Photo by Mark Hunter
I’ve always had a vibrant fantasy life. As a girl, I dreamed of married parents, boarding school and behaving badly enough to be grounded. I imagined myself as a grownup — unbound, dusty and gorgeous in the outback by day, smashing and intellectual in the city by night. I would work with exotic animals — do a groundbreaking study with gorillas, maybe — dance beautifully, drive race cars, wear sexy tailored suits and have short hair, but exude powerful femininity. My future love life would be a series of passionate but terminal affairs that would remain with me forever in cigar boxes full of poetic letters and black-and-white photos. Naturally, these romantic entanglements would all begin and end tenderly, in remote, exotic locales.
As an adult, I’ve slowly come to accept that I simply don’t have the constitution for such a life, never mind the bankroll. I crave stability, routine, consistency. I won’t say that the fantasies are better than reality, mostly because I don’t want to. But the one thing my fantasies sorely lacked was the need for community I’ve developed as a grownup. In my fantasies, I always ran alone. In the here and now, I’ve come to thrive on the companionship, affection and understanding I get from friends and family.
And so the parties I give are where my reality and fantasies meet — where I can invite the flesh-and-blood folks I love into the world that happens in my head. And it’s a terrific, satisfying challenge to come up with ways to bring a fantasy to life. Using décor, costume, music and food, I try to realize my fantasies within a theme-party formula that blends equal parts authenticity, inspired improvisation and down-and-dirty arts ’n’ crafts.
The genesis of a great party for me almost always begins in books. Or I’ll come across a photo or story in a magazine or newspaper that rolls around in my head for a while. Then I’ll seek out detailed accounts of experts, travelers or explorers along with intimate and textural native histories. Themed cookbooks start stacking up alongside rented movies. With foreign and exotic visions simmering inside me, I walk through my days feeling foreign and exotic.
Reading Dracula and Interview With the Vampire in junior high led to my first fantasy-inspired party. My pubescent friends and I were all young enough that the vampire lifestyle seemed romantic and still very plausible. We were a secret clan of vampires sitting in my darkened living room together, feeling nefarious, listening to Bauhaus and sipping pop. A picture book of South American jungle tribes that I received as a child festered in me for years before I threw a misguided and misunderstood jungle party for my high school friends.
The most glorious party I ever threw began while channel surfing. Over several lazy Saturday mornings, I kept coming upon a cable network that aired music videos from India. I was glued to the set; the pop numbers were over-the-top productions, and the ballads evoked heartache as an integral part of a life well lived. These were three-minute samples of a people. I was infused with the color, passion, spirit and humor of a culture, a few corny but heartfelt musical minutes at a time. I began to scour Rough Guides and hunted down Bollywood films in Artesia’s Little India neighborhood. I started to skip around town with an imaginary cast of dozens singing and dancing behind me.
Several years later, my Indian fantasies came true in a most inspired and well-enjoyed Indian feast to celebrate my 30th birthday. Thank you, India. A few dozen friends, an amazing spread and epic décor was more my speed at that point than jet lag, dysentery and the idea of spending my 30th alone and introspective in a foreign land.
Reality and fantasy go hand in hand when it comes to decorating a party; I lean on my artistic talents when my décor ideas get too far-fetched. (Or recruit artistically inclined friends.) For example: I desperately wanted an elephant at my Indian party. I simply would not have been satisfied without one. But it is both inhumane and impractical to hire a live pachyderm and dress him up to greet guests on the lawn of my Mid-Wilshire home. So I made one. It may sound sickeningly crafty, but heart and ingenuity trumps prepackaged authenticity every time.
The sophisticated craftsperson will likely choose papier-mâché over the lowbrow technique I offer to fabricate serious party décor. But you can make anything with a glue gun, masking tape, newspaper, spray paint, a box cutter and cardboard. Lots and lots of cardboard. Appliance stores all over the Southland cast away acres of the stuff every day. It can be cut, scored, bent to achieve virtually any creative goal.
The method: Bunch up the newspaper into balls and begin taping them together to make a mass. If the desired shape is going to be long or tall, like an elephant, it may need to be fortified with some type of skeleton — cardboard, a piece of wood or a stick. Mold it, tape it, shape it and tape it some more. Keep on with the newspaper and tape until it begins to look like something. Then wrap it, mummy-like, in a final coat of masking tape to perfect the shape. A suitable coat of spray paint will finish the job.
If it’s a vegetarian luau you’re hosting, a succulent newspaper-and-masking-tape piglet roasting over a spray-painted cardboard spit with yellow and red newspaper flames can look incredibly realistic in low light. I’ve crafted a 10-foot spouting whale for a Jacques Cousteau party after reading The Ocean World. A lion, two gazelles and a nine-foot giraffe were featured guests at a garden party after I received a photo book of the African savanna for Christmas. A lawn bowling event planned for a particularly chilly day resulted in a fat, happy polar bear that greeted guests near the hot cocoa pot. (I’d watched a TV documentary on the creatures two weeks before.) In addition to the homemade elephant at the Indian party, there was a replica of the Himalayas (a cut-up refrigerator box spray-painted purple, with white snow caps), a flowing Ganges river (Orange Crush cans, old tennis shoes, “corpses” and other bits of trash affixed to a craft paper runner) and a dozen flat, cardboard-cutout monkeys. Of course I also had a field day in Little India buying a mess of Indian tchotchkes to add to the ambiance.
Every fantasy has an outfit. Or not, but that’s a different kind of party altogether. If you think about it, fantasies are very fashion intensive. For every fantasy romance, adventure, caper or journey a person can think up, there’s a very specific suit of clothes that is conjured up to flesh out the vision. And at a party, dressing the part is the most active way for guests to picture themselves in that vision. Themed attire should always be strongly encouraged. It allows guests to engage in your fantasy — literally dress themselves in it. In your invitation, suggest ideas and resources for appropriate dress. I did the footwork for both local and out-of-state invitees by seeking out and listing stores in their local Indian neighborhoods. Even if it’s just a little Friday after-work soiree you’re planning, dress for the fantasy, not the reality. No one dresses “casual Friday” in fantasies.
Music is the most glaringly subtle influence on the life of any party. Any 21st-century Angeleno knows this, but it is worth restating. For this, you’ll need to come up with the soundtrack of your fantasy, which may be daunting. But the resources are there. Between iTunes, Rough Guides, the genre maps on AllMusic.com and Amoeba Music, there’s no reason for your party to be scored like any other. The music you select for your party should be as dynamic as the dreams themselves.
Food is the most tangible, most sensual part of bringing one’s dream to the table. But food is where one must realize that fantasies have some boundaries — guests will not enjoy eating the recipes you dream up if you are not, in reality, a competent cook. DIY has its limits, and food is where these should be recognized. With the money I saved on elephant rental, I bought real-deal samosas from my favorite local Indian restaurant, which saved me messing around with hot oil. Takeout is not cheating if it gives life to the dream, or if it’s ordered in the best interest of the theme. That said, don’t psyche yourself out — I dove deep into Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking and came up with a number of authentic, easy-to-make recipes.
Almost any fantasy worth having is worth bringing to fruition in one way or another. The parties you throw do not have to be from the same formula. Friends plus guac and chips plus beer and wine does not equal the best, most wonderful, most fantastical gift you can give to yourself and the people in your life. The whole idea, even the phrase “making one’s dreams come true” may sound naive and fantastical, but isn’t that what life’s about?