|Photos by Larry Hirshowitz|
The brain trust of Jeffrey Best’s party-planning empire, Best Events, is headquartered not in a crystal palace in the sky, not even in a gleaming, high-rise power office in the middle of Century City or downtown L.A., but in a cozy bungalow with scuffed hardwood floors on Vista Street, a tree-lined residential road between Melrose Avenue and Beverly Boulevard. Just outside the door are a series of bas-relief statues partly covered with moss and flaking gold paint, four goddesses, or muses perhaps, carved into stone. Just inside, in what would be the living room, are four hefty midcentury modern steel desks, one for each of the goddesses on Best’s office staff: Emma Hite, Melanie Lemnios and Jessica Gehring, and another, under a vintage glass chandelier, for his assistant, Leslie Dubuque, who reigns like Olympia at the head of a war room. They are all young and pretty and have the well-choreographed energy of a relay track team. But in one corner of the room there is a curious black-and-white photo. It is of two cat-fighting lingerie models scratching each other’s eyes out. “Come in, come in,” Jeffrey Best says, beckoning me across the threshold. “Can I offer you something to drink?”
A long time ago, before he became the emperor of party planning, Jeffrey Best worked as a maitre d’ at a hot Los Angeles restaurant called the Grill. “I got my first experience when a William Morris agent said, ‘We’re having a meeting in two hours — bring me hors d’oeuvres and a couple bottles of wine, and get it over here in 10 minutes.’ Soon it was, ‘I want to surprise my girlfriend with a romantic picnic, can you get me two cobb salads to go?’ We didn’t do food to go at that restaurant. They’d say, ‘Can we have a tablecloth?’ Yes. ‘Can we have some forks and knives?’ Yes. ‘Can we have a waiter?’” He leans forward meaningfully, lifting his eyebrows, as if something is about to change, as if at any moment Darwin’s first fish will leap out of the sea and begin to walk. “So I say yes, and the next call is, ‘So-and-so is having a birthday party — we need you to do a martini bar.’” The parties got bigger. The clients, more glamorous. Parties for 50 turned into 100, which turned into 300, which turned into 3,000. After doing a couple hundred of those parties, he decided it was time to start his own company. That’s when stuff really started cooking.
He hooked up with a couple of guys who owned even hotter L.A. restaurants and bars: Jones, Swingers, Bar Marmont, Good Luck Bar. “Now, instead of parties for 3,000 people, it would be like, ‘This is our friend Anna Sui and she needs to do a party.’” Again the pause, the meaningful eyebrows: “I was in this whole other world where, instead of doing events for corporate entities and agents, they were for celebrity society.” Next came the celebrity weddings: Rosanna Arquette’s, Beastie Boy Mike D’s, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s. Best made more money and bought a few bars and restaurants of his own — Firefly in the Valley, Habana in Orange County, Amuse in Venice — after which he went to the movies.
“When Miramax first came out, there wasn’t a single planner in town who wanted to work with them, because they had no money. They came to me and said, ‘Jeff, you’ve got $13,000 for a party of 500 people. Figure it out!’” He put together a party for the premiere of a movie little-known at the time called The English Patient, which went on to win every conceivable award. Each of which, of course, required a party. He trucked in sand and poured it into Moroccan tents. He dressed servers in khaki fatigues and dog tags.
“Parties are a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have a reputation for doing good parties, then the more people want to come to them. If you have a reputation for doing tacky parties, then not so many people want to come.” Entire companies exist that do nothing but find the right people to invite to parties. “The idea is to get those who set trends in their peer group to see a product before anyone else, to dialogue with people about what their experience was with that product. All of which is based on how much they dug the party. It’s like, ‘I was at this Cadillac party and there were these hot chicks and there was this Escalade and they had this DJ in it and I was hanging out in the back seat before anybody’s ever seen it!’ Escalade then has a reputation in people’s minds of being a cool car.” ‰
Best understands the theory behind the party scene as marketing strategy because he was a business-finance student. But he conquered the party scene by first learning to serve in the world he intended to lead. He was a dishwasher, a waiter, a singer in a punk rock band, a limo driver and a street-corner vendor (of Hollywood star maps). He worked in restaurants and bars that were the happeningest places you’d ever been to, so happening they could have served dog kibble and people would have lined up to eat it. And conversely he worked at — even owned — restaurants that had the best food, the best service, the best décor, the best music, but were dead. “There’s a certain quality that people are looking for in their experiential life. It is something that transcends the technical brief of ‘I went out, I ate food, and it filled my stomach.’”
