The $50,000 Kiddie Birthday Party

Limos. Petting zoos. Did we mention spa treatments? When it comes to their kids’ birthdays, status-seeking Philly parents now say it’s their party, and they’ll spend what they want to.

Tiffany Gabbay was shocked.

She’d just opened her estimate from the company that rents carnival-style vending carts for kids’ birthday parties. Gabbay was thinking small, just three or four stands — maybe one popcorn, one cotton candy, one hot dog, one funnel cake.

The total cost: $2,500.

Only $2,500? she thought to herself.

Twenty-five hundred was nothing … not when she had $13,000 to spend. That was the budget she’d allotted for her only daughter’s birthday party. At those prices, she figured she could rent twice as many food carts. Maybe more. So she added churros, ice cream, french fries, pizza, fried -Oreos, snow cones, fresh-squeezed lemonade and soft pretzels. New total: $5,400. “So far,” Gabbay says.

That wasn’t all. She’d already rented three moon bounces — cost: $1,200 — for the birthday bash. Plus carnival games, though she was still debating over those — should she rent them, or just hire a contractor to build them, using her party colors? Which meant, of course, she’d have to choose party colors — either traditional circus red, blue and yellow, or French circus pink, lavender and baby yellow. For the games. And the hats. And the banners. And the streamers. And the balloons, which would be outrageously large, the largest she could find. Hundreds of them. All over her aunt’s backyard in Cherry Hill, where the big event — 160 guests and counting — would take place in October.

Gabbay barely had a month to get it all together. And she still hadn’t heard back from the Philadelphia Zoo — she wanted the portable petting zoo, big-time — and she was still playing phone tag with Stacey’s Face Painting. There were picnic tables to rent. And tents. And linens. And plates and silverware. (“The thought of plastic bothers me,” she says.) There was the photographer to hire. And the videographer. She had yet to settle on the invitations, though she’d just found a design she loved, shaped like a circus ticket, with a scratch-off to reveal the date, time and place. Plus, finding the perfect birthday outfit for her daughter Brielle had already consumed 20 hours of online research. Planning the party wasn’t the hard part, Gabbay wrote on her Facebook status in September: “it’s the outfit for sure!!!”

Even with all that, her biggest challenge was trying to work out a deal with the manager of Gymboree in Cherry Hill. The über-popular gym for little kids insisted that it only hosted birthday parties in-house, but Gabbay wanted the staff to come to the party, to bring their music and parachutes and gigantic tumbling mats.

“That way, my daughter can be involved,” Gabbay says. Although she knows, of course, that Brielle can’t eat the food or jump on the moon bounces or play Skee-ball, no matter what color the game is.

Brielle, after all, is just turning one.

YOU MIGHT THINK the “one-year-old birthday extravaganza” is an anomaly. You’d be wrong.

There was that other one-year-old’s party in Voorhees, where the parents spent $1,000 on just the party favors (suntan lotion, sunglasses, and beach towels, all 40 of them embroidered with the birthday girl’s name). Then there was that super-chic first–birthday brunch at the Ritz-Carlton in Center City. (“It was basically an adult cocktail party, with the kids as a side thought,” remembers one guest.) And, of course, the Main Line was all a-twitter about the 200-person first-birthday monster bash in that ginormous Bryn Mawr backyard, catered by Leslie Rosen and with the lighting designed (yes, designed) by Bobby Morganstein. “It must have cost $50,000,” says one guest. “At least.”

“If you start at this level, what are you going to build to?” wonders party planner Janet Jones Silver, owner of Event Creations in East Falls. “What’s the wedding going to be like? Rent the White House?”

Silver has watched this over-the-top-ness trickle down, from the blowout weddings of the late ’90s to the blowout mitzvahs of the early 2000s (remember the one at Germantown Cricket Club with the go-go dancers writhing behind back-lit screens?) to the blowout 16ths that have blown up since My Super Sweet 16, that vulgar spectacle of the over-entitled being over-indulged, debuted on MTV five years ago and suggested to parents that the best way to deal with a whining, selfish teenager is to give him a $50,000 car. In one memorable episode, a kid from Episcopal had a party that cost $250,000 and included professional dancers shipped in from New York to increase the event’s “hotness” quotient.

