‘Elvis needs a vodka tonic!’
Whether these words were the highlight or the low-water mark of an otherwise extraordinary evening is still the matter of some debate. But there’s no question that it marked a turning point for the 25 hangovers-in-the-making gathered in a Sin City hideaway to celebrate three 50th birthdays — those of my wife, Janet; our childhood friend Dan; and my own. That’s 150 years of us being us, hence our hard-to-pronounce and frequently misspelled moniker for the five-day mid-May affair: the Vegas Sesquicentennial.
We’d leapt onto the destination-everything bandwagon (weddings, family reunions, girls’ weekends, etc.) months earlier. It seemed as if everyone we knew was corralling unsuspecting friends, jumping on a plane and seeing what debauchery showed up later online. As it turned out, if we’d known that a destination birthday would be such a hoot, we would have turned 50 long ago.
The King of Rock-and-Roll was a sequin-festooned surprise from my friend Kathy, who’d found him gallivanting in front of the Bellagio fountains and offered him a gig on the spot. (She’d later tell us that booking through an agency was wayyy more expensive, and she just “wasn’t sure if you three were worth it.”) The Sunday evening party had been running at full tilt, with guests dipping their glasses into the whiskey sour fountain, filling plates with mass-produced Italian food and comparing notes from that day’s activities in the city that never lets you sleep.
Then he arrived.
Elvis bounded through the door of our two-level Vdara Hotel suite in a pompadoured frenzy, breaking into “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and, what else, “Viva Las Vegas.” Awkward bumping and grinding ensued, followed by a flurry of heart flutters during a spot-on “Love Me Tender” (Janet, did you really have to swoon that much?) and maniacal laughter from my brother Rob, who seemed to think that the King had actually risen from the grave. The music subsided after about a half-hour. Then Elvis got comfortable.
After a few cocktails, a heaping plate of chow, enough in-character banter to keep things interesting and an encore run through his greatest hits, Elvis finally left the building. But he’d worked his mojo: A group of people who had been largely strangers several days earlier were now closer, having survived The King That Wouldn’t Leave.
In a town known for its gambling, our birthday bet was continuing to pay off big.
So why a Vegas Sesquicentennial? The better question: “Why not?”
Janet and I have known each other since 1968, when we met in a New Jersey suburb on the day my family moved into her ’hood. A long friendship led to a long courtship that has resulted in a long, ridiculously happy marriage (23 years in May). We’ll always be those same two kids at heart, and when I look into her eyes I still see a 5-year-old pushing a rickety baby carriage down a cul-de-sac.
Dan entered the picture when I was 13; he sat behind me in freshman algebra class at an all-boys Catholic high school in Metuchen, N.J. He was the best man at our wedding, and he continues to be the best man at just about everything else. More a spare tire than a third wheel, he’s become a brother to Janet and me — an indispensable link to the past whose company our own siblings seem to enjoy more than ours.
Thus, it seemed natural to confront 50 together, to take on an age that sends so many off the deep end. (It’s just a number, right? Right?) We decided to wrap travel into the equation and go big — and go West.
Vegas was an easy choice for us, as we’ve been there dozens of times (I can hear you snickering, by the way) and we knew that there was plenty for people to do besides fete us and gamble away their tax refunds. It’s a land of barf-infused bachelor parties and shotgun weddings, for sure, but stroll the Strip and there are plenty of birthday boys and birthday girls milling about — and on not-so-rare occasions, you can see most of their birthday suits as well.
At first, it was going to be a low-key event. Maybe ask a few friends to join us in the desert for a long weekend, see a B-list comedian and head back to the East Coast. We’d take everyone out to dinner, exult in the glow of a cake with a few candles on it, lounge by the pool and be done with it.
Things changed quickly. As the word got out, our low-key event suddenly became . . . an event. Casual mentions in e-mail exchanges turned into airline reservations. Gayle, a freelance writer in California, and her husband, Paul, signed on with these ominous words: “You are in the process of finding out just how many crazy friends you actually have. Yep, more than you thought.”
As the list grew, so did our apprehension. Planning became paramount: VS ’13 (it’s easier to say than “Vegas Sesquicentennial”) was going to happen, and in a monumental way. And as with most things in life, there were lessons we learned along the way:
●Don’t fret over the guest list. We did next to nothing to encourage people to attend — if we dropped the party into a conversation and it wasn’t acknowledged, we figured that there was no interest. Between vacation days expended and travel costs absorbed, we were asking a tremendous amount of people, so we decided to ask nothing at all.
