Beach blanket bar mitzvah: Taking the theme to the extreme

By SUSAN FADEM, Special to the Jewish Light

With his mom’s track record, Blake Berg figured he would enjoy himself. What the 13-year-old did not anticipate was having “the best time of my life.”

For older sister Madison’s bat mitzvah two years ago, mom Tracy Berg was inspired by her daughter’s first name and zest for New York City. With her daughter’s blessing, she transformed Meadowbrook Country Club, where a half-dozen rented Yellow Taxi Cabs, horns blaring, welcomed guests into a shrubbery-laden and fountain-filled “Central Park,” as well as to “Madison Avenue,” “Carnegie Deli,” “Little Italy” and “Chinatown.” 

For Blake’s recent extravaganza, mom Tracy once again put herself in cahoots with local party consultant Simcha Lourie, of Simcha’s Events.

Simcha, by the way, is her given name. By her own description, she was born to a hippie mom undergoing conversion to her hippie husband’s Judaism. Reading during her pregnancy about the holiday of Simchat Torah, she “felt bells in her stomach.” Taking this as a sign, she vowed that regardless of gender, her child would be named Simcha. 

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For Tracy Berg, choosing a bar mitzvah theme likewise came easily. Paying homage to her son’s fondness for beaches, surfing, deep-sea fishing with his dad, Greg, and his preference for casual attire, she selected “Beach Bummin’ with Blake.” 

As she had for her daughter, she spent two years planning. Besides interviewing and booking vendors (see list), she ordered and secretly stockpiled countless theme-builders. Among them: fish-shaped fish bowls, chocolate-covered gummy candy and ample tiny shells, purchased for $12 total as necklaces on the Etsy website, for Berg to re-string on twine as individual napkin rings. 

With contracts and descriptions, Berg filled a three-ring binder with two inches of paperwork. 

Following another precedent set by sister Madison, who wanted no pre-party commentary from pals, the details in the binder remained secret. This included Madison and younger sister, Brooke, 10, and already a conscientious Hebrew student as well as from Berg’s “very best friend I talk to 10 times a day.” Except for certain vendors, nobody but Berg, her husband and Blake knew the theme.

Guessing has become part of the Berg party tradition. Would Meadowbrook morph into “Wall Street”? “Opening Day at Busch Stadium”? A Disney-fied “Hawaii”? 

Though Hawaii happened to be the home of the surf-simulation equipment Berg rented, allowing guests to mock surf as videos of Blake’s head, superimposed on their bodies, appeared on an LCD projection screen, Berg divulged nothing.

In fact, only a few times during the evening that followed Blake’s flawless bar mitzvah service at United Hebrew Synagogue (UH), did her composure waver. 

Her tears nearly flowed, she admits, the first time she and Greg saw the entirety of her vision. For poolside photos, family members had arrived at the Bergs’ Frontenac manse at 5:30 p.m., just hours after a luncheon for 180 people at UH.

At 6:20 p.m., Berg and her husband, an endodontist, left for Meadowbrook Country Club. During the 15 minutes or so before their 118 adult guests began arriving at 7 p.m., they gazed into the country club’s interior, most of which had been draped for two days so builders and decorators could work.

Inside the main room stood a sturdy hand-built wooden bridge, flanked by sand, surfboards, wild grasses and ropey nets. Above the bridge, an etched sign said: “Beach Bummin’ with Blake.” Newly built cabana tables, wrapped in bamboo, were placed on elevated platforms. Other square and round tables, as Berg had specified, were topped by “huuuu-mongous,” thatched umbrellas. To the right was “Blake’s Shirt Shack,” stocked with custom-printed and variously styled orange, yellow, light and dark-blue and white shirts, ready for distribution later as party favors.

To the left, the country club’s adult bar had been revamped as a kids bar with a long, narrow sandbox on top sprouting sticks with etched signs enumerating such beverage choices as “Ocean Water.” consisting of Sprite and blue Kool-Aid. Adults had their own scene-stealing, oversized, bamboo-wrapped bar, built for the occasion, also topped with a sandbox and resembling something out of a Tommy Bahama setting. 

Giant blow-up pictures of Blake at pools and beaches, dating to his days as a toothless builder of sand castles, hung everywhere for a “green screen” photo-taking attraction, Tracy Berg provided goofy hats, sunglasses and other props, displayed on a piece of wood positioned across two wooden wheelbarrows.

Outside, where guests mingled before the indoor draping was finally pulled back, a steel drum player planted himself on a mini, elevated stage, erected in the middle of the pool. Meadowbrook staffers offered crab legs, trays of appetizers and libations. Adults were offered shots of “Mazel on the Beach,” a takeoff on “Sex on the Beach” drinks.

Around 8 p.m., three chaperoned party buses of Blake’s 100-plus friends arrived. Already, the kids had been gifted with sunglasses that said “Blake” and glow-in-the-dark necklaces. Since coming to the Bergs’ at 7 p.m., they had snacked beneath a canopy on Lion’s Choice roast beef sandwiches and hand-twisted Pretzel Boy’s offerings.

And so, the evening unfolded. Blake, who dislikes getting dressed up, changed from his collared shirt and trousers into a white party-favor tee, navy shorts and flip-flops. Before dinner and with many adults still sipping key-lime mini-martinis with graham cracker crust, he joined his family, entertainers from Chicago (all wearing Blake’s party-favor tees) and the “casually-informally-dressed” partygoers for 20 minutes of vigorous dancing. 

Appetites stimulated, the adults were served (by Blake T-shirt-wearing Meadowbrook staffers) tomato-and mozzarella-stacked salad, and quartered pineapples with orzo, asparagus, and chicken and beef kabobs. The youngsters, many almost too excited to eat, had their own nacho bar and buffet of sliders, hotdogs and Hawaiian chips

For dessert, and in addition to passed-around chocolate-covered pineapples and bananas and mini-ice cream sandwiches, guests received locally provided Tro-Mo (Tropical Moose Shaved Ice) in flavors from black cherry to “Tiger Blood.”

Dancing, during which the hired entertainers mixed with the guests, continued throughout the evening. So did giveaways of inflatable beach toys, glowing rings, beach towels, flip flops, boogie boards and foam wands. 

At one point, guests sat glued during a 20-minute video montage of Blake’s life. During the first six minutes, shot during a one-day whirlwind trip with his mom to Chicago, costumed Blake with memorized lines played an Academy Award-nominated actor, competing against himself in several of his favorite films, in which he “appeared,” courtesy of technical wizardry.

Later during the party, an entertainer dressed as a white-nosed beach bum bounced in on springy stilts. And when he wasn’t jumping, he painted white — as a “sun” protector — the noses of all willing kids. At 11 p.m., pizzas were delivered on a bicycle-trailing cart.

As the lead-up to his party, Blake, a straight-A student at Ladue Middle School, had spent four years studying Hebrew. “It was worth it,” he says now. “My family means everything to me.”

His mom agrees. “At the end of the day, it’s the memory that we had, you can’t put … ,” she said, her voice breaking. “We made a memory not just for our family but for everybody there:”

Days later, she began planning younger daughter Brooke’s bat mitzvah, scheduled for 2015.