What Makes a Party Unforgettable? (It takes a village…and plenty of SPF)

By Mitchell Crosby
Founder, JMC Charleston

When it comes to event design and production, I have always been passionate about creating “a one in a lifetime event.”  Designing an experience which guests will reminisce about for decades thrills me to no end. Both rewarding and fulfilling, I really love the challenge.

And what holds true for hundreds of guests in a high-profile venue, just as it does for a backyard wedding? Sweat (and I mean, really sweat!) the details up front and your guests will remember the effects with fondness.

When Patriots Point Foundation board member and friend John Hagerty rang me in early in 2005, my company JMC Charleston was less than two years old. He wished to discuss a mid-July reception, dinner, and dance to celebrate the completion of the Ravenel Bridge. The event would take place on the flight deck of the USS Yorktown. The goal? Provide an unforgettable evening to create new friends for Patriots Point. (Oh – and don’t lose any money.)  The evening would include a 30-minute fireworks display – the second largest in the country that year.

John challenged us to create a “once in a lifetime event.”  Charleston was abuzz as our elegant new bridge was being completed ahead of schedule and under budget.

(Coincidentally, my friend Denise Barto, and I had already created an auction item for Spoleto – a private dinner atop the bridge.  The idea was replicated by other non-profits that year and raised almost $300,000!)

Back to the ship: we started to dream the unforgettable.

What kind of food can you serve in July on an aircraft carrier’s flight deck? With a rain date two days later, what menu can hold an additional 48 hours?  Where will guests go to the restroom?  Where will the dirty dishes be bussed?  Where will the best views of the $350,000.00 fireworks show, hosted by the contractor, be located?   How will we handle the security for the governor, both US senators, multiple congressmen, and numerous other dignitaries?  What do we do about centerpieces and tablecloths blowing over and off, given we are 40-plus feet in the air with guaranteed breezes?

Never again would there be fireworks shot from eight barges and off the Bridge.  This truly would be a once in a lifetime event.

(When I speak to college students, I always tell them that the two most important things in life are 1.  Relationships – do not ever burn a bridge and 2. Moisturizer with SFP – you must protect your face! Both points were tested and proven true that day!)

I started making the calls. First Jeff Nickles with PDA Lighting and Sound, who washed the tower in red and blue lighting accented with white stars. He followed the fireworks with a searchlight show over and across the harbor. Magical.

Our invitation had to be a collector’s item. Thinking back to a three-dimensional invitation the Gibbes Museum had created for a gala when I was a child, we conjured a pop-up invitation in the shape of the ship, and bridge and fireworks.

Nature’s Calling did not flinch when I asked them to crane a 24 foot-long executive restroom onto the flight deck from a barge!

Calculating that we could place 90 tables for dinner, I knew that even with a buffet supper I needed 100 staff.  Who could provide this? Enter: my former colleagues at Charleston Place hotel.

Having never been a fan of spandex in most any form, I knew it was necessary for use on tables and buffets for this event due to the breeze.  And old friend, Jo Dermid, worked at a Chicago linen company, and could not provide what we needed, but introduced us to a friend who could.

In a world where details matter most, we were most challenged by centerpieces that would not blow over and create a mess on the table. Oh..and we needed a patriotic color palate.

I always have loved the cobalt blue sparking water bottles from the Welch company Ty Nant.  The name means “little house by the water.”  I took that as a good omen.  House – ship… close enough.  I discovered they  also made clear and red bottles.  I reached out to my local Piggly Wiggly store manager, who ordered them in bulk.

Knowing that we always seem to have a need in Charleston for ice buckets, I invested in 100 large Lucite ones. We added a bit of red and blue paper sizzle, placed one bottle of each color in the bucket and completed the centerpiece with battery-lit ice cubes! We set a few in each bucket on a slow blink for fun.  90 tables of blinking centerpieces made for a great accent to PDA’s lighting!

I knew that the menu was a key ingredient in this event’s success. The food had to be tasty and plentiful, though I knew it did not need to compete with the other elements of the evening.

I turned to my friend and longtime mentor, Charleston Magazine Food Editor Marion Sullivan, to help ideate. Marion once owned her own catering company and truly understood what it takes to feed a crowd.  We started with human physiology. We knew these guests were going to greatly imbibe throughout the evening. Hence, guests were greeted at the base of the pier and at the stairs of the ship with refreshing “fizzy water” garnished with local blueberries, no alcohol.  Our goal was for all guess to have at least 12 ounces of water before their first libation.  Hydrate.  What a hit!

A few years prior to this event, Marion had been treated to an innovative and delicious chilled soup concept we thought would translate. A pureed yellow tomato gazpacho had been elegantly presented in a martini glass embellished with a fresh take on traditional garnishes.

For the soup, a spoon was not necessary but was provided at the table. Should they wish, guests could enjoy their first course standing up and many did.

The buffet included ice cold iceberg wedges, sliced tomatoes and red onions, a creamy herb buttermilk dressing and the secret weapon: that amazing thick, sweet, balsamic vinaigrette served at 45 South Restaurant in Savannah. Our entrée selections including chilled individual portions of poached Atlantic Salmon, and thinly sliced London Broil served on fresh spinach, shielding guests from any red juices which could possibly puddle on the bottom of the trays.

Fresh asparagus, potato salad and a black-eyed pea and rice salad completed the meal.  The menu was not too heavy, the men had their beef, and the carbs were at a minimum.

Early in the week, we were informed that the three major networks would be broadcasting live from the bow of the ship. Nothing was required from our team except to know their load-in schedule.

By 8:00 pm the night before, I felt great about where we stood. The 30’ x 30’ breakdown tent for the caterers was installed toward the bow of the ship over the freight elevator. Tables and chairs were in place and centerpieces were assembled.  Everyone had their production schedule.

Once home, I enjoyed a nice supper, a cold libation and was off to bed by 10:30.

At 11:00 pm, a friend called and suggested that I turn on the news. Yes, a huge gust of wind had lifted our 30 x 30 tent and deposited it in Charleston Harbor. Our party hadn’t even happened, and it was famous.

Unphased, we fished it out of the water the next morning, another tent was properly installed, and we proceeded with out day. Later that evening, guests arrived, enjoyed dinner, comments from a handful of dignitaries, dined, relaxed to the fireworks, and danced the night away.

Little did they know of the months of creative work that went into the evening, nor should they. Never let them see you sweat, as they say.

One cannot produce events without passion, and this is mine.  I am so blessed and grateful to be able to enjoy my craft in my city, with all my friends and vendors in tow, and always wearing moisturizer with SPF.

 

Mitchell Crosby founder JMC Charleston produces high-end events for corporate and private clients, always with an eye to heightening the client’s brand. A child of the Lowcountry, Mitchell loves nothing more than showcasing the unique culture of the region for those who visit as well as those “fortunate enough to live there.”