The Birthday Party
Last year, my beloved husband had his Fiftieth Birthday. I knew it was coming and that it would be something that required some planning. Once the year had begun, I asked ‘what would you like to do for your birthday this year?” His reply came relatively quickly, tipping me off to the fact that he had been thinking about it: “I want to have a party with my loved ones with a sit down dinner and a show”. It sounded, not too vaguely, about a memorable birthday party I had attended a year or two ago when our dear friend, Mark Sendroff, had a fiftieth birthday with a lot of drinks and super good food and a show in which his friends performed for him. Only Mark’s friends were Jennifer Holiday, Sam Harris, Mario Cantone, Kaye Ballard, Leslie Gore, Karen Mason …oh, you get the idea. It was a show business who’s who, something I could not begin to pull off. Only, it occurred to me that that list, that show business who’s who, to Mark they weren’t celebrities, they were friends; and that is what made that night special. Well, hell, most of our friends are performers and damn good ones; THIS party would be a Two-A who’s who! Well. I had never produced a show before – this was going to be fun.
The first email went out in February. It was to my bosses at my job, where I throw parties for a living. Dear bosses, may I please hire our company to do a party for my husband’s birthday? The reply came back: have the party at our party loft – on the house; only pay for the food and the staff – the rest is on us. This was an act of generosity of rather epic proportion. Once the date of the event was chosen, the emails began. Whom could I get to commit to this performance? And what would they do? So many months in advance, I could not expect to get people to agree to this – many of these folks are actors who have to leave town for gigs or stay in town for a performance. Some of our friends travel for their jobs as business people, flight attendants, activists .. so I knew it would be tricky getting this thing together. The best I could do was ask.
Immediately, I had a commitment from Jennifer Houston, who would perform AS WELL as provide the birthday cake. The second commitment came from Ricky Pope, our lifelong friend and musical wizard, who wanted to musical direct, as well as create a number for the show. Then, upon request from me, Gene Connor agreed to play his guiter and sing a mash-up of two of Pat’s favourite songs. Marci Reid was on board from the very beginning, as were Valerie Dowd, Brady Schwind and Lindsey Holloway; the question was only to find the RIGHT numbers for them, indeed for all the performers. Months of emails ensued as friends said “yes, if I am in town” and “Ooops! I booked a gig, so I’m out”; and there were the numbers that bubbled to the surface of my mind and told me who they wanted to have sing them. Eventually, about two months before showtime, we had a running order; but no musical director. Ricky booked a tour. One can never fault an actor for taking a job (or anyone, for that matter) so I kissed Ricky and sent him off on the TITANIC (literally) because I happen to have another dear friend who is a musical genius. I emailed Joe Kinosian and, immediately, he was on board and I was excited to be working with him, once again. Joe and I had the opportunity to make music, some ten years ago, and it remains (to this day) one of the most rewarding artistic experiences of my life. I knew I could count on Joe.
The show in place, with minimal rehearsals scheduled for the days leading up to the party, the focus turned to the menu and the guest list. Many of Pat’s loved ones live out of town and wouldn’t make it. Many others were away on jobs and some were friends so new to our circle that their absence on (what was becoming) this expensive night would be understood. I was able to get the guest list down to a (surprisingly) conservative 70 people. Thank heaven I had started, in February, putting aside bottles of wine, beer and soda for this evening – otherwise, I would have found myself, come November, completely bankrupt.
The weeks before the party were crazed with plans and rehearsals. Numbers had to be cut because they were too complicated to make happen in slight rehearsal time. Lindsey booked a show and wouldn’t be able to make the party, so her number was cut. Jennifer changed her number from a mash-up of Nancy LaMott’s Child in Me and Madonna’s Cherish because it was too tall an order to learn while running a business, promoting a movie and commuting to and from Chicago to see Allan, where he was working on the Obama campaign. Will Nolan would be bringing ten minutes of stand up comedy (something Pat had requested) in the person of his alter ego, Leola Ladyland; Faye Lane came on board, singing a favourite tune of Pat’s and Leslie Alexander signed on to sing a song from his all time favourite musical. Our son, Patrick, emailed me, asking what song he could sing for Pat Sr. and Allan agreed, via text, to give the toast. We were all set.