Now, seemingly unscathed by the recession, the birthday party-turned-mitzvah-turned-wedding-turned-moon-landing has dipped as far as it can drop — to the first birthday, for a child who will likely be so overstimulated by the splendor that she’ll shut down, sacking out in the stroller while mom and dad walk around saying “Thank you!” as guests praise them for throwing the “best party ever!” Until next year’s. Because that’s the thing about birthdays: They only go up from one.

Take the parents who feted their four-year-old son at a Bucks County racquet club with hand-carved filet mignon and butlered crudités with smoked salmon and caviar. The ones who rented out the Please Touch Museum — the whole museum — for their daughter’s fifth birthday. The ones who procured actual amusement-park rides — four of them, at $2,000 a pop — for their six-year-old’s party in Pennsauken. The ones who, for their 10-year-old, hired trapeze artists to perform. The father of the 12-year-old who drove all the way to Hoboken to get a $2,000 (at least) tiered cake from the Cake Boss, because his daughter likes the TV show.

Whatever happened to Duncan Hines at the kitchen table with a few neighbor kids?

Parents happened.
“Kids are so damn precious, you want to celebrate them with everything you have,” says one Main Line mom who swears she’d hire Starr Events for her four-year-old’s next party — if only her husband would let her. “Why do you have to go so over-the-top?” he asks her every year. “You go to one party and the favor is $12. You go to another, and the favor is 50 cents. Why do you have to be the schmuck that does the $12?”

Her response is simple: Because we can. They waited to have kids until they were older, had built their careers, and now they have the income to do things the way they want to — well, the way she wants to. Why not spend it on the kids? It’s better than spending it on herself, right? 

Lafayette Hill’s Jamie Joffe is motivated by something a bit more primal: guilt.

“When you’re a working mom living in a more affluent area, you try and compensate for not always being around,” admits the publicist. “I have my own business. I work a lot. And so I’m going to throw this kid a killer party.” When her son turned 10 in January, she spent several thousand bucks treating 20 kids to a ride in a Hummer limo up to Spring Mountain in the Poconos, where they went tubing for the day. On the way back, everybody got $15 iTunes cards to take home as favors. “My husband and I do our thing. We’re not out of control,” she says. She pauses, then adds, “I hope we’re not out of control. But that [party] was totally out of control.”

Joffe certainly didn’t have parties like that when she was a kid. “I always wished I had parents who made a big deal about parties,” she says. 

Tiffany Gabbay is the flip side of that coin: She had outrageous parties as a kid. Ponies. Petting zoos. When she was nine, her parents sent her and her friends in a limo to the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, where they had a suite, and candy served to them on silver platters. “I want to pass that on to my daughter,” she says.

The intention may be good, says Center City psychologist and author B. Janet Hibbs, “but this has nothing to do with the kids and what they want. It has to do with the parents’ needs.” To give your kids what you had, what you didn’t have, what you wish you’d had. To assuage your guilt. To prove that you have money. To make sure everyone knows you love your kids, not 50 cents’ worth, but $12 worth. Or $13,000 worth.

Whom, then, is the party for?
Brielle’s first-birthday carnival certainly wasn’t Brielle’s idea. But it wasn’t her mom’s, either. Gabbay had been to a birthday party just like it on the Main Line a few weeks before — as a vendor. Gabbay owns Couture Candy Buffets. The buffet she created for that four-year-old’s party was Spider-Man-themed, with red and black webs stretched between skyscraper-shaped candy jars, and tiny Spider-Man figurines climbing all over them. The candy cost the parents $4,500, on top of the food carts and bounces and portable petting zoos. Gabbay looked around at the spectacle and thought one thing.

I want that.

 “IF IT’S IN YOUR BUDGET," says Lafayette Hill-based party planner Valerie Felgoise, whose specialty is preteen parties, “why not?” 

Actually, there are a lot of reasons why not — “Especially if the expensive birthday party comes with a general attitude toward parenting that your child is the center of the universe,” says San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, whose book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement came out last year. Consider, as a case study, the Bucks County parents who literally turned their son into a king for his 10th birthday, dressing him in a robe, handing him a scepter, and insisting that throughout the party, all guests refer to him as “Your Majesty.”

