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New Year's Eve Blowout on a Budget

Back in late summer we were talking about what kind of party we should throw to 'break in' the new bar. Ben came up with a Prohibition theme, since the bar is hidden at the back of the house. We've been working on the logistics since then and for New Year's Eve 2011 we celebrated in 1920's style! The plan was for some 'illegal' gambling of blackjack and roulette, illegal drinking, entertainment by a torch singer followed by a raid at midnight. I wanted prizes for the gambling winners and a real speakeasy vibe.

Although we love to throw theme parties, I don't have the kind of disposable income that would afford buying or renting lots of cool decorations or entertainment or props. I have to be creative and it's sort of a personal challenge for me to do what I want to do with as little money spent as possible. First, the invitations. I use www.Evite.com. It's simple and it's free. This is what I wrote:

Dress as a gangster or a silent film star,
Come as a flapper in a Model T car!

Drinking and gambling are on the QT
If we get caught, the trouble we'll see!
Bring a fist full of dollar bills for the bookie
so you can make a wager or two or three.

Look for the password on Craigslist.org
without it you might need a bribe at the door.
Find a clue in the section called "community"
The word you're looking for you will then see.

A bottle of wine, a tub full of gin,
a plate of cannoli would fit right in.
Bring a bottle of hootch to round out the bar
Contributions of food will make you a star!

Discretion a must as coppers abound
we'll all go to jail if this club is found!

Drinking and driving is very uncool
A designated driver is always the rule.
Flop on the sofa or a bed on the floor
as long as you're sober when you get to the door.

Let us know if you're going to show
by saying YES in the section below.
Can't wait to see you and bring on the cheer
as we celebrate the coming of a Happy New Year!

I posted the password - JUICE JOINT - on www.craigslist.org, also free and easy, and updated it several times so that my guests could find it pretty easily. While they were busy putting their costumes together I was busy compiling the music. Of course I wanted the popular songs from the '20's but I didn't necessarily want original recordings so I spent a considerable amount of time on www.itunes.com and Google looking for songs from the 20's that had been re-recorded by more contemporary artists. What I found were some real gems, the prize of the collection being a recording of "Tonight You Belong To Me" by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam on the ukulele. I also included a few songs that were about the 20's like Aerosmith's Rag Doll and Paper Lace's The Night Chicago Died. Rounding out the soundtrack with songs from the musical "Chicago" and a bunch of blues songs I already had by Boz Skaggs and we had an 8 hour playlist. The cost of purchasing the songs I wanted off ITunes was about $20.

Our house is over 50 years old and was one of the first tract-style homes in Phoenix. The original floor plan was a rectangle box with the front door smack in the middle and a tiny entryway that opens onto the dining room. I wanted our guests to have the experience of 'sneaking' into a forbidden speakeasy upon arrival. In order to do that we had to figure out how to block off one half of the house from the front but be able to access it from the back. After much discussion on how to do it, we ended up taking an old wooden room divider and extending it from the short wall at the front door to as far as it would go toward the other wall. We added a tall fake ficus tree to fill in the gap. It worked great! Guests had to go down the hall, enter the bar/speakeasy, and then go out the door to the patio in order to return back inside where the food/kitchen was.

Ben agreed to be the doorman. We have one of those old chain locks which he used to crack the door open when each person arrived. If they had the password they were allowed in. If not, he slammed the door and got "The Boss" who came to the door and allowed our friends in if they offered a bribe. Most of them showed The Boss the plate of food they had brought, which was ample payment for entry. Once inside they were given a pack of candy cigarettes ($6 for a box of 24 from www.candywarehouse.com) a roll of poker chips (more on that later) and two 1920's slang words on a slip of paper. The words were downloaded from the internet with their meanings. I enlarged the paper, cut them out into strips two by two and handed them out to our guests. It was very fun to see people read and then try to use their words in their conversations. Once they got through the door they were escorted back to the bar. As they went down the hall they passed the hall bathroom where I placed a sign for "Guys" and our master bedroom/bathroom combo where I placed the sign "Dolls". The girls made good use of our bedroom for their coats and purses and to adjust their costumes at the mirror.