JE NE SAIS QUOI
I say that I want to understand what makes a good party a good party. By way of an answer, Best asks me, “What’s your favorite food?”
That’s it then, I think. Serve your guests’ favorite food. Easy. Mine is spaghetti.
“What if I was to ask you the absolute best time you had spaghetti, where was it?”
My mom’s house, I say, I can’t remember when exactly, but I can picture it.
“So when you think about eating spaghetti at your mom’s home, there’s a whole vibe that goes with that, right? That’s the whole thing about creating a party space. There’s an intimacy to it, a feel. And that,” he says, “is the toughest nut to crack.”
The second part of his answer, the part that is less like a parable and more like practical advice, has to do with being strong on all fronts: “If you talk to a caterer, they’ll tell you the most important thing is the food. If you talk to the PR company, they’ll tell you the most important thing is the press. If you talk to a party promoter, they’ll tell you the most important thing is the guest list. If you talk to an event planner, they’ll tell you the most important thing is the planning and the infrastructure. The truth of the matter is that none of them can exist without the others. It’s a symbiotic relationship between all of those things. And if at any one level it falls down, the rest will crumble. You can’t have a good party if, for instance, the planner hasn’t gotten the space heated and it’s a really cold night. No matter how good the band is, no matter how many celebrities you have, my wife will say, ‘It’s cold, honey, let’s go home.’”
When Jeffrey Best runs an event or does a party, this, in his own words, is what it means: “I set up the press area, and we manage the people who are in it. We don’t decide who is in it, that’s the PR company, but we run them. We run the security company, the police in the street directing traffic, the valets parking the cars, the lighting company lighting the press wall. We run the rental company that puts in the rope and bicycle barricades. We run and hire the emergency medical technicians. We manage the insurance for all the companies. We talk to the city to get all the different fire permits, building and safety permits, street closures, MTA relocations, neighbor notifications, décor production, design, and installation. We select and run the caterers and then the food and beverage, the outfits for the servers, the staffing, the portable restrooms, portable generators, portable air conditioning, portable video, audio and subwoofers. We hire the DJs, decide on the location and schedule them. We pay everybody, and we bill everybody. And that is about half of what we do.” Then he whips his flat-screen monitor around to show a sample budget on a spreadsheet document. There are lines for days.
But why don’t I just pop in on Saturday and see for myself?
SATURDAY AFTERNOON: PARTY PREP
2 p.m. Mr. Best said he would buy the bats himself. And the baseballs, footballs, the Miami Dolphins jerseys, the drill bit, the caps. Best and his crew are transforming a bare Hollywood warehouse — concrete floors, exposed wood-beam ceilings — into a glamorous, high-tech, sports-themed environment. It’s mid-October and disgustingly hot. Back in January, Best Events had been hired by a PR company to organize a party, scheduled for today, bankrolled by Sony and hosted by Mark Wahlberg to benefit the children of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation. Simultaneously, it’s a launch for the newest top-secret product for Sony’s PlayStation 2 video-game player. Guests (invite only) have been promised a “Celebrity Gaming Tournament” (in which 16 celebrities will play video basketball against each other), a surprise musical performance (by a famous rap artist), cocktails (free) and all the hors d’oeuvres (sports-themed) they could eat. Another Hollywood party, in other words.
2:10 p.m. Everywhere the sound of drills whines at variable frequencies. The tamp-tamp-tamp-tamp-tamp-tamp of hammers. The bump-thump-bump chest-cavity-vibrating, heartbeat-altering bass of a hip-hop song streaming from four large speakers mounted to the wall. Burly workmen pause to raise their fists, gyrate their hips and laugh. There are men on ladders. Men kneeling over wires on the ground. Men in clusters nailing things, stapling things, drilling, tying, roping, sawing, taping, relieved by other men, who arrive to sweep up the remnants of the things that have been nailed, stapled, drilled, tied, roped, sawed and taped. Men are transforming cherry-veneer IKEA bookcases into sports lockers. Beau Robb, Best’s number one, and Bryan Knigge, his number two, are decorating the soccer pit. The pockets of Bryan’s cargo shorts bulge with all manner of tools, cell phones, walkie-talkies, radios, pencils, tape measures, keys and scraps of paper. “Mr. Knigge,” Beau barks, “any ideas for a soccer-themed pillow?”
“How about a cushion in the shape of a soccer hexagon?” Leslie, Best’s assistant, calls out while ransacking a bag of brand-new soccer balls printed with the PlayStation logo.
