August 23, 2019

Backlot parties put simchas in the spotlight

Founders of Hollywood’s great studios, like Jack and Harry Warner and Louis B. Mayer, played down their Jewish heritage when they arrived from the East Coast. Now, more than 70 years after the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when talkies became the rage and Jews routinely Anglicized their names, film factories are playing up the Jewish angle by hosting some of the largest and most unique b’nai mitzvah parties in town.

In the “top that” game so common on the b’nai mitzvah circuit, having a party on the backlot or in a sound stage certainly ups the ante. Like the “Titanic”-themed bar mitzvah featured in “Keeping Up With the Steins” or the opulent fairy tale-like settings found on MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” such celebrations are created with a sky-is-the-limit mindset, and most studios are more than happy to accommodate a Tinseltown simcha.

While hotels and similar destinations are able to include decor that reflects a feature-film theme, the studios can one-up these venues by hosting celebrations where a movie was actually filmed, accenting the space with props from the original production. And the special-event coordinators note that the cost of renting most studio space is comparable to space costs at many Los Angeles-area hotels.

But is the unbridled use of such secular settings the right tone for newly minted sons and daughters of the Torah? While some might decry the expense of a glitzy movie studio celebration as sending the wrong message about Jewish values, especially when most synagogues provide their space to members at no additional cost, others say there are other factors to consider when keeping the b’nai mitzvah kid in the picture.

Susan Shapiro said she was extremely happy with her daughter Sascha’s ceremony and celebration on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City last August.

Family and friends of all ages joined Sascha in a studio courtyard decorated to look like an outdoor garden for her bat mitzvah, which included a Torah reading and a Havdallah service. Afterward, the party next door in the Rita Hayworth Theater was an exclusive get-together for the bat mitzvah’s friends.

Sascha’s name was displayed on a large marquee, similar to what one would find at a movie premiere. Guests walked down a red carpet, enjoyed a Wolfgang Puck-catered meal, and danced the night away on a black-and-white checkered dance floor.

“It never would have entered into my mind to have the party there,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro got the idea to hold the simcha at Sony after Sascha, now 14, attended a friend’s Sweet 16 at the studio and returned home raving about the party.

“I was really happy. Everything was on site. And it was a safer option,” said Shapiro, a professional psychologist. “At a restaurant, kids would be wandering around all over. [At Sony] there were guards watching them.”

Since the studio can tailor the party to the interests of the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl, pre-dinner activities at recent Sony celebrations have included a make-your-own-movie area, a video arcade and a studio tour.

“At a movie studio you can do almost anything,” said Pam Byrne, director of studio services for Sony, who added that the number of b’nai mitzvah on the lot has grown every year.

Event prices vary depending on whether the client wants a lavish or intimate gathering. And naturally, all of the extras come at a price.

Shapiro said the Sony bat mitzvah for her daughter cost about $20,000, which included the venue rental, caterer, photographer, invitations and party favors, among other expenses.

“Was it expensive? Yes,” Shapiro said of her daughter’s ceremony and party, which she estimates at about $35 per child. “Was it expensive by most people’s standards? Probably not.”

Many hotels and other popular b’nai mitzvah venues outside of synagogues are comparable in price to the studios.

At the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, a bar mitzvah party, which includes venue rental, food, taxes and 20 percent service charge can range between $35,000 and $50,000, according to Shaun Brown, assistant director of catering. The onsite caterers can host a kosher function.

At the InterContinental in Century City, rental fees range from $500 to $1,500, while meals average about $54 to $64 per person, not including alcohol and a 20 percent service charge.

Marsha Rennie, event producer at Paramount Studios, said rental fees for a party at their lot average about $2,000 for one of their smaller venues and can balloon to $11,500 for one of the larger areas, which can hold up to 5,000 guests. The Melrose Avenue lot features 10 venues, from the intimate gardens of Valentino Park to the massive outdoor New York Street. The studio does not feature in-house catering, although the event staff can recommend a vendor for those who need it.

It’s a slightly different scene across town at Universal Studios, where soundstage No. 6 is dedicated solely to special events. Universal event planners note that set decorators and prop masters have transformed the 5,000-square-foot space, and its adjacent Mediterranean-style courtyard, into just about everything under the sun.

“Some [clients] come with a clear idea, a party planner and a decorator; others will come in open to our suggestions,” said Scott Ackerman, Universal’s director of catering. “We had a space theme for a bar mitzvah, where we suspended giant florescent-painted planets. Instead of regular lighting we had black lighting, and we piped in fog as guests came in.”

For a “Wicked”-themed bat mitzvah, based on the “Wizard of Oz” prequel, a yellow brick road led the guests onto the sound stage, which featured the Emerald City and a round dance floor covered in a winding yellow brick road pattern. The table centerpieces included giant lollipops and licorice castles.

While No. 6 is the primary destination, Ackerman said any spot at Universal is open for parties, however no one has yet to celebrate a simcha at their Red Sea tour stop. And “Desperate Housewives” fans might be crushed to learn that Wisteria Lane is currently off-limits due to ongoing filming.