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Party Girl: Event planner Thea Pagel goes for the surprise element 

Guests mingle and watch a band at Carroll Gelderman's 
black-and-white ball and debut party.

Photo courtesy Thea Pagel Productions

Guests mingle and watch a band at Carroll Gelderman's black-and-white ball and debut party.

Thea Pagel has been planning parties since she moved to New Orleans from California to attend Tulane University in 1985. From some of the most over-the-top debutante parties of the decade to a fashion show on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during Fashion Week, Pagel hardly knows the meaning of the word boring. Gambit caught up with the party planner to talk about a techno party in the middle of the Colorado desert, a debutante party fit for Truman Capote, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and striking a perfect balance.

When you begin the process of planning an event, do you start with a theme or does that work itself out as you get to know the client?

Pagel: There's no formula for something like that. The business I work in is a highly personal business. Things like debutante parties or weddings, which have some similarities, people either have been thinking about these things for quite a while and have a clear vision, or it's something that sort of happens and is a once-in-a-lifetime situation and they need a lot of guidance and help working through the theme.

  Those first meetings, it's very important for me to develop a sense of who the person is and build a relationship. I try to chat about what their vision is. Sometimes it's not much, sometimes it is. I try to get a sense of who the party is for, you know, if it's for the family or if it's for the young lady being presented (as a debutante), and it's the same thing when someone is getting married. These things can get excessive and expensive, so getting a sense of who the person is and how they want to approach the party from a financial situation, whether they want to completely just follow a dream or whether they want [it] very structured. Every client is different.

Carroll Gelderman, this year's Carnival queen, had a Truman Capote-style black-and-white ball for her debut party. How did that event evolve?

P: The Geldermans were very sure of what they wanted. The way the theme happened: They were all together, they were picking out a dress for Carroll, and she said she wanted this fabulous black dress. It was a Valentino dress. And they were on vacation in Florida and she said she wanted to wear it to the party, and the first thing was really, you know, "You can't wear black." And then they said "Oh, unless it's a black-and-white ball." And they started talking about Truman Capote's ball and Carroll had actually done a whole semester studying Truman Capote's work and his life and everything else, so she was very familiar with the ball and with him and how he worked, as was the family, so they just started talking about it. And it just seemed like a very personal, very appropriate theme. And that's where I came in.

  It comes with a series of unique challenges. Their home is in the middle of the Garden District; there are space limitations. You're looking at a very large structure in a tent. So we try to then create something that's unique to them. And I personally never like to try to recreate a party, because I don't think that works. But you can take inspiration from it, and that's what we did. Every decision we made, we reflected back to the Black and White Ball of Truman Capote's party and we asked, "OK, what was the essence of what he was trying to say and how can we translate it to a New Orleans audience at a debutante party and to a home and space?"

How do you balance surprise and delight with basic comfort?

P: I take the surprise and delight kind of seriously. I had a friend at the party, and she was working, and people had just arrived and someone said, "Who's going to play at the party?" And everyone wanted to know. And she turned around and she told them exactly who was going to play. And I was like, "Oh, my God! Don't do that!" I'd been working for months to have people wonder and have it unfold naturally. ... You want people to be surprised and delighted.

  The comfort aspect of it is really important, because if people aren't comfortable in their surroundings, then you really have a hard time with the surprise and delight. One challenge that event planners deal with is weather, which is very hard to control for. Ideally I'd like to have spaces open and have beautiful views wherever you are at the party.

  If [guests are] eating, they really want to be comfortable, so in multigenerational parties, which the debutante parties are, which weddings are, we really give a lot of thought to the guest list. That's an important conversation we have with our clients.

click to enlarge The Victory Band was among several groups to play at the 
Truman Capote-inspired party for Gelderman. - PHOTO COURTESY THEA PAGEL PRODUCTIONS
  • Photo courtesy Thea Pagel Productions
  • The Victory Band was among several groups to play at the Truman Capote-inspired party for Gelderman.

Is it difficult to balance fun and the event's significance?

P: It's a fun balance to play with. I think that when entertaining is done really well, both the host and the guests have a sense of obligation, what their part and what their role is. I enjoy working with people who understand that balance. ... Making sure that everyone is comfortable and having a good time, usually is what we focus our attention on.

