Off-world, a party turns 10

Ten years ago my wife and I had just moved to Chicago. Kidless, dual income, cool new top floor condo. We threw a Christmas party for the few people we knew. It was fairly low-key: appetizers, beer and wine only, and holiday tunes softly played. The invitation even had an end time on it.

It isn’t like that anymore.

The get-together has become something of a spectacle, an entire year’s worth of creative energy throttled into a single night that reminds us of a youth I don’t think my wife or I ever actually had. And it’s kidless once more, having evolved into a house-sized version of stays-in-Vegas that the children would surely be embarrassed by later in life if they had the memories. (And will, thanks to this post, hundreds of photos, a full video feed and the Google bots. Sorry, kids.)


The parties early on never had themes, but eventually we started giving away favors and that led to light theming, usually holiday-related (e.g., “I Think They Spiked the Nog” and “Lords a-Leaping”.) But themes are a gateway drug and soon enough we were in full-blown obsessive-compulsion about every last detail conforming to the chosen motif.

Last year, the theme was “Around the World,” celebrating travel of all kinds and lending itself handily to silly tie-ins. This year’s theme — Out Of This World — seems almost predetermined given the re-use it made possible of certain globe decor from last year, but also because of what a space nerd I am. (And yes, it lends itself to a world “trilogy”, more on which later.)


The favor proved challenging as we had designed ourselves into a bit of a corner last year by dumping CDs in favor of USB keys. The consensus opinion (meaning my wife’s) was that people really didn’t use the key drives — leading me to question our choice of friends, frankly — and the decision was to go back to CDs.

This led to what I thought was a fantastic idea. I’d build an armillary sphere with the compact disc as the celestial equator! Wait, come back. If I admit that it would have taken months and every shred of sanity I have to actually make them, you have to admit it would have looked amazing.

Next idea: ringed planet. It was a contentious design process, honestly, but in the end it yielded something great. The CD (two actually) formed the rings, a styrofoam ball sliced in half and glittered formed the planet. This set like a garnish on a mini-martini glass which itself was set atop a coaster that was our holiday card (photo of kids with greeting). Initially Robyn suggested the card be a flag planted atop the planet. Which of course is silly, given that Saturn is a gas giant and you can’t plant flags on it. Sheesh! (This kind of thinking led to a chandelier planet arrangement that was far from accurate.) Our fantastic nanny, Ellen Gallerini, and her business partner — the Glitter Girlz — bore the brunt of the assembly work. Amazing, huh?


But the real stroke of genius came from Robyn: the glasses were filled with Mentos and the entire favor display was backed with 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke. Blastoff! (If you’re unaware of the particular physics involved here, have a look.) Not sure if anyone tried this, but in keeping with our tradition of home-wrecking favors we have reports that the glitter got into and all over virtually everything it touched. I can’t imagine the discs were actually playable. (Which is OK: you can download it here.)

Food and drink stayed on-theme, my particular favorite being the red velvet frosted cake balls peddled as moon rocks. The custom drink list, bane of our hired bartenders and the ultimate scapegoat for much that happens, was equally tasty. Choice selections included the Tang-tini (Tang and blood orange martini), Fly Me To the Moon (Passion Fruit Vodka and Prosecco), and the Black Hole (Espresso Martini). Bottleable quanities of each of these drinks were sucked from our carpet by Stanley Steemer a few days after the party.


A note on the bartender. Serving drinks for this party is pure misery. In an effort to encourage a flow through the house, we put the mixed drinks and bartender in the basement. This meant he was subjected to at least 7 hours of aural and visual assault in a very limited space. Add drunk revelers and dancing bodies. Stir.

Well, we’ve solved this problem and his name is Matt Vogel, aka “Fingers”. We didn’t know the reason for this nickname until he showed up. Fingers, you see, has only one hand. Fingers insisted we call him such and I protested until he produced a business card with “Fingers” on it. You can imagine our thoughts when a one-handed guy showed up for what is a tough assignment for a barkeep with four arms. But here’s the thing: Fingers was amazing. He kept pace, didn’t complain, and stayed late — all with a great disposition.

The theme is fun. The food, drink and decor are festive. But the genetic mutation that’s most responsible for the party’s evolution is what happens in the basement. To quote a friend, “I don’t even mess with the first floor anymore.” Let’s go there.


Basically the lower level is just one big media generation machine. “Photobooth”, live video feed, lots of roving photo/video cameras, a closed-circuit feed to two projectors, two iSights snapping at regular intervals, and a recording of the audio from the DJ booth ensure that it is well-covered. Good thing too; there are a lot of cute boots down there.

It’s a massive effort. We move every last shred of furniture and decor out of what is a very functional and much-used basement (our family life routine is also effectively moved out), then load in a forklift’s worth of plywood to construct what becomes the Nightclub on Henderson Street.