All this pomp and circumstance isn’t the parents’ fault … entirely. To find the real culprit, flash back 40 years to the 1970s, when the “Me Generation” was raised, aided and abetted by school programs aimed at convincing every kid that “you’re special.” In the 1990s, those special kids now had kids of their own to helicopter over, and were determined to give every Zack and Caitlin even more of a never-ending ego boost than they had as kids. First came the magicians, musicians and balloon-animal twisters. The stuffed-animal makers and the face painters and the comedians — comedians! — followed, until the shows were taken on the road, to places like Hi Spot Lanes or Sweet & Sassy, where seven-year-olds can get mani-pedis. Then came the country clubs. Then acrobats. Then limos. Then back home again, but this time with the yard tricked out like Dorney Park.

The result: the most self-absorbed kids ever.

One Upper Gwynedd dad, a well-known entrepreneur, suggested to his son that for his 12th birthday, he take six friends to a Philadelphia Union game. “That sounds great!” the kid replied. “Can we get a suite?” The dad thought, What kind of monster did I create?

Of course, he’s looking into that suite.

“Parents don’t want to ever see children be disappointed or have hurt feelings or feel less-than,” says Main Line family therapist Sheri Fay. Which is very sweet — and very wrong. Scepters don’t teach a kid how to navigate the real world, where disappointment abounds. Also, “Kids need to have a relationship in which they feel safe and emotionally connected,” adds psychologist Hibbs. “Does a $50,000 party make a child feel emotionally connected?”
Not the poor three-year-old whose parents hired Valerie Felgoise to put together a birthday party for him at his daycare. They wanted a car theme with green as “the color” (he loved green), so Felgoise planned green cupcakes and green arts-and-crafts in between the musical chairs and piñata.

“They kept asking for more,” Felgoise says. So she added tattoos. Then a ball pit. Then a Lightning McQueen pop-up tunnel/tent. Then Big Wheels to drive around. Then retro wooden cars, all decorated for a race.

“The party was so much fun,” Felgoise says. Except for one thing: The boy’s parents didn’t show up.

AFTER EVERY PARTY SHE DOES, Felgoise has other parents asking for her business card. After all, this is a woman who, for a five-year-old’s lavish party at a Main Line country club, couldn’t find a Kung Fu Panda costume for one of her entertainers. So she ordered one. From China. “Parents want to keep up with other parents,” she says.

Jamie Joffe was a little irritated (and a little proud) when, barely a week after her son’s snowboard party in the Poconos, he got an invitation from one of his friends to the exact same party, Hummer limo and all. But keeping up with the Joffes can be hard.

Last year, one family asked parents to drop off their five-year-olds at their Main Line country club for a popcorn-and-movie party. “We figured they didn’t want to spend the money to have the parents stay at the party,” says one guest’s mom, who did stay, for dinner with friends who were also members. “There were only two adults supervising … and 30 kids.”

When whispers spread through the dining room that there was a problem at the party, this mom rushed in to find the popcorn machine overturned, cushions ripped, and vomit everywhere. Word on Lancaster Avenue was that the damage totaled $6,000. “They kind of got what they deserved,” the mom says. If you can’t afford to do the party right, she adds, “Don’t do it.”

But everybody else is. That’s what the kids say. That’s what the kids see, whether they live on the Main Line or in Fishtown, whether their families can afford it or not.

“The extravagant parties set the standard for the whole community,” says Bonnie Brooker, who owns BonBon’s Parties and Events in Cherry Hill. “You want your children to have that happy experience so much that you’ll do without for yourself. That’s really what parenting’s all about.”

Is it? Brooker is currently working with a single mom who scheduled an hour’s worth of services for her daughter’s birthday — a princess will come, sing songs, do a craft, paint some faces. The mom’s never done a big party before. And she probably won’t be able to do another one for a long, long time. It only costs $150. But she’s mailing Brooker $25 a week until she pays it off.
Yes. Keeping up is hard.

Even Tiffany Gabbay was worried that Brielle’s birthday carnival wouldn’t blow it out of the box. Until she found it — the perfect surprise to make this “the best birthday.”

“People will be, like, ‘Wow. That really is different,’” she says.

So she went for it. She hired an oil painter who would come, take photos of the party as it was happening, tack those photos to his easel, and then paint a tableau. Right there. In front of all 160 guests. Live. 

“I want things to be different,” Gabbay says. “I don’t want the typical birthday.”   

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