By early April, the rush to Nevada was on, and the thought of former and present co-workers, friends of friends, siblings with secrets and 20-something nieces and nephews tippling cocktails and breaking bread together began to give us pause. Will they talk to each other? And if they do, will they talk about us?
Truth be told, once VS ’13 arrived and our 22 guests from eight states began dribbling into McCarran International, we were too tired to care.
●Sweat the details, even if it kills you. Once again, we turned to the wise words of Gayle, who had planned a similar extravaganza in Paris for her 10th wedding anniversary: “Create events and let people handle their own logistics. We are all adults (or at least pretending). Otherwise your head will explode.”
Hmmm. Didn’t want that to happen, so the three of us concocted a bill o’ fare for the weekend, a grab bag of get-togethers that somehow always managed to involve alcohol. Ostensibly, it was to bring folks together to make sure that everyone was still alive, but ultimately it became an exercise in group love — the more people met, the more they intertwined on their own.
Along the way, we held a midday welcome-to-Vegas cocktail hour; a group tour to the Neon Museum (a fascinating resting place for the city’s retired signage) followed by a Downtown Las Vegas pub crawl; a Preakness Party replete with black-eyed Susans, ’60s-era snacks and raucous race viewing (we placed $2 bets at Bally’s on every horse to win, then let guests pick a horse at random from a bowl); a joyous midnight cocktail hour at the Nine Fine Irishmen pub in New York New York to ring in Dan’s actual birthday; and a final-day Vdara pool party in two rented cabanas.
Despite our admonitions that everything but the birthday soiree was non-obligatory, we had a full house for every event.
●Don’t drive yourself crazy. Okay, we did, but it could have been worse.
Before we got on the plane, we’d already done much of the heavy lifting. We’d procured and packed the mandatory T-shirts and tchotchkes for goodie bags (e.g., personalized mint tins, chocolate gambling chips, over-the-hill rubber duckies and all manner of useless dust collectors that folks probably regretted lugging home). We mailed out itineraries, Vegas maps and info sheets to all the guests. We made so many lists — booze, food, budget, pub crawl route, etc. — that we had a list to list them all.
On the ground in Vegas, we made grocery and liquor store runs, picked up the cake we’d ordered from a Henderson bakery, hit the party store for paper goods, double-checked that Maggiano’s had our catering order for the Sunday party and unpacked the cascading drink fountain we’d lugged from Jersey to make sure that it hadn’t cracked in transport. It hadn’t.
Somewhere in between, we found time to append “VS ’13: Stay Hydrated!” labels to three dozen bottles of water. (You really can buy anything on the Internet.)
If it sounds like a lot of work, it was. But when else will we ever get to spend an hour inside a Vegas Party City? Bottom line: We wouldn’t have done a thing any differently.
●Get plenty of sleep. We’ll do that in May 2063 during the Vegas Tricentennial.
Fortunately, Elvis didn’t take the party with him. There was 1963 trivia (if you didn’t know it already, the L.A. Dodgers won the World Series that year), a slew of sloe gin fizzes (another blast from ’63) and a film produced by Jenni, a friend from Arlington who somehow turned dozens of embarrassing baby, bathing-suit and bad-mustache photos into a tear-inducing pastiche of our lives together.
After four days of commingling, chatter had turned from “What do you do for a living?” and “Where are you staying?” to “How did we get home last night?” and “When can I come visit you?” Stargazers regaled the crowd with their exploits at the red carpet for the Billboard Music Awards, being held across the street at the MGM Grand. My nephew, Chris, and his friend Jared discovered how potent whiskey sours are, particularly when chased with gin-and-tonics. And everyone tried to come up with a quip that Michael Jackson, a friend of Dan’s with a most recognizable name, hadn’t heard before.
We failed miserably.
The last guests left only when we left with them. Ten of us bounded out of the Vdara for 3 a.m. cocktails at the Cosmopolitan, the posher-than-you resort next door. Janet was wearing a flashing cowboy hat (thanks, Kathy!), and Dan’s head was covered in a felt birthday cake (that Kathy . . . ). Andrea, a former co-worker whom I still e-mail too many times every day, stuck close to the Gloved One, who’d spent part of the afternoon with her at the red carpet. Chris zombied his way along the sidewalk, while Jared kept a lazy pace with my niece, Jessica, and her boyfriend, Tim.
Fifty years goes by in a flash — you know that if you’ve hit the milestone. But if you’re lucky enough to assemble the remnants of your past, magic can happen. As we wrapped our arms around one another and crept toward a Las Vegas dawn, time suddenly stopped and reminded us how wonderful life can be when you’re surrounded by the ones you love.
Deiner, a former deputy editor of the Travel section, is already plotting his next trip to Sin City.