“Yes! I need cushions that are padded with soccers,” says Beau.
“You gotta let me know these things before the day of the event,” says Bryan.
“I’d let you know if I had them before the day of the event,” says Beau. “If you want to go work with Leslie and Emma and the girls unwrapping the balls, okay — otherwise, you’re gonna have to toughen up. Buck up.”
2:45 p.m. A giant array of LED screens — five screens vertical, 18 screens horizontal — is on. The warehouse is heating up. Sweat pours down the workers’ dusty faces. For a party past, Best had envisioned candles flickering in a dark space, but the Fire Department wouldn’t let him have candles. So he arranged for a wall of video monitors to be installed, filmed a thousand candles in his warehouse and put them all onscreen. “You came in and there was this wall of candles,” he says. “It was 30 feet tall. It was unbelievably beautiful.”
3 p.m. Air conditioning is pumping in through collapsible tubes that look like giant worms. The worms are attached to air-conditioning units in the backroom and reach out like tentacles. Rehearsal begins: Stand-ins for the expected celebrities ascend the stage area, where couches have been arranged atop a wood floor painted like a basketball court. The players onstage are like the characters in a Greek tragedy, a tableau caught in the spotlights. “I need to see more spirit from the mock celebrities, please,” says the announcer.
3:15 p.m. Cold air. Yummmmmm.
3:36 p.m. The punching bag in the boxing ring is good to go. Emma, from the office, marches by, followed by a gaggle of seven fresh-faced young men and women, like prospective college freshmen on their first campus tour. They are called “the staffers.” Their job is to gofer, to pick up the little odds and ends, to guard the equipment, to direct guests to the bathroom, to be informative, helpful, polite and invisible. Back at the IKEA bookcase lockers, she says, “This is the sports-bar area. Ideally you should be watching these,” she points to footballs, jerseys and caps arranged in little spotlighted vignettes. “If anybody tries to take anything, you tell them, ‘Sorry, guys, that’s just for display.’ If it’s a celebrity, well then . . .” She shrugs and grins. “During an event we don’t ever go up to a bar for a drink or start eating the hors d’oeuvres. There’s a craft services table in back. There should be at least two of you in each area. There are celebrities at our event. You are not allowed to ask them for an autograph. If Jeffrey finds out that you did, it will not be a good thing.” She makes a slicing-across-the-throat motion, and the staffers fidget nervously.
“What about dinner?” someone asks.
“Everyone was told to eat before,” Emma murmurs apologetically. “You’ll be able to grab stuff in the back. But there’s an appropriate time and place for it.” The staffers nod sagely.
“Also, there are a lot of games everywhere, and it can be tempting to play with them,” Emma opens her arms wide. Animated graphics and catchy songs loop continuously on flat-screen monitors. The staffers smile and nod, looking at Emma like they’re falling in love. “Don’t.”
3:50 p.m. Yo, yo, yo, yo. Check, check, check, check.
The announcer plays with his microphone onstage. Backstage, the staffers gather near the craft services table for a lesson from Emma on how to operate their Motorola radios. “Say your name quickly. No ‘uuuuhhh, ummm, ahhhhh.’ None of that. Be brief. Get to the point,” she says. When the party starts, it will get so noisy that only by using an earpiece can they hear the radio. In slim black pants and plain black shirts, the staffers are like young Secret Service agents in training. “Can you hear me?” Emma asks. “Check!” says one girl. Her radio voice sounds weird, sexless and roboty. “Check!” say the others in turn.
At a nearby table sits a girl whose sole job is to guard the radios. “These radios are so important,” says Emma. “They cost a thousand dollars each to replace.” When they aren’t needed, the radios live in silver James Bond Zero-Halliburton-esque suitcases with gray egg-crate foam padding. In the past, people have stolen radios and pawned them. Or if there wasn’t a kleptomania problem, there was a problem with radio channels. Sometimes they’d be on a frequency that matched up with the police or with people working a different party. “We’d be like, who are you? You want what?”
