A Disney for the Debs. How Bill Reed puts on a party

In most cities party designers are as inconspicuous as chimney sweeps; in Dallas they control a multi-million dollar industry that employs hundreds of artists and craftsmen dedicated to making every debut a little more spectacular than the rest: showbiz with social significance.

In a highly competitive market like Dallas, where a dozen firms scramble for a share of the party dollar, developing a distinctive look becomes an important trademark. Some specialize in flowers, greenery, soft lighting – packaged pastoral. Others concentrate on polished hard-edge designs (although this is mainly for the trade show and convention business). Bill Reed’s forte is whimsy and funk. He has created parties around calliopes and erupting volcanos, has used live birds, monkeys, lion cubs for props, has transformed the interior of Brook Hollow Golf Club into a popart museum, with mannequins, super-graphic comic strips, and enormous junk food sculptures. His most ambitious project was an undersea fantasy for Chan Cox, daughter of oilman Ed Cox. The floor of the Dallas Hilton ballroom was covered with grainy muslin, representing the bottom of the ocean, the walls draped in gossamer fabric onto which flowing plants and swimming fish were continuously projected. At one end of the room stood an anemone cave, at the other a towering coral reef, and in the center a sunken treasure ship, rigged with sequined ropes and silver mylar sails with The Jackson Five using its deck for a bandstand. In scale and complexity it rivalled the pièce de résistance of Dallas society parties, Peter Wolf’s recreation of the Vienna Opera House for the double debuts of Meredith and Monica Ellis in 1970. That one, by conservative estimate, cost papa Van Calvin Ellis something upward of $150,000 and, so far, has defied imitation.

We found Reed working at a sprawling circular desk that is so peaked with books and papers it might have been a scale model of an avalanche. He invited us to examine some drawings for an upcoming debutante ball: a striking rendering of an antebellum mansion set among fields of cotton and tobacco and backed by stands of oak and cypress. Foreground, a steamboat moored to a deck.

“What most people don’t understand,” he understated, “is that a $100,000 party isn’t simply a party. It’s theater, show business. We use lights, props, graphics, to create an environment in which things happen. . .in which people don’t just stand around with drinks in their hands but actually become part of a scene.”

With consultations, designing, and construction of the various sets and props, a major party can occupy a dozen people for several months. Not until installation actually begins, however, can one get a true picture of what is involved.

At 6 o’clock on a Saturday morning we turn up at the Regency Room of the Fairmont to talk with Jim Monroe, a stocky dervish of a man who taught theater at Texas Christian University and is now Bill Reed’s foreman.

“Controlling movement, that’s the secret to a good party,” he tells us. “If people are hovering around the bars or laying back in the corners, bring up the lights, make the band play jazz or rock. Get ’em mixing and dancing. When things get too frantic, dim the lights and switch to John Denver – in person, of course. It’s a lot like staging a play with the guests as characters.”

To enter the ballroom, guests will pass beneath a series of white lattice arches decorated with ivy and magnolia blossoms. Inside, attention is drawn to the 30 x 70 foot drop of the plantation, which looks like either Mount Vernon or the late H.L. Hunt’s home on White Rock Lake. A framework of oak trees is crisscrossed with thousands of tiny white Christmas lights representing fireflies. But the fireflies are a problem. Instead of flickering romantically as fireflies should, they throb and glow like locomotive headlights. Three men have spent the early morning hours putting black tape around each tiny bulb.

“Much theft at this kind of party?” we ask the chief.

“Nickel and dime stuff,” he says cheerfully. “Spoons, salt shakers, centerpieces. . .one time a guy tried to make off with an ice sculpture. But that’s unusual.” We had to agree.

“Actually, our biggest headache is crashers. Some people will do anything to rub elbows with the big shots. But you get so you can spot ’em pretty easy . . .they drink too much or their tux doesn’t quite fit. You develop this sixth sense.” He nods. “One time I stopped these two girls outside a party at the Hilton. Had a hunch, that’s all. Turned out to be two guys in drag.”

Suddenly the ballroom goes dark, there’s a twinkling of soft lights around Mount Vernon, and a voice in the control booth shouts, “Looks great from here.”

The firefly crisis is over.

Bill Reed orders his crew to walk away at seven, only minutes before the arrival of the first guests. An enormous lawn of hairy Astroturf has been measured, cut, and set in place in an hour of furious surreal landscaping; speakers have been tested to their full range (there will be four separate acts during the evening, each with its own technical requirements), paint has been touched up, wilted flowers replaced, plants waxed, conferences held.

Enter a mother and daughter in matching Rudi Gernreich gowns.

“Isn’t that the prettiest thing!” the mother exclaims in a thick Georgia accent, “. . .it’s enough to make a girl homesick.”

“At least it’s not another Bicentennial party,” the daughter replies, looking back on maybe twenty already.

The bar is serving mint juleps in honor of the Old South. The opening chords of “De Camptown Races” cut through the live oaks as a spotlight picks up a blonde banjo player. By the time he’s into “Those Old Cotton Fields Back Home” the crowd is beginning to sing along, which is what people are supposed to do because this is what Reed calls a mood setter.

But the mood shatters as the rest of the 1400 guests arrive simultaneously. Photographers elbow forward to snap celebrities while the society writers scribble down remarks and descriptions of dresses. When the waves subside the banjo player has been followed by an orchestra that does easy music from the Forties, and the floor is suddenly crowded with older couples who rhumba, tango, and fox trot.

Platters of hors d’oeuvres float around the room, but wise partygoers try to limit themselves to a couple of almond cheese balls in order not to get patéed out before the truly sybaritic midnight buffet of crab claws, lobster tails, peeled shrimp, beef Wellington, quiche Lorraine, varieties of Newburg, fresh vegetables, and salads and desserts unthinkable in abundance.

A bluegrass group has taken over from the golden oldies by the time people are snaking their way around the buffet tables. A man advises, “Make a couple of passes, that way you don’t o.d. before you get to sample everything.” A small crowd has gathered to dip caviar from one of the ice sculptures, a swan melting under a blue light. We watch alertly in case someone tries to stuff it under his ill-fitting tuxedo.

By 1 a.m. the parents and the Forties dance champions have left and the party belongs to the debs and their friends and a Las Vegas show band. Strobe lights extinguish the fireflies and any memories of those old cotton fields back home. Even the girl with a grudge against the Bicentennial has found her niche – somewhere between the Turkey and the Hustle.

The pace will continue until 2, 3, or 4 in the morning, until the food and liquor and legs give out. Even then, some of the debs will end up at the Brasserie, or have champagne and eggs at someone’s house.

We circle the churning bodies looking for Bill Reed, finding him next to the doorway. With his thin black mustache and ruffled shirt he looks like Rhett Butler playing Clark Gable.

“Great party,” is all we can say, our wit having deserted us hours ago. Reed smiles in cool acceptance.

“Considering the size of the room,” he says slowly, “we captured the southern charm pretty well.” He gazes toward one far end of the vast space. “But suppose someone wanted to do ’War of the Worlds’ or ’Fantastic Voyage’. . .bring the space ships in from over there, and make that whole wall a red river. . .lights would simply have to be .invented. . .rockets that actually fired!”

Somewhere in Dallas the father of agirl who’s still playing with dolls is getting ready for a fantastic space odyssey- and he doesn’t even know it.


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