Author: Friedman, Sally
Date published: October 20, 2011
Journal code: JWEX
So it's no longer just an abstraction, a date on a calendar that hasn't even been printed yet. It's actually time to finalize Bar/Bat Mitzvah plans for your child. And you want it to be a multitude of things: special, joyous, appropriate, meaningful, with just a touch of the unique.
No small order.
But you're in luck. The Philadelphia region is blessed with veterans of this adventure who can lead you through the most ambitious wish list, and get you to the finish line - still smiling.
Meet the people who turn visions into reality. Learn what they can do. And gather some ideas, advice and inspiration from the wizards of the wonderful in Simcha-land.
For Sally Mitlas, the cries of "Mazel Tovi!" have resonated not just for years, but for decades. Mitlas has not only shared Jewish celebrations - she has led them. And despite all the changes in the world that have occurred since she first opened for business, her basic philosophy about Bat/Bar Mitzvahs remains unchanged.
"This is not just a party - it's a Jewish celebration. But being a Jewish celebration, and having an absolute blast of a party, are not mutually exclusive!" says this celebrated Jenkintown-based event entertainer/musician/producer.
With that background and that philosophy in mind, Mitlas has introduced highly polished elements into sėmchas. Case in point: often, her company will spend several months producing a one-of-a-kind video presentation specifically geared to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah and the family
It's process, and a carefully strategized one.
"First, I do some research to find out what makes the subject and the family unique. I ask questions about everything - the family members, family pets, interests of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah and the family, and those family stories and idiosyncrasies that get everybody laughing," Mitlas explains.
Then she actually builds a script, with attention to pacing, timing, rhythm and cadence - elements Mitlas always deals with as a professional musician. "People may focus on what they see," she says, "not realizing that what they hear as background music is equally important."
Guests get to view the final product at the event in a production that totally personalizes - and pays affectionate tribute to - the youngster and his/her family. Mitlas has used themes as varied as family members portrayed as "stuck in the 1960s" and love themes using famous love songs as a context for family love. There was even a saga focused on the "talking dog," as the family pet introduces the clan, and there have been affectionate take-offs on "I Love Lucy" and "Family Guy."
"We are a life-affirming people. And having fun at a joyous event like a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and sharing the family's happiness is in keeping with that tradition," she adds.
For Sally Mitlas herself, whose orchestra has performed for the likes of President Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and Theodore Bikel, the greatest gratification comes as the lights go down at a Bar Mitzvah party, and the video production begins.
"The sound of that crowd laughing, and the joy of the celebrating family, are the best rewards of all."
Eddie Bruce often feels that same sense of gratification and reward. Philadelphia's popular singer/bandleader and party expert has heard repeatedly from clients over the years that it's the entertainment element that ultimately is remembered long after the party ends.
Bruce can offer solid advice about how to stage Bar and Bat Mitzvahs; after all, he has over 30 years' experience presenting and performing everything from Top 40, swing and Sinatra all the way to Lady Gaga.
But the basics remain the same.
"You have to win over the kids, and these days, those kids are terrific - but also very sophisticated," says Bruce, a believer in segregating the kids for the first hour of a reception, but merging them with the adults afterwards. "A unified party is what a Bar or Bat Mitzvah should be, although that makes it more challenging for the band," he says.
For the kids, Bruce wryly notes that he's not above using bribery. "Along with the games and T-shirts and karaoke contests, I often convince the hosts to offer prizes like Phillies and Eagles tickets or some high-tech 'toy,' as an incentive to really get the kids on their feet and involved. It works every time!"
Then dance ensembles, professional vocalists and occasional full-scale productions wow the entire mixed-age crowd.
This musical ringmaster also has found a way to change the stereotypical Bar/Bat Mitzvah candle-lighting ceremony "Some people want to make this part of the event a little more interesting, so we're now offering preproduced videos of the family and friends, accompanied by music, shown publicly as the candles are lit. It seems to work a lot better than bad rhymes that sometimes can't even be heard."
Bruce is a devout believer in planning, planning and more planning. And an occasional surprise, too.
Before Harry Kalas' death, Eddie Bruce enlisted the legendary broadcaster to narrate a script for the Bar Mitzvah boy and his family, using sports as a metaphor. The grand finale of the video: a fantastic shot that had the lad hitting a winning home run, with appropriate fanfare, as the Bar Mitzvah boy was announced and introduced to the guests.
"It was just sensational - I guess you could say that we all hit a home run that night!" Bruce recalls.
Just when you though there was nothing new under the sun in Bar/Bat Mitzvah-land, along comes a venue like no other.
In just a couple of weeks, The Warehouse, a former celebrity recording studio, will be up and running - and open for parties.
The site, located along Philadelphia's Delaware River waterfront, is custom-made for the Bar Mitzvah set.