4:10 p.m. “Start from the beginning of the event and work your way through,” Jeffrey orders the cleaning crew. Now is the time for sweeping. Out front, Julie from the PR company, who ran the mock-celebrity gaming rehearsal, sends her people home to change into their party clothes. Backstage, giant fans the size of steamship propellers are brought in to blow out the heat generated by the air-
The event space is partitioned into layers. Visualizing it makes me think of those Stephen Biestys cross-section diagrams of castles, or man-of-war galleons under siege, where you can stare and stare and still find something new because every square inch has some intricately detailed thing going on. There is a front layer, the party room, where the event will take place, which Best has further subdivided into distinct areas: a sports-bar lounge, a sports book, three sports bars, a stadium with actual stadium seats, a tournament stage and an open-air dance floor. There is a second, hidden layer, which I’m calling backstage, where the people working the event get themselves organized. This is where the radio girl sits, where the audio-visual tech nerds crouch in front of their monitors, where emergency medical technicians and firemen wait in the wings. And finally there is a beyond-back layer, an open-air alleyway where the catering company is setting up. Concrete walls separate these layers. To move between them, through the open doorways shrouded in wispy gray fabric scrim, is to feel like you are stepping into different worlds.
4:28 p.m. The red carpet has been laid down and taped over with plastic tarp to keep it from getting dirty. The crisscrossed aluminum arch, called a “truss,” has gone up. The rooms are quiet. The music has stopped. The space is cooling down. It is the lull before the storm.
4:30 p.m. A friendly young man from the client’s corporate office, with a shaved head and goatee, introduces himself. I call him “Sexy Bald Guy.” His job is to escort the celebrities. He will walk them from the red carpet to the VIP room. He will show them how to play the video games, possibly bring them a drink. He will do whatever they want, except maybe wash their car. Tonight he is responsible for Michelle Rodriguez and Snoop Dogg. This is your regular job? I ask. You do this often? “Well,” he muses, tugging on the cuffs of his dress shirt, “not really. We don’t get a whole lot of Snoop Doggs up in corporate.”
4:46 p.m. The cones are missing! The neon-orange traffic cones — around a hundred of them — that show the cars where to wind up and down on the street and deposit their celebrity cargo at the start of the red carpet. Emma rifles through a binder thick as a phone book looking for the number of the guy who was supposed to bring the cones, the numbers of other guys who can bring other cones at the last minute. “I know. I’ll call the valet guys,” she says, punching numbers into her cell. “Valet people usually have cones. They can just bring them along.”
5 p.m. The street has been blocked off. Department of Transportation pouches like oven mitts are slung over parking meters and padlocked in place.
5:28 p.m. A note on infrastructure: The outside area where people are going to dance is distinct from the actual outside, as it is fenced off with makeshift walls of shiny black plastic tarp. And the actual outside itself is also partially tarped. In both, there are fences delineating where certain people can and cannot go. Little green tents mushrooming at the periphery are coming along nicely. As is the round bar, like a giant doughnut, that is going up in the middle of the dance floor.
Jeffrey Best is outside, near the red carpet by the velvet-rope area (actually a leather rope). He scoots folding ladders around as men attach banners to the aluminum truss with plastic twisty ties. “Black ones, white ones,” Best says. “Two and two.” His jeans are getting more and more low-slung as he raises both arms to point. Overhead, the billboards for the Church of Scientology and the Broadway Hollywood buildings come alight. A lanky production assistant shimmies backward on top of the truss as if it is a 5-foot monkey bar and not one story off the ground. Doing a party is a cardio workout.
5:38 p.m. Gray scrim fabric is multiplying like lusty bunnies. It covers walls, smoothes imperfections, camouflages power cables. Bolts of fabric lurk in corners. A man in dreadlocks staples fabric and more fabric to the wall over the soccer pit. “See all that gray stuff?” he says, pointing to the walls.
5:50 p.m. Time is moving fast now. Jeffrey Best is moving faster. Best and Beau move around purposefully like sharks. The well-dressed PR people are here, testing out the red carpet. The minutes have a crackly electric feel.
5:53 p.m. The executives arrive: Thin women in black turtlenecks and black slacks with glossy calfskin shoulder bags.
5:54 p.m. A woman with a fuchsia bow tied around her waist flips open her cell phone.
5:56 p.m. A folding chair collapses. A stack of pizza boxes topples.
5:57 p.m. A cell phone rings in a backpack, unattended.
5:58 p.m. I’m starting to smell dinner.
6 p.m. The caterers arrive with aluminum platters of meat covered in foil, plastic trays of mini–hamburger buns, hot-dog buns, pretzels. “Tonight will be mostly concession-type food,” Emma says, “stuff you’d eat at a game. Nothing like, oh, I don’t know, sushi, which people love, but it’s not exactly sports-themed, is it?” Submarine sandwiches the length of two-by-fours float by, carried aloft on the shoulders of pairs of men in white chef’s coats and hairnets. The caterers haul equipment out to the brick alley behind the backstage area. A cook stokes coals in a barbecue pit and sets them on fire with sprays of lighter fluid. The flames flicker in the evening light. The wind is picking up. Piles of backpacks, jackets, purses, sweaters, shopping bags, laptop cases are gathering in corners, near walls, beside entrances and exits. Trash cans are filling up.