Since we were expecting about 50 guests I'd have to utilize every inch of our downstairs space including our covered patio. It does get chilly at night in the winter and the patio would be too exposed for anyone to be comfortable without a coat. I planned on putting the gaming tables out there as there would be no room for them inside. After pondering this dilemma for a week or so, I came up with what I thought would be a great idea. Scouring just about every Goodwilll Thrift Store in Phoenix I purchased a dozen old-fashioned pleated, lined draperies that were at least six foot long. I didn't care much if they matched, in fact that was going to be impossible anyway, so all they needed to be was thick and/or lined. Starting at one end we used a staple gun and adhered the panels to the inside of the patio cover. Our patio is slanted with the taller side at the house end so as I worked the drapes up the side and toward the house I bunched them at intervals so they hung relatively straight. The total effect was such that it appeared we had a room added on to the back with wall to wall windows! A space heater in the corner was all that was needed to keep the entire room warm. At less than $10 per panel I spent not quite $75 on the enclosure. We strung Christmas lights at the top of the drapes and across the underside of the patio cover. Not too bright, not too dim.

I decorated the food table with a black, white, silver and gold theme. Since it was New Year's Eve those colors were abundant and easy to find just about everywhere. I also soaked the labels off a half dozen dark colored wine bottles and affixed my own label to them. I used the bottles as props for the table and could have, but didn't think of it until after, used them as candle holders. I purchased a very cheap plastic backdrop of a New York City street scene (about $5 at Party City) and taped it to an empty wall in the bar. We used it as a photo backdrop throughout the night. Other than that, I didn't decorate. Paul downloaded about a hundred old pictures from the '20s to play a continuous loop on the TV in the bar.

(Buffet table before the food was brought out. Notice the wooden screen blocking the entrance; the box of candy cigarettes and the re-labeled wine bottles in a crate.)

A friend of ours heard about our party and gifted us with two huge poker tables that he got for free from the VFW. They were home made jobs with PVC pipe legs and strange little trays bolted to the bottom that pulled out (I guess for their sandwiches or chips?) They had a padded edge just like a 'real' poker table and even had cup holders drilled in to the top. Paul took one of the tables and sawed that sucker right in half. He cut the felt in half and fit it back into the two separated pieces. He then took the legs and trays off, propped the table tops onto an old wooden cabinet and the legs of a broken glass outdoor patio table, respectively. The cabinet was the perfect height for standing but we did have to use blocks to raise the other one up. Now we had two gaming tables that would function but looked - well - crappy.

I had two brown curtain panels left over and with my now trusty side arm, the staple gun, I went to work stapling the curtains to the edge of the tables. What I couldn't cover with the curtains I filled in with a dark blue bed sheet I had previously used as a tablecloth. The result could have looked better if I wasn't under the gun (we finished this project mere hours before the party was to start) but it worked well enough for one night. Along with the tables our friend presented us with a big box of poker chips, also free from the VFW. There were 40 plastic sleeves of brand new, never used chips in all the pretty colors. We were in business!

(Patio with curtain enclosure and gaming tables)

I looked high and low for a roulette set that would be in my budget and found lots of them but they were so chintzy and small (the wheel on all the sets measured 10 inches) that I wasn't sure how I was going to pull off this portion of the gambling. Eventually I gave up trying to find one on Craigslist and started looking for new ones online. I finally found what I was looking for at www.ozonebilliards.com. A roulette set with a bigger wheel (16 inches) that was within my budget ($29.99) With shipping the whole thing came to about $35. It was still chintzy plastic but it came with chips, cards, dice, the wagering mat and a rake to pull the chips off the table. I set this up on my outdoor patio table with a dark green tablecloth under it to go with the wagering mat and also to stabilize the wheel when we spun it (or else it would spin itself onto the floor.) I had no dealers lined up and just left it up to my friends to take turns. After a very short time my nephew stepped in and tried his hand at dealing blackjack. He loved it, the guests won gobs of chips and a good time was had by all.

