Some people are natural-born theme party planners: imaginative, detail-oriented types who have a knack for creating fun new worlds and inviting others in. Liz Rawls, a Cambridge resident and former competitive ballroom dancer who relished the painstaking work of making her own dazzling gowns, is one of those people. So when she and four of her childhood friends decided to throw a party to celebrate their 50th birthdays in September, they had a theme, naturally: 1957, the year they were born.
Armed with her mother's 1948 Betty Crocker cookbook, Rawls set out to re-create the dishes of her mother's generation. She made unnatural-colored Jell-O molds, cheese balls rolled in walnuts, paprika-dusted deviled eggs, and appetizers of gherkin pickles, maraschino cherries, and cocktail onions speared on toothpicks.
She set out a basket of vintage horn-rimmed eyeglasses, which were instantly picked through by women decked out in vintage party dresses, white kid-skin gloves, and pearls. Men came attired a la James Dean with blue jeans, white T-shirts, and leather jackets. Rawls also passed around candy cigarettes for people to puff on, as well as candy necklaces to accent the glittering jewelry that once belonged to partygoers' mothers. During a dizzying game of "pin the tassels on the pinup," blind-folded guests were spun around and around in circles.
At one point the talk turned to Spam. MaryEllen Schaper, a teacher in South Portland, Maine, who is now a vegetarian, ate it often as a child. "Spam was big," she said. "We had Spam every night for dinner, literally. My mom would bake it in a pie dish, with a ring of pineapple and cloves."
That kind of effortless conversation sparked by unusual food, decorations, and costumes is what theme parties are all about. "A theme party already has the entertainment built into it," says Maureen Toomey, sales and catering director at the Eliot Hotel, "so it makes it easier for the guests to be able to relax and enjoy themselves without the pressure of creating their own entertainment."
She advises party hosts to keep it simple, yet cohesive. "For a theme party to really work," she says, "the food, the beverages, the decorations, and the costumes all need to be part of the same theme."
Jerry Rosa, who estimates he entertains 3,000 people a year at the 20 or so parties he plans for the family he works for in Back Bay, practically has a PhD in theme parties. In fact, when we reached him by phone, he was perched on a ladder stringing lights for yet another party.
Rosa sets the tone by greeting guests with something that captures the spirit of the event. For a nautical-themed party, he offers guests champagne flutes and oysters on the half shell with caviar; for an autumn hayride party, he whips up an aromatic hard cider with mulling spices. He also gives parting gifts: Each guest at the nautical party received a box of handmade white chocolate pearls and seashells.
The Eliot Hotel's Toomey, who hosts around 150 events a year, suggests choosing a theme that you're passionate about - and one that will also be enjoyed by guests. "It is important to know if your guests will be comfortable attending the party," she says. "Coming up with an idea for a theme party should be based on what you and your friends have in common. For example: everyone grew up in the '80s, everyone plays or follows a particular sport."
Marlborough native Katie Jordan, 31, has traveled extensively below the equator and loves all things Brazilian. Last year she hosted a "Christmas in Bahia" party in Los Angeles, instructing guests to dress in vibrant colors and bring tropical flowers. She cranked up the heat, put on upbeat samba tracks, and served minty caipirinhas.
"It was wonderful to look around my apartment in the middle of December and see it filled with happy, relaxed friends dressed in summer clothes," she said.
Planning a party around a fun, interesting group activity can be just as entertaining - and doesn't require elaborate costumes or outrageous heating bills. Chocolate is always the theme for Dana Zemack, author of the chocolate blog thetastyshow.com and host of 50 chocolate-tasting parties a year. She recommends having six to 10 chocolates to taste, from single-origin pure chocolates to locally made truffles, broken up into 1-inch pieces and arranged on separate plates from light to dark. Eat palette cleansers such as brioche, madeleines, or sorbet between chocolates.
Most important, she says, "be creative and have fun with your visual presentation. If you want to pair chocolates with wine or spirits, create stations in different rooms around your house and invite guests to make their way over to each one. Or set everything up in a central location and invite guests to taste each chocolate in sequence."
The joy of theme parties can also come from the unexpected surprises that come about when an imitation of life rubs against reality. At the 50th birthday party in Cambridge, amid the clinking of ice against retro metal cocktail shakers, Rawls searched the room to find someone who would try her anchovy lettuce wraps. If this were really 1957, the plate of pungent appetizers probably would have been politely devoured. But in 2007, people just laughed and turned her down.
Rawls included this unpopular item on her menu because she couldn't remember the last time she saw an anchovy served at a party. "I get all excited about stuff like this," says Rawls, who on her 50th birthday doesn't look a day over 40. "In that regard I'm probably more like 12."
Perhaps another theme party is already in the works.