We amped up the lighting this year, figuratively and literally, adding three high-powered spots, stage washes, and a physical control panel to the full roster of DJ spots, LED cans, strobes, projectors, and laser. This is all due to a guy who wasn’t actually at the party. Tom Herlihy, visuals expert and total lighting nerd, loaned all the equipment, trained a totally capable assistant, Chris Gansen, and then decamped for Kabul, Afghanistan for work. And this was the reason for the live video feed. Tom caught parts of the party in the Dubai and London airports. Totally worth it.

The DJ booth is simply a beast. Originally constructed to accommodate two people, enlarged to fit four, and then, this year, completely rebuilt. The 2009 version situated the three DJ’s more comfortably while giving the AV control a kind of crow’s nest above it all and, importantly, providing a dance platform behind the DJ surface, since that’s where we found people pooled anyway.

Clearly raised areas attracted people in past years, so we build two dance platforms out in the crowd. These were sturdy and festooned with instructions that we figured even the drunkest partygoers would understand.


The DJ setup this year exceeded all past. The unbelievable Jesse Kriss returned (this time from Seattle rather than Boston) and provided the real turntable chops. He was the master of ceremonies for all audio, messing with whatever Joey and I were pumping out via Ableton and Traktor. We also had a Korg KAOSS pad (a tactile/visual effects and loop controller) which were totally smitten with mere seconds after hooking it up.


We played for over eight hours, covering a serious range of tunes. Jesse, Joey, and I really seemed to click this year, handing off more smoothly than catastrophically most of the time. (I stress most of the time. See custom drink menu, above.) The floor was packed with dancers for hours. The apotheosis of the party, truly.

Below is the full set, annotated with interesting bits on the timeline. Click the link for a larger version.

[Download | 8h 6m 48s | 484.5 MB]

Jesse’s fantastic beginning set is excerpted here with full tracklisting.

The built-in downfall of the party, it seems to my wife and I, is the ever-more-difficult challenge of making the spectacle that much bigger year-on-year. But that’s a problem for the future; we hit the mark this year. Inspired by Daft Punk inspired by Tron we constructed three glowing jackets of electroluminescent wire for the DJ crew. The nerdfest began about four hours in and was met with a solid wall of cheering.


The jackets were a bit of a pain in the ass, as we had to affix the somewhat delicate EL wire with tiny safety pins from inside the jacket. But my god was it worth it. Everyone wanted to wear them, which was fine by us as they were hot as hell. Biggest upside: wearing a jacket of copper wire with electricity coursing through it was an effective deterrent to me taking my shirt off, something that has regrettably become a de facto tradition at the party. Not this year!

Though there’s no end time on the invitation anymore, there’s something about this party that demands a discrete finale rather than fading out with hangers-on. Last year this finale came courtesy of the Chicago Police Department. We escaped that this year, somehow. (How we weren’t charged with “operating a public place of amusement without a license” is beyond me.)

This year the ending came via a small explosion.

Piecing together exactly what happened was a massive chore taking weeks and all kinds of CSI-style cross-referencing of testimonial and media timestamps. The folks still there at 3:45 AM said later on that the power cut out. Apparently I rushed to the circuit breaker in the back bedroom to check this and in the process intruded on two sleeping guests who had called it quits.

But that wasn’t it. Couldn’t have been. The recording of the night proved that power remained as it continued for hours uninterrupted after the music ended. We were pulling from four separate circuits in the basement, having learned our lesson from the strobes in previous years.

The next morning the only thing people recalled was me saying “Party’s over. Get the hell out!” But my laptop was completely dead. Dead, but seemingly unmolested. No drink spills apparent anywhere. This is not, however, what Apple repair ultimately said. “Extensive internal liquid damage” was the diagnosis. As best we can tell, liquid seeped in through the Superdrive bay slot on the right side of the laptop and then destroyed everything but the hard drive and wireless radios. No idea how that could have happened.

And that’s how the party ended.


But how it came to be is more important. Dozens of people gave dozens of hours to realize such a thing. We’ve mentioned Tom Herlihy, Jesse Kriss, Chris Gansen and my brother Michael, but that leaves out Justin Bowersock, Alyson Higgins, Cathy Brennan, Heidi and Pat Potter, David Balcom, Mike Bloebaum, Ricky Thorpe, Michelle Simpson, Tom Alter, Ellen Gallerini, Jodie Deschler and others who absolutely made it happen. I’ve said it before and I don’t give a damn if I say it again. This your party too. THANK YOU.

The experience is extraordinary, for sure, but so is the toll it takes on the family to bring about. The half-jokes Robyn and I made about this being our last party during the run-up became less than half as the party approached. But we recognize that we can’t just end something like this without warning. Too many people have too good a time to do that.

So I’ll ask you, dear reader, if you’ve been around the world and off the world, what’s the only thing left to do to the world?


Here’s the full photo gallery. See also Chris Gansen’s great shots.

Curious about past parties?

Read about 2008 (photos!), 2007 (photos!) and 2006.

Or listen in: mixes from 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2005.