Our last game was to be a bookie sheet. The plan was for our friends to purchase squares on the sheet, similar to a football pool, and make bets on when certain party-related events would transpire. For instance, will a glass be broken - yes or no? How many bottles of tequila would be consumed - more or less than 5? When will the first taxi show up? Etc. The winners would split the take from the losers as the house was not willing to fork over any cash. It seemed like a good idea, but it didn't really take off at the party. I think we had four bets and, honestly, I never even paid out the winnings. (Yes, a glass got broken. Two, in fact but the second was when I did the dishes the next day so it didn't count.)

Now that we had the speakeasy set up, we concentrated on our costumes. Paul was "The Boss" and wore a green suit, button down dress shirt, grey fedora and cashmere scarf. He found his suit at Savers for $7. He found a 'real' tommy gun on EBay that was actually a BB gun but it didn't work. It was huge, real looking and a great prop. I had to be mindful of the fact that my ankle, fresh from recent surgery, was not going to support me in heels of any height. I opted for a gangster moll outfit and found a black suit with hot pink stripes at Goodwill. Paired with a flimsy black top and black cloche hat I had my outfit. The suit was less than $10, the hat on sale at Target for $14 and the top was $6. I splurged on a flower/rhinestone/feather clip for the hat; $4 at the Party Store. Oh, and I had a tiny little tommy gun that cost me about $12.

(Paul holding court at the bar)

(me, dealing blackjack)

Ben, as the doorman, wanted to look gangster-ish. He found a pair of dark pinstriped slacks, a sort-of matching pinstriped vest, a dark blue shirt and a tie, all at Goodwill. He splurged on a fedora that he loved and will probably wear on a regular basis. His girlfriend Ashley had a high waist black skirt, a white shirt with puffy sleeves, black and white striped suspenders and a white fedora. She disappeared for two hours and when she came downstairs she had transformed herself into someone who appeared to step off the page of a fashion magazine. Oh, to be 21 again.....

(Ben the Bouncer and Ashley the Barmaid)

I made a ham, some salads and a few assorted dips. I did not spend a lot on food. For one thing, the party started at 8 which is after the dinner hour in Phoenix. I simply assumed people would eat something before arriving. Second, I anticipated that a number of people would fill in the gaps and I was right - there was lots of food supplemented by my friends. I bought a case of Verde prosecco which goes on sale regularly for $3.99 a bottle. Cheap stuff and everybody loves it, especially the raspberry flavored one. We were ready for the party! As the day wore on our friends were posting pictures to Facebook as each one got their costumes on and prepared to leave for the party. Guests started arriving at 8, we were at the gaming tables by 10 and by midnight it was wall to wall people. The singer canceled so we never did have any entertainment but not one person seemed to mind. My brother was to raid the party at midnight with loud sirens but he also canceled. Again, nobody noticed. My plan to award prizes to those who scored the most chips also fell flat - so many people didn't even gamble that they had their original sleeve of chips unopened. We ended up making random suggestions for the 8 gifts I had set up as give aways. (The gifts were not expensive either. A DVD of the movie Bonnie and Clyde; a cocktail shaker; two glass 'boots' filled with cosmopolitan mixers; a texas hold-em card game set; a jewelry stand in the shape of a woman and two bags of chocolate candies. Not one item cost over $8.) The next morning I found three of the gifts still at the bar! Yeah, me!

The party was a smashing success with people all over the place eating, gambling, drinking and making merry. We had tons of flappers and gangsters but also Charlie Chaplin, an old-tyme golfer and a newspaper boy (that was really a girl but she looked fabulous!) Some of our ideas didn't work out but with better planning (by you, perhaps?) would make a great addition to the party. The raid in particular started out as a plan to have two "G Men" charge in just after midnight with a siren and herd everyone outside to a waiting bus where we would take them to the local Denny's right up the street for breakfast. I loved the idea but we just couldn't get it to work out. The biggest problem was the transportation. Renting a bus for 50 people on New Year's Eve would have cost me a fortune. Plus who and how were we going to pay for the breakfast? We ditched that idea in favor of a raid where we just bribed the G Men by 'giving' them one of our flapper party guests. That would have been fun except the G Men canceled at the last minute. The torch singer also didn't show, so our entertainment was missing but, like I said, nobody seemed to notice.

A happy new year was had by all, a slew of guests stayed the night and we toasted the morning together with coffee, champagne and orange juice!

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 2, 2012 4:48 PM.

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