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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

On TV and in movies, the reflection of the event profession is not too pretty.

April 12, 2006, 12:00 AM EDT

Contestants Ryan and Marcella, hard at work on an event on The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.

Trying to get a handle on what others may think of us, be they peers, colleagues, cousins, or vendors, is like addressing Pandora's box. Why must we open it? Because, like Everest, it's there.

In this instance, the lifting of the lid began innocently enough, while I was watching a rerun of The Sopranos recently. Tony and Carmella are despairing of their son A.J.'s lack of ambition and drive (yet again, and you wonder why teens hate their parents). The ensuing familial spitting reveals that A.J. has developed an interest and has pocket money to show for it. He has thrown a party at a friend's house while the parents were away, and in a stroke of brilliance (or at least what counts for it in A.J.'s case) charged admission for color-coded cups that provided keg access.

Tony and Carmella whisper among themselves; a guidance counselor has told Carmella that A.J. inquired about the career choice of event planning. Both parents are clearly perplexed, if not horrified, that this could be his calling, but, as Tony says, “At least he's interested in something.”

Event planning may be a big parental disappointment (and there is a distinct implication of non-manliness in the conversation) but it is better than nothing. Hang your hat proudly on that, folks.

So I started my investigation in earnest: how are event planners and party mavens being portrayed in the entertainment world? The news, kiddies, is bad. To be fair, things got off to a bad start. The first big Hollywood rendering of a party planner was by Martin Short, who played the fastidious and ridiculous wedding planner to Steve Martin's Father of the Bride. Rumored to have been modeled after impresario Colin Cowie (Colin, is it true?), this character is at once hysterical and absurd.

Things didn't get much better with The Wedding Planner, where Jennifer Lopez played the party professional and revealed a custom-pocketed bustier laden with such tool of the trades as smelling salts (why can I never find smelling salts in stores?) and a variety of (presumably) pick-me-up or calm-me-down pills. Adding to the portrayal, Ms. Lopez's character runs off with the groom, which despite the negative impression for the profession, seems a fitting ending for Ms. Lopez, who I hear is now jealous that Angelina Jolie has replaced her as the nation's leading celebrity man-eater. (Note to Marc Anthony: Your Cleopatra is about to strike, check bedding for asps.)

Then there is the new television phenomenon Commander in Chief, with Geena Davis as the first female U.S. president, with a repeatedly emasculated first husband who must endure weekly scenes with the White House protocol lady. One week they're gazing at the china room shooting gallery (that's what you call it, FYI, when there is vitrine after vitrine of plates, someone in the tabletop business once told me). The next week he is summoned to approve the look of the centerpieces. (As if, I think as I watch, you would wait until they are assembled and on the tables to approve them, ha.)

But the real assaults to the industry, in both taste and factuality, come from both versions of The Apprentice. Apparently I was the last to tune in and realize that almost all the “tasks” these “candidates” (guinea pigs, I say) submit themselves to are event-related. Let's just say I wouldn't hire any of these folks to produce a kiddie party. But that isn't what annoys me. Obviously, it takes a certain type of person to submit themselves to this kind of public humiliation for a midlevel job working for a megalomaniac. (Both hosts, Donald Trump and Martha Stewart, seem to have well-documented reputations for being, ahem, demanding bosses.)

What annoys me is the complete lack of taste and professionalism that is served up as being not only acceptable, but also exemplary.

Par exemple: In one episode of Martha's not-picked-up-for-a-second season entry, the two teams are asked to create street sampling events for Tide to Go, which is one of many stain-remover pen products that has flooded the market. This task is amply budgeted and judged by advertising agency founder Peter Arnell.

The losing team, who comes up with the rap jingle “Tide to Go, Tide to Go, come and get your Tide to Go” (I swear to god, I watched it!), is rightly lambasted. The winners' conceit is a boxing ring where Mr. Tide (in tights and costume) knocks out Ms. Stain to the delight of Ms. Housewife. How chivalrous. As if this misogynistic buffoonery isn't offensive enough, the team didn't bother to even research locations (much less get a city permit); rather, the team just parked its flatbed with loudspeakers in the first available spot. One contestant wonders aloud if what they are doing is legal and a teammate counters with the strategy that if they are approached by police they should move.

Now something tells me that we are not seeing the whole story. I doubt NBC would have a crew shooting on Manhattan sidewalks without proper permits. But the way Martha and Arnell praise this lame and embarrassing effort is what's really galling. On another outing, the teams have the awesome responsibility of creating celebrity dog prizes for an auction, only the celebrities have all already been wrangled. (Why didn't I ever get assignments like this?)

On Donald's show, there is a sense of hypermasculinity that informs things, The Donald being, of course, hypermasculine himself (never mind all that makeup). In the finale, the woman's team gets its decorating ideas from a former NFL lineman, who likes the “shimmery” fabric and recommends “purple and white glitter,” despite the fact that after he uses the word “decor” he says, “I'm such a f—,” cutting himself off just before the “ag” comes out. Classy. Their event M.C., Joe Piscopo (talk about makeup), calls the night before the event to cancel because their event is nonunion, and the contestants all sigh and cry, but not one of them has the nerve to say, “Hey, don't you think it is your responsibility to have brought up this union issue during the previously televised negotiations, not less than 24 hours before the event?”

By now the denouement is famous. Randall narrowly defeats Rebecca in the finale at Lincoln Center (did anyone notice the broadcast was marred by bad production, sound problems, and late lighting cues, or was it just me?) and proves chivalry is dead once and for all by denying his runner-up a chance to share the spotlight after Trump asked him if he should hire her as well.

So if you are an even medium-talented event planner, you can win on this show next season. Only problem is, the prize is more time with The Donald. You know what they say, no good deed goes unpunished.

Photo: NBC Universal

Columnist Ted Kruckel is an experienced and opinionated former event and PR pro who ran events for 20 years for high-profile clients like Vanity Fair, Elle Decor, Christian Dior, and Carolina Herrera. He shuttered his firm, Ted Inc., in 2003. You can email him at ted@bizbash.com.

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