"This venue is utilizing all of our years of expertise in entertainment services, but now in our own space," says Mike Gendler, a partner in EBE, the event and entertainment planning service with a decades-long history. "We feel that this is a perfect venue, especially for an interactive, MTV-style celebration."
The Warehouse's recording studio has its own long history in Philadelphia as the place where artists like Madonna, Will Smith, Bon Jovi, Cher and Dave Matthews have produced their hits. Founded by Obie O'Brien and Lance Quinn back in 1983, the space became one of the busiest and most celebrated rockand-roll studios out there, even providing the rehearsal space for the Live Aid concert in 1985.
The Warehouse continued producing records for musicians until its doors finally closed in 2008, when it became a private party space - soon to be, among many other things, a highend/high-tech/ high-energy Bar/Bat Mitzvah site.
According to Gendler and his business partner, Steve Meranus, elements include a DJ strategically positioned in a booth above the dance floor; state-of-the-art lighting elements; planners to help create videos/montage/custom movies; and cutting-edge technology for the 2011-and-beyond crowd.
Flowers soften life. They set a mood, create an aesthetic, and touch us in ways easier felt than explained.
Nobody knows that better than Philadelphia's Jamie Rothstein, who's been creating floral environments since age 17, and hasn't stopped since.
"I've always loved beautiful things - furniture, fabrics, clothing - but it all came together for me when I worked for Steve Poses during the days of Philadelphia's restaurant revolution. 1 realized that my first love was flowers," says the founder of the appropriately named Jamie Rothstein Floral Design.
It takes two seemingly opposite talents to work as a floral designer: creativity and total organizing skills. Rothstein is happily blessed with both. Her displays at the Philadelphia Flower Show are justly celebrated - and so are her designs for life cycle events, including Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
"Even in difficult economic times, beautiful flower creations can be done. You can 'style them up' with beautiful containers and save on costs by choosing lots of candles and less flowers. But most of all, I keep in mind the personality and desires of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and their families."
Rothstein listens hard to the interests of the young celebrants. "I always remember that this is a party for a 13-year-old, and that my designs need to be about the child." And today's kids, she notes, are interesting and imaginative.
"I once designed centerpieces for a Bat Mitzvah around the artistic talents of the Bat Mitzvah girl, who provided wonderful paintings that were worked into the centerpieces. And we named the tables for famous Jewish artists."
Rothstein has had place cards plucked from beds of grass for nature-lovers, and has used "bling," mirrors and even feathers for those who prefer that direction.
Some Bar/Bat Mitzvah trend-spotting from this expert:
* Robin's egg blue is the new pink.
* The upscale "club" scene is still a popular overall theme for today's kids.
* Color blocking - arranging tables in various colors to create a happy room - is in.
* The all-white room is also making a comeback.
* Sparkling crystals hanging from centerpieces can be enchanting.
Rothstein has seen fads come and go, but her evergreen advice is to make sure that the celebrant - the ideas and dreams of the child himself-herself - are not forgotten in the process.
Says Rothstein, "That's what's always counted, and what should."
Yes, phones take pictures these days, but when it comes to significant milestones, properly planning families will go to the experts, the gifted photographers with what has been called "the third eye," to provide the visual testimony.
Jordan Cassway is particularly passionate about being an unobtrusive, to-the-point photographer who won't snatch guests away from the simcha, but who will respect and employ the fine art of capturing the spirit of an event.
This unusual photographer holds a master's degree in Middle Eastern History from Tel Aviv University, and began his photography career when he was teaching Hebrew School at Beth Am Israel in Gladwyne, and was asked by a student's parents to shoot their son's Bar Mitzvah.
"That was 14 years ago," explains Cassway, who now has a studio and is busy almost every weekend of the year shooting B'nai Mitzvot and weddings. He recently marked a milestone when he photographed the Big Day of the fifth of five children in one family.
Constantly on the lookout for artistic shots, Cassway also is sensitive to the varied moods and personalities of celebrants and their families. "More reserved families aren't going to be forced into uncomfortable shots, and more outgoing families are free to have fun in front of the camera," he notes.
In terms of photographic trends, Cassway cites the "photojournalistic" style of event photography - no "table shots," with the focus placed instead on candid moments. "I don't come with a shot list. Mine is certainly not the cookie-cutter style that you may see in the work of oldschool studios."
Other innovations include newer equipment that allows the person behind the camera to utilize "fusion," a mix of video and still photography.
Cassway offers these important suggestions to families seeking the perfect pictorial chronicler:
* Make sure the photographer you choose has previously shot a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
* Make sure the photographer uses professional equipment like the newest and best Nikon or Canon cameras with full-frame image sensors.
* Make sure the photographer has back-up equipment in case of camera failure.
* Make sure that you inquire about prints and finished albums. Cassway believes in providing true proof prints and offers cutting-edge albums for his clients.
And in the end, it's wise to remember that it's not just the camera itself, but the skill and vision of the person holding that camera, that matters.
Sally Friedman is a longtime contributor to Special Sections and Inside.