hotel back. Still, they will confide, the ball was more fun before the hotel’s name changed.
Not far from the Bellevue stands Delilah’s. As a party venue, it lacks the gravitas of the old hotel, but as attorney Adam Taxin puts it, “It’s a lot more fun, isn’t it!” He has to yell to be heard over the din of the heavy metal music, which grows louder when some 20 young women come strutting down a staircase. You cannot help but notice that they are wearing very little, and a moment after descending, they are wearing even less, having discarded their tops to dance uninhibited and unfettered. None of this surprises the audience: After all, Delilah’s is a gentlemen’s club.
Some bluenoses might dispute that designation, claiming that Delilah’s is neither a club nor for gentlemen. Nonetheless, it has become a popular spot for charity fund-raisers in recent years. Tonight’s entertainment will benefit Mr. Taxin’s cause, Brotherly Love for New Orleans, which benefits victims of Hurricane Katrina. As owner Greta Shamy explains, this is one of four charity events she hosts every year. She contends that Delilah’s is not unusual in this regard. “The industry has become much more corporate and upscale,” she says. “We’re very conscious of public relations and understand the importance of charity work.”
Not all the action at tonight’s party is restricted to the stage. On the floor, waitresses move from table to table pouring shots, a ritual that for some reason requires the pourer to straddle her patron—male or female—face-to-face. Attorney Danielle Weiss, a Brotherly Love board member, finds herself pinned in her chair. “Yes, this is the first time I’ve ever been to one of these places,” she says, while struggling to disentangle herself from the buxom pourer on top of her.
But as Taxin reminds her, “It’s all for a good cause.” No doubt similar reassurances were spoken among the faithful at Ishtar’s temple.