13 and Counting

SEROTA, Bar Mitzvah
Stephen Serota rises to the occasion at his bar mitzvah. The Jewish rite of passage is often embellished with parties that boast stage-show production values. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 13, 2005


A state-of-the-art New York bar mitzvah owes more than a little to theater, and like all theater, it requires props. That's where Pat James comes in. An event planner with the soul of a Broadway fanatic, James doesn't just throw a party -- the guy puts on a show.

"We had a kid who was really into 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,' " James recalls, "so we had a purple suit made for him, and we hired these people to be Oompa Loompas and they came out and danced. We had these trees with candy all over them, with signs that said 'Do not eat.' It was fantastic."

For a girl named Lexy, James devised what he called a "Lex and the City" theme, for which he rented a pink couch that was an actual prop in the similarly named HBO show. For a lad nicknamed Bull -- yes, a Jewish kid called Bull -- he rented a mechanical bull and built a saloon around it.

On a recent Saturday night, James is padding around the top floor of a loft in Long Island City, which he and 50 employees have turned into a sort of dinner theater fun house. The theme tonight is guitars because the star of the evening, the just-bar-mitzvahed Russell Efros, is a budding guitarist. Secondhand six-strings are perched on the centerpieces of each table. An ice sculpture of a guitar is melting in a corner.

"Five minutes to showtime!" James shouts in a way that suggests that he's looking forward to the show.

James has hired, as he always does, a group of men from a modeling agency, whom he calls "butlers" and whose job it is to greet guests and fetch drinks. He's also brought along a group of women in tight black bodysuits. One of them is now stationed by something called a "vodka slide," a massive block of ice with a groove carved down the middle -- for the adults, of course.

"It's one of the things we're known for, hiring gorgeous staff," James says as he helps a bartender prepare martini glasses right before the start of festivities.

A few minutes after 7, the doors to a large elevator open and a few dozen well-dressed preteens scatter like it's recess. Adults are not far behind. A mob surrounds a sushi bar, where two Japanese chefs roll and slice as fast as they can. Waiters with trays of Peking duck in mini cones slalom through the hordes. A guy hurriedly hands out packets of play money for games of Texas Hold 'Em poker about to start in the back.

"That's really popular these days with the kids," says James, shouting over the music, which a DJ has suddenly turned up. "Casino stuff."

This, by local standards, is a modest affair. Hundreds of New York bar mitzvahs cost $100,000 or more. Many top the quarter-million-dollar mark. If you're ready to spend that sort of money on a five-hour shindig for an eighth-grader, Pat James is the man to see.

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