6:05 p.m. The AV guys are trying to hook up a pair of rabbit ears to a laptop in order to get Channel 11 — the World Series is on — which they then want to record on VCR or DVD and in turn project that on a giant flat-screen monitor in the sports-book area. As this is a sports party, Best thinks it would be a good idea to have some actual live sports. “There you go! You almost got it!” Best cheers as the signal comes in patchily.
6:06 p.m. The rabbit ears are operational.
6:09 p.m. One hour to party time. Best is having dinner. He squats in front of a wood pallet beside one of the giant propeller fans, slices a chicken breast with plastic fork and knife on a paper plate, and finishes in 30 seconds. He goes back for another piece of chicken, plops it on top of a black trunk, hunches over and wolfs that one down in 30 seconds.
Out on the sidewalk, men are loading IKEA “Majiker” bookcase boxes onto an unmarked white truck. Ivar’s old-fashioned streetlamps glow yellow in the purple evening light. It is the magic hour. Security men gather on the sidewalk behind aluminum rent-a-fences. They look dapper in black suits, white shirts and red ties. “Hey, Jim, how ya doin’?” They clap each other on the back, straighten tie knots, adjust cuff links and earpieces, getting into character.
6:20 p.m. The black curtain in the dance area is the wrong texture. Disco lights whirl in colors of red and blue and pink, which match the clouds in the evening sky. The ‰ problematic black curtain, which is affixed to an open-air metal frame like a giant birdcage, has the texture of crumpled pleather. “The client came in last night and decided they didn’t like the shiny curtain. So now we’re making it matte.” Why? Best looks at me and shrugs. It takes six men all in a row to raise the black curtain. “How are we closing this thing up? Do we have finials?” Then Emma runs over, asking for double-sided tape. “What are these plexi-sheets for, Bryan?” Best asks, pointing to a heap of clear plastic under a heating lamp. The next problem is that there isn’t enough cable to secure the black curtains. Best digs in his pocket, whips out $200 and dispatches one of the men to the hardware store. Then he devises a system, which involves leapfrogging over ladders, that will raise the matte curtain more efficiently. Then he helps the men lift the new curtains. Then he gets back on the radio. “We’ve got six guys here,” he says to Bryan, who has gone into the next room. “We don’t need that many. Why don’t you come over and get some of them and finish everything inside?”
6:35 p.m. Pellegrino, Sprite, Diet Coke, Coke, tequila, Jack Daniel’s, Canada Dry, vodka, more vodka, red wine, white wine, Dr. Pepper, orange juice, cranberry juice, grapefruit juice. The bartender, a craggy, bald-headed man with thick glasses, sets up inside the doughnut-shaped bar. Staffer girls flit from table to table planting triplets of white tea-light candles in clear votive glasses. They sing to the music: “We’re gonna party like it’s your birthday . . . it’s your birthday.”
6:40 p.m. Bryan’s men spray-glue the cardboard press walls onto wood struts. The walls say “PS2” and “The Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation” over and over and over. Inside, there are baskets of condiments — little gold packets of Gulden’s mustard and ketchup. Onstage, the impromptu jazz band is gone, replaced by a tall guy with dark, shiny skin, standing Moses-like in front of two turntables. He is staring at some wires.
“A fucking knife will do. Ghetto style,” he says, looking for something to trim the wires. “Damn, I’ve been biting wires for 20 years now. And it always happens right before it starts. Bite the wires, man, just when things are fucked up and at the last minute you ain’t got no tools . . . bite the wires, man.” He laughs. “I could write a whole chapter of a book on that, biting the wires.” Who’s that guy? I ask Jeffrey Best, who is whipping by en route to God knows where. “That’s the DJ. That’s Grandmaster Flash.”
GET THE PARTY STARTED
7 p.m. The video crews are here, along with photographers and reporters. Amy, a cute girl from the PR company in khaki fatigues and high heels, hands out plastic press passes. There are labeled stickers on the floor: NBA TV, Playboy TV, Fox Sports, People, Entertainment Ireland (!), Access Hollywood, Knight Ridder. A press line is forming adjacent to the red carpet, which is not unlike the line that forms for the polar-bear exhibit at the zoo.
