Certainly New Yorkers aren't wanting when it comes to a sense of occasion. Our penchant for avenue-closing, traffic-creating parades aside, black tie charity galas, caviar-filled cocktail parties and opulent weddings are dime a dozen in these parts. But it turns out one of the most elaborate soirees of them all is reserved for a far more adolescent affair.
Norma Cohen has been planning delightfully over-the-top events for more than twenty-five years, and while her show-stopping weddings tend to get the most attention (who - desperately single, barely engaged, or long married - isn't casually building a Pinterest board for big day inspiration with a photo or two of hers on it?), it's the bar mitzvah scene that receives just as much intensive planning, if not more.
Take Cohen's most recent bar mitzvah - a most festive three day celebration where each gathering was a complete departure from the last. There was a classic diner-inspired welcome dinner where every piece of furniture was custom made, antique car parts sourced, reupholstered and fashioned into booths, and trays and dishes of diner favorites in circulation. There was an elegant, tree and topiary-filled dinner that felt as if it crawled out of Ralph Lauren's Bedford country estate. And to top it all off, there was a safari-themed evening of extravagance - towering giraffe and elephant sculptures, live performers walking about dressed as animals, tables of sushi art, a tented dessert oasis, a candy room and fully outfitted arcade with basketball, pac-man, pingpong and more...
"During my first meeting with the Bar Mitzvah boy, we were discussing a zebra area rug, he looked at my team and said, 'Real zebra? I don’t want any animals harmed in making this party!' How cute!"
Curious to learn some of this master event designer's secrets for throwing the ultimate to-do?
How long did it take to build that diner out of nothing?
New York is a city with a real sense of occasion, how have you seen the kids' event scene change over the years?
No, I believe kids parties have always been elaborate, I noticed over the last few years that the parents have put more effort into really making their kids happy.
How far in advance are parents planning their children's parties?
Bar Mitzvahs, two years because they need to hold the date in their school system, though they start discussing decorating eight months before.
What does the process of putting together a weekend like this from start to finish look like?
That’s a big question - a lot of work, a lot of logistics, a great team, a great client that makes my job easy and so fun! It all begins with me meeting the kid and hearing about their likes and dislikes. Once we figure out a theme, it’s off to the races!
Which kids event trends are you seeing people loving most at the moment?
A lot of my clients hire an old school hype man that gets all the kids on the dance floor, trick of the trade? Give out amazon gift cards to the best dancers, it gets all the kids on the dance floor! I see that kids and parents love to give out merch, sweatshirts, bags, bottles, etc. the kids leave the party with a whole bag of swag!
Are there any that are now super out of style?
Nope, I think if anything the trends just got bigger and better! The same trends I saw when planning my own sons' Bar Mitzvahs (I won’t age myself and tell you when that was!) are still around.
What's your secret for keeping each event during a multi-day affair feeling fresh and different?
I come up with very different themes for each event with the bar mitzvah boy. We’re dealing with a morning service, which tends to be lighthearted, a Shabbat dinner which are elegant and chic, and finally the disco party which is fun! Each theme will transport you to a different environment, and I make sure the menu fits the theme. We try to make every party of the weekend stand out on its own.
Who tends to be more into the party - the parents or the child?
What are some of the most creative themes you've worked with over the years?
Gatsby, Old Hollywood, Saturday Night Fever, Barbie, Coachella, Love Shack Fancy, Ski Chalet, Van Cleef and Arpel, Loro Piana.
How much are adult guests supposed to dress according to the theme?
Black tie, no matter what the theme.
Where are you finding people to dress up as cats and prowl around a safari party?
My team! I have the best vendors ever.
Are there any venues people are loving most these days?
Casa Cipriani, The Pierre, The Metropolitan Club.
Thoughts on gift bags?
Kids love it, they use it forever, the challenge is to make sure we think of new ideas for swap and that it's useful.
What areas do people tend to be most cost conscious around?
Photography, and it’s the most important!
Where are they happiest to splurge?
Do people tend to go all out the most when it comes to bar/bat mitzvahs over other kids' occasions?
Yes of course!
When it comes to invite etiquette, is it rude to not extend an invitation to everyone in a kids class?
Personally, do you prefer to work with an empty space or a venue with bones?
Do city kids really have a taste for the finer things, or are you conscious of making sure there's always fries and pizza around somewhere?
Always kid friendly food, even for the adults!
Any tips for a new-in-town kid going to his first fancy birthday party?
Have fun! Let loose, lol.
Theme or no theme? Chic Theme
Black tie or cocktail attire? Black tie
Sit down meal or buffet? Buffet
DJ or live band? Both if you can afford it, (DJ always)
Photobooth or games? Photobooths because they create keepsakes
Sushi station or chocolate bar? Sushi station
[Photos by Michael Jurick]
[Florals for events - Diner: Floral Art, Dinner: Lewis Miller, Safari: David Stark]