  How do we make those "pop" moments? Events, to me, really should have tempos. The energy should ebb and peak at times but we sort of control the times for eating, for dancing, for recognizing the honoree of the party. All of those things have to be carefully carved out.

What are some ways that you do that?

P: You use all the tricks and all the tools of a party. Music is a big one. Even beverage service; I like to greet guests with a glass of Champagne when they walk in and have them not have to search around for a bar. I think the music that begins a party is up ... to a band. I never want it to be too loud at those times. I like the songs to have a certain tempo where it's not too high-energy but it's not sleepy. It gives the anticipation like something's going to happen.

  Often, I do multiple music acts to really control the energy. That's what we did at the Geldermans'. We started out with the Victory Band, which is a 13-piece big band in the era of World War II, and that was very much in the style of the Capote party. They were all in white tuxedos and there was a singer who had the whole blonde look and dress and hairstyle of the 1940s. We started out with big band music, we started out as just a trio and then we upped the tempo and went to the whole band. Then the singer came on at certain times. And then we went into a New Orleans all-star revue band. And there was a dance band at Truman's party. ...

  Then we had Irma Thomas come in and do her early New Orleans rhythm and blues and funk, and then Big Sam did some of his more current things. It flowed well, and then Better than Ezra was the main headline act. They lived across the street from the Geldermans for years, so there was a connection and it was really special for them. She'd been listening to them since she was 3 years old. They called Carroll up to the stage and that was really special because they were honoring her but in this really unique way. It wasn't something I produced, it was something that organically evolved because of the band's relationship. Things like that are really special.

What are some of the more extravagant things you've done for a party?

P: When I think of the word "extravagant," I think more of fantastical and fantasy, and I've found that just spending money doesn't always guarantee extravagance. That's always a part of it, but some of the things that I think have been really interesting ... are the ones where I combine things that wouldn't necessarily always go together, but it works for a particular audience and it creates an element of excitement ... the surprise of taking some place that's so high on energy, like the New York Stock Exchange, and layering a fashion show into it, a pop-up fashion show during Fashion Week. And taking elements of the best of business and then really high-end fashion and mashing them up in a fun way.

What about the party you did for Microsoft employees in the middle of Colorado?

P: That was really a challenge because I've worked with these people from central eastern Europe for a long time, and they are young, and they're tech people and they really like the nightlife. Where they're from, things go on until 4 or 5 in the morning and there are more dance clubs and things like that. So when we went to Denver, it's just not a big nightlife, dance club kind of place. It was important for me ... to celebrate what Denver and Colorado had to offer but also give [Microsoft] what they wanted. It turned out to be a fantastic party, one of my favorites.

Can you talk a little bit about the party you did for Jane White? Is it true there were actual dwarves at the party?

P: There were, yes! Her name is Jane Yvonne White, so her nickname has always been Snow White. We did a Snow White-style party, and we followed not the movie, but the Grimm's fairy tale. We created a room, which was the witch's room and a really fantastic, white area with a dance band, which was Party Over the Moon. Their deal is that they play three and a half hours straight without a break. Once the music started, the energy was very high. As people were entering, I actually had real snow that was outside the party, a snow machine that came and blew snow.

What season was it?

P: It was December. The day [White] was born, it was snowing, so that goes to part of the story. So, again, even though this was incredibly extravagant, it also made sense. Snow seems so random, but this was her birthday, it was her 21st birthday, the day of her debutante party. It was at her home, this was where she was born, it was snowing on that day, and she's always been called Snow White. There was an element where we sort of took it over the top. We had three dwarves and they were dressed in Grimm's fairy tales outfits, and as people came in ... snow was falling down and a big Champagne bar, and the dwarves were running around, and then the dwarves got crazy on the dance floor.

Where did you find them?

P: They're actors. This is what they do. I'm constantly challenged to find and source out these unique things. I probably will never do another party with dwarves, but at the time I really needed them, and I found three great ones. ... We had costumes made and everything done, and it was kind of like walking into a movie. That, to me, is when it's really fun. It's like walking into this 3-dimensional fairy tale theater and you're part of the show.

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