7:15 p.m. Backstage, people are eating grilled chicken, brownies and salad from the craft services table. In the back alley, hot dogs and hamburgers are sizzling on the barbecue grill. Plastic ramps now cover the cables snaking everywhere on the floor.
An army of girls in white mini–tennis skirts and blue cheerleader skirts descend: the wait staff. They dart back and forth between rooms. Camera crews circulate with fuzzy microphones that look like giant cat toys. Gray scrims flutter as people rush in and out between spaces. Little groups of workers break off, coalesce to receive instructions and break off again. Best’s office women are back, freshly made-up, re-outfitted in slim jeans, heels and little tees. Twenty minutes to party time.
THE RED CARPET
7:59 p.m. The first celebrity arrives to a flurry of strobe lights: Shannon Elizabeth in chic jeans, red sweater, and boots. One young security guy with a light-saber-ish metal detector paces the entrance. His suit is impeccably smooth. He smells like cologne. “Be still!” says his partner, Jedi-like. “You are too impatient. All questions will be answered in time.”
8:15 p.m. Mark Wahlberg. Mira Sorvino. People I recognize from movies and TV. People I feel I should recognize from movies and TV. One young gentleman with an earpiece escorts Ms. Sorvino from her limo across the red carpet to the door, at which point a different young gentleman takes over and escorts her from the door to a sofa. Up close, she has long, silky blond hair so fine it seems it might melt under the heat of the spotlights.
8:40 p.m. The cones have made it, and limos glide in like 747s onto a landing strip. Beautiful women in miniskirts and stilettos hover like cranes. Exfoliated skin glows. Lips sparkle. There are women who smell like peppermint, incense, root beer, orchids; men who smell like cigarettes. Metal detectors squeak at belt buckles and pagers and phones. “We only check the women if they’re wearing baggy clothes,” says the young security Jedi. “Otherwise, just the men.” A woman flirts with him, giggling, “Don’t you want to frisk me?”
9 p.m. Guests are playing Kung Fu and Wishi Washi and Plate Spinner on the new Sony EyeToy game, looking like Johnny Mnemonic, swatting at colorful critters on a video monitor. Best’s women are kicking into action. They stalk through the event space, picking up empty bottles, empty cups smudged with lipstick, discarded nacho trays. They empty ashtrays, straighten chairs. Tubs of peanuts and popcorn are carted into each of the tents, along with bags of plastic cups, swizzle sticks and cups of green olives. Backstage, Bryan debriefs his crew: They are to go back to the warehouse in Cerritos, unload the trucks and return after midnight. Exeunt workmen, via the back alleyway. They clamber into the truck and speed away. Enter: shiny Porsches, Jaguars and BMWs via the orange-cone runway.
Julie from the PR company grips her radio: “Still missing Snoop Dogg. Still missing Michelle Rodriguez.” A minute later: “Do we have an ETA on Eve?” A girl with a pass tray walks by. The pass tray is actually a clipboard, like the kind a high school gym coach would carry. On it are a dozen pieces of sushi.
9:20 p.m. More fences go up. More security guards watching. People beg to be allowed to move between spaces. Instead of power drills and saws, guests wield cocktail glasses. Instead of a crown, Mark Wahlberg wears a red baseball cap. People eye him standing near the men’s restroom. They eye him standing beside a sofa in the sports-book area. They eye a girl with a blond bob like a silken guinea pig perched atop her head. (“Did you see her? She is so drunk.”) They eye more girls dandling colorful clutches, bracelets clinking on their wrists as they sip cocktails. The surrealness factor is increasing. It is not so much like being at a party as it is like being an extra in a movie about a party. In the restroom, I eavesdrop on a girl speaking into her cell phone. The restroom, with its regular stalls and regular faucets and regular toilet paper, seems not so glamorous. I cannot see her face. She has a European accent, possibly British, or faux British. “It’s a cool party. Absolutely.” Pause. “Call me if you get in.”
GET YOUR GAME ON
9:40 p.m. “Fasten your seat belts, people! It’s time to rock & roll.” Backstage, the AV section is coming to life. Every single cable at the party — power cables, audio cables, video cables, speaker cables, monitor cables — snakes through an opening the size of a mouse hole in the upper corner of the concrete dividing wall. It is like pulling a hundred strands of yarn through the eye of a darning needle. The AV boys travel heavy. It is as if on the way to the party, they decided to swing by the local Radio Shack and buy everything in the store, and then for good measure, swung by the local Best Buy and bought everything there. Early in the day, they had set up their equipment in a big heap as close as possible to the mouse hole.