At the last minute, two things happened: one good, one bad. Lindsey’s schedule had changed and she would be able to attend and to perform — and I had NO opening number. I asked her, I told her my idea, she said yes, on the spot, and she and Joe got together to put together a medley for which I didn’t even have any sheet music. Perfection. And Brady booked a movie, three days before the party and I had to replace him in the tap dance number. TAP DANCE. That’s right. Pat just HAD to have tap dancing. I had a number planned with Marci, Laurelle Rethke, Vince Gatton and Brady. Never mind; I had to believe that we would work it all out, somehow.
And we did.
I don’t remember much about the party. It was all a huge blur to me. I remember the hours that lead up to it. I remember arriving at the venue at 7 am to load in a keyboard and speaker, three cases of wine, more beer than I could count, food items made at home to supplement the menu being created by Chefs Sarah and Edward that evening. There were additional decorations and a different layout of tables and chairs than we had ever had at my job. I remember the artists coming in to rehears with Joe… Valerie Dowd was first, walking in at one pm sharp in a mink coat and blowing the roof off the joint! Just like a star. I remember Guy Smith stopping by, unexpectedly, to help me set the levels for the sound system. I remember the sweetness of Faye doing her number with the lyrics in hand and promising she would know them a few hours later; I remember the place rocking when Lindsey ran through her number and I remember the enthusiastic support of the people in the room when I went through my own number. The tap dancers had their go – round, as well as the actors. It was four pm. The party would begin at six. The waiters, Kristen and Bill, and the chefs, handpicked by me, arrived and went to work. The place was abuzz. Signs, created by my colleague Bethany, hung around the building, directing the guests to the festivities. I changed into my suit and texted, furiously, with our son, just off the plane. His older brother, Deno, would be on hand to help Jennifer present the cake. Everything was in place. Once the party started, though, I was gone. I was no longer Stephen Mosher, affable friend and doting husband: I had gone into work mode, doing what I do each time I am in that venue — I was Stephen, the host. I don’t remember a thing, from the first greetings until the moment I packed up the cab during my load-out. Thank God for our camcorder. (By the way, the party is on Youtube; I will post the links, later today.)
I have listened to Pat talk about the night celebrating his fiftieth birthday and I have watched the video. I have had friends come up to me to talk about the night – some wanted to talk about the show, some wanted to talk about the performers, some wanted to talk about my own performance. Many wanted to talk about the event itself and what a lasting impression it left. My favourite comment came from a close friend who told me “that party changed the way I view family. I always thought family was your blood relatives; but I learned, watching the way your friends treat Pat, seeing the gift of love given to him by the performers and by you, that family is anyone with whom you share love. This year, for the first time in my life, I did not go home to my kinfolk for Thanksgiving or Christmas – I spent the holidays with the family I made, here in New York City. That party changed my life.” This is one of the great compliments of my life. It says everything that Pat and I have tried to make our life and Two-A about.
I will never forget this night. The way that people stepped up, when asked to perform, and gave of themselves. The way that the guests lavished love on Pat and the way they showed us all who they are. There were people who couldn’t make it, people who had jobs, people who lived away, people who didn’t respond to the Facebook invitation (it’s the easiest way, yo); but they were there in our hearts and the people who made it gave Pat twice as much love, so as to make up for the absentees. I think this party may be my greatest individual achievement of my life. Not just because it was a task of epic proportion, not just because of the fact that I was called upon to produce an entire show, not just because of any one thing; but because of the gift it was to everyone, not just Pat. Many people in our little family don’t really know what the others do. Not everyone has the time and money to go out of town to see Marci in a play. Not everyone knows that Jennifer is more than the baker of the best baked goods around. Not everyone knows what a brilliant actress Jonna McElrath is. Not everyone knows that Valerie Dowd can be Mama Rose. Not everyone knows that Vince Gatton can tap dance. Now they do. Now they all see these people a little more clearly, with maybe a little more love and respect. That’s not nothing.
Mostly, though, the night was the greatest thing I have ever done because my husband is the best man I know. He leads, every day, with his integrity and kindness, with his compassion and his heart. He does this even though, as a child, he was badly treated by his school chums. His parents loved him and in the name of love acted upon his overweight status in ways that were, unknowingly, hurtful. He lived the first 20 years of his life not knowing his worth, indeed, some of the years after, as well. Once this party was done, though, he came to me and said “that was a George Bailey moment for me. All I could think of was the sentence — no man is a failure who has friends.”
That night, my husband learned, not that he is loved; he learned HOW he is loved.
For me, THAT is the greatest birthday gift he could have been given.