Now, nerdy tech guys, who’d been lounging morosely in front of monitors on folding butterfly chairs, perk up. The celebrity gaming tournament is in T-minus-five-minutes. A guy in a black Hawaiian shirt snaps to attention. He spent the afternoon creating a PowerPoint presentation of all the celebrity players’ names. “Michelle didn’t show up?” he asks, and deletes her name from the PowerPoint screen. Jerry Porter subs in for Michelle Rodriguez. He’ll be playing against Orlando Bloom.
“Go,” says the AV commander, and the sound cues up.
“Welcome to the PlayStation 2 Triple Double,” says the announcer. Jeffrey Best bites into an apple as he watches the monitors. Little video basketball players dribble and shoot on giant screens.
The L.A. County firemen and medics, their yellow pants smudged with soot, stand in the alleyway, eyeing the barbecue pit. “The winner will have $20,000 donated in their name to Mark Wahlberg’s Youth Foundation,” ‰ says the announcer, and people cheer. The guy in the butterfly chair grooves to the music.
“I need a status check on the Jack Daniel’s,” says one of the security guards, pulling his radio close to his mouth. “Jack. Daniel’s. Check.”
10:18 p.m. Shannon Elizabeth is jumping up and down. “Looks like she won,” says the AV commander, observing her on the live-feed screen. The PowerPoint guy moves her name to the winning slot. The celebs onstage are hot, but the backroom AV section is hotter. Workers gather to watch the tournament unfold. There are laptop screens, big screens, flat screens, screens connected to other screens. Julie bursts in. “The matchups are wrong! Pull it off the screen. It’s Shannon Elizabeth versus Mira Sorvino.” Though that wasn’t the original matchup. The two actresses are switching sofas. Through the concrete wall, we hear the announcer: “We’ve got a potential cat fight here. Mrrrrrow!”
“I need to know one at a time who’s playing who so I can update my slide,” says Julie.
“Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?” says the PowerPoint guy, bouncing in his chair, frantically pushing names around on his screen. “Shit!”
“You got it,” says the commander, as the names are reshuffled.
“There’s some cute girls out there, man,” says one of the crew, ambling over to gaze at the monitors.
10:45 p.m. The tournament is over. Mira Sorvino made it to the final round but lost to Corey Magette. “You look so tired,” Emma says to Bryan, who shakes it off.
MOVE YOUR FEET
11 p.m. It is the time for painful feet. Emma’s feet in kitten heels. The staffers’ feet. Beau’s feet. Bryan’s feet. My feet. A girl whips off her high-heeled ballerina shoes and slings them over her shoulder. In the area formerly known as the parking lot, with the matte black curtains and the open-air ceiling like a giant birdcage, people gyrate as rapper Ludacris (special musical guest!) sings. The Los Angeles sky has never looked so beautiful. At times I catch glimpses of Jeffrey Best: Best leaning against a heating lamp by himself as celebrities swirl around him. Best standing above the crowd on the area he’d designed to look like a stadium with actual stadium seats, a proud general admiring his troops, a satisfied smile playing across his face. Then, in an instant, he is gone. Scenes are frozen in flashing lights: A girl’s neck, flushed and sloped like a swan. A couple kissing on the dance floor. A perfect leg. A perfect arm. Paris Hilton, bending her knee rakishly over a blue sofa, raising her plastic cup aloft. “The best part is getting to see people’s outfits,” Emma says, pointing at the miniskirts, the wisps of glittery cloth alarmingly bound to bodies with string. “All this effort,” Best says, “for 45 perfect minutes.”
11:30 p.m. The AV screens in the back have gone dark; their job for the evening is over.
12 a.m. Goodbye, caterers. Goodbye, AV nerds. Grandmaster Flash is still spinning his records, lost in the music. “The popular drink tonight was anything vodka,” says the bartender. “Vodka cran, vodka tonic, vodka club. But I’m a whiskey drinker myself. This one girl ordered a whiskey ginger, which is whiskey with ginger ale, and I told her that is the best drink. A good drink is one that gets you buzzed fast with no hangover the next day.” We wave at a security guard minding the lockers. The sports lounge is deserted. “Tonight was a good night. A good party depends on the attitude of the people. It’s bad when they ask for too much and get angry that you’re not moving the drinks fast enough. But it was a fun, happy crowd tonight. Everybody in a good mood. Can I make you something?”
12:30 a.m. “Everything comes in in layers and everything goes out in layers,” Emma explains. The banners and black curtains and gray scrim and hanging signs go first. The aluminum truss, which a workman is already deconstructing, socket wrench in hand, is next, followed by the sofas and tables and counters in reverse order, like film looped backward. There is a perfect symmetry to it. At half past midnight, Best’s work crew is back, refreshed by a one-hour nap. It took five days to set everything up, but it all has to come down by midnight the next evening. The immediate deadline to beat is dawn, at which point a farmers market will be commandeering the street. Soon, tomatoes and lettuce will be hurtling toward Ivar. “After the guests leave, we have to haul ass to get the big stuff out before 5 a.m.,” Emma says.
People come and go in layers as well. Half of Jeffrey Best’s four-woman office team has gone home. Emma and Leslie will leave soon. A delegate from Sony has come to reclaim their video games, which have been locked in clear Lucite boxes. Jeffrey Best himself has slipped out, headed home to his wife and baby daughter. Tomorrow, at a birthday party, the entire process begins for him anew.
A white SUV limousine idles by the entrance. A woman in black hops out and pleads, “Can I please just go in to get my people?”
1:20 a.m. With her favorite slicing-across-the-neck motion, Emma shuts down the bars: one on the dance floor, two by the entrance, one in the rear sports lounge. “Once you shut down the bar, you have a half-hour until people leave. Tops.” Grandmaster Flash, who seems like he could spin forever, plays a final song with a line that goes: “I’m the lyrical gangster.” Sure enough, some 30 minutes later, the stage lights come on. People blink, shaken out of their trance. I follow Emma to the backstage area one last time. Most of the radios have found their way into the silver briefcases. The cones as well are going home and are being stacked into towers. The woman watching the radios has worked a 16-hour day, as have Emma and Beau, who will remain on-site to supervise the clean-out. As “lyrical gangster” plays, the cleanup crew waits in the wings. “Go through every channel and say, ‘Turn your radio off now, turn your radio off now,’” Emma says to Radio Girl.
1:30 a.m. A server hurtles out of the restroom, mini–
tennis skirt in hand. She drops a pair of white panties, which a security guard picks up. “Don’t you want these?”
“No,” she sighs. “I’ve been wanting to get out of them all night.”
2 a.m. The street is open again. The fences are gone. It smells like champagne. New best friends stagger tipsily down the red carpet in the dark. A couple in disheveled tuxedo and gown hop out of a limo and try to sneak inside. Security holds tight: “Party’s over, guys. Go home.” They peer into the darkened warehouse. “But my sister,” says the woman, hesitating even as she’s shooed away, “she left . . . her purse. Inside.” As I leave, Emma sits down for the first time that night.
When they remember the party, will people think of how cool it was to play a video game with Marky Mark? How Mira Sorvino almost kicked Corey Magette’s ass in basketball? How the most famous DJ in the world played a song for them while they kissed on the dance floor? Who’s to say? But one thing is certain: Jeffrey Best knows how to throw a party. His crew have their work cut out for them as they make their furious push toward dawn.
EPILOGUE: REPUTATIONS MADE
Jeffrey Best used to think that all the other event planners out there were like bloated rock stars and that he was the punk rock band of event planners. Now he thinks he’s becoming the fat rock star himself. Although he would say that he thinks he’s enjoying it more than anyone else. He once said that throwing parties in Los Angeles was like having a bad case of penis envy — everyone wants to be bigger and better. When I remind him of this, he chuckles and tells me about a party that took place 20 years ago in L.A. He didn’t go to it. He didn’t even work on it. “You came to the event, you paid a fee and were assigned to one of three tents right next to each other.” He pulls out a yellow legal pad and draws three boxes representing a red, a blue and a green tent. In the red tent were foie gras, lobster, oysters and French wine. In the blue tent were bologna sandwiches and beer. In the green tent were uncooked rice and water. “You had agents and managers who were loving life in here,” he jabs at the red tent. “And you had people in here,” he points at the green tent, “drinking water and eating nothing. They were demanding to be let into the red tent. Demanding! (Don’t you know who I am? You must let me into that tent!)” Pause. “This party, you see, was a benefit for the End Hunger movement. But it didn’t matter that the rest of the people in the world had to live this way. These people were pissed that they had to exist that way for five minutes. For me, what’s bigger and better? What means something? That was bigger. That was better. I could do that event all day long.”