Idea No.


Bobcia's Surprise - Polka & a Memory Book



April 2005


Andrea in Bedford, NH, USA


Surprise Party

Concept:  For my Babci’s (grandmother’s) 80th birthday we threw her a surprise backyard party.  We made this party a family project, which made it even more special for all of us and for Babci.  My mom and I were the main orchestrators and the party was held at our house.  Each of Babci’s children put in $100 so we had a total budget of $500 which we were able to stick to.  

Invitations:  We invited about 60 friends and family members and about 55 came.  We invited the entire extended family in the area, (but we also sent invitations to those far away so they knew what was going on and they could also fill out the memory on).  There were friends from her Women’s Club, Scrabble Club, Polish Class, Class Reunion Committee, and church choir.  We called a few of her friends that we knew from each of these groups, and then they were able to give us more names.  We sent the invitations out about a month before the party.  Inside the invitation we had an RSVP date as a week before the party day.  Since many of the guests were older, we didn’t want them to forget that this was a surprise, so we wrote it in bold several times on the invitation.  DON'T TELL STEL! (Her name is Stella, by the way.)  This is a SURPRISE!  

We enclosed directions from the main street in town to our house and then tied balloons to the mailbox on the day of the party so they could easily find our house.  Also enclosed with the invitation was a memory card.  On a half sheet of paper we printed up four writing prompts.   I always laugh when I remember the time Stella and I... Stella is always happiest when... When I first met Stella... Whenever I think of Stella, I remember the time... Directions to complete any number of these writing prompts, or to write something completely different were given.  These memory cards were brought on the day of the party and later put into a scrapbook (see more under documenting).  We sent the invitations out so early so that the guests would have time to think about and complete these memory cards. On the invitation we also asked that they bring no gifts.  We did not want to spend time at the party having everyone watch Babci open 50 gifts.  However, the guests found a way around this by bringing flowers the day of the party as well as cards.  And inside the cards many of them included restaurant gift certificates.  Very sneaky! We printed everything in black & white on brightly colored paper to save money on copies.  A color print cost $1 per page while black & white only costs 10 cents at Kinkos.  I would suggest buying a pack of paper from WalMart rather than buying pieces at a time from the copy shop.

Location/Decoration:  The party was at our house because it was the closest to Babci’s town- we didn’t want the older people to have to drive far.  Our backyard is pretty big, there was plenty of room for people to roam around.  The week before the party we spent a lot of time cleaning up our gardens so everything would look good for the party.  Everyone stayed mainly outside, but some guests did briefly float into our kitchen where we were moving in and out of. 

In the yard we had three pagodas set up with lounge chairs and eating tables set up inside.  This was to break up the yard into more intimate sections and also to provide shade as many of the guests were elderly.  There were also tables out in the sun, for those who preferred it.  But the focal point remained on the center of the yard where the performers would later be (more on that under Entertainment).  We had lounge chairs scattered all over-everyone seemed comfortable.  

We did have a big blow up pool right in the middle of our yard that had been there all summer.  We considered moving it since it was kind of a big bright blue eyesore.  But we decided against that idea since that would be a lot of work (to empty out all the water, etc.) and when we moved it there would be a huge patch of dead grass left behind.  So, to disguise the problem, we blew up a ton of balloons, tied them all together and then tied them to the sides of the pool (so they wouldn’t blow away) forming a net over the top of the pool.  It looked pretty good.  Balloons ended up being our main decorating theme.  We tied balloons to EVERYTHING!  It added a lot of color to the back yard. 

Since Babci’s favorite hobby is playing Scrabble, we made letter tiles (you know, with the letters and then the value numbers in the corner) that spelled out HAPPY BIRTHDAY STELLA and taped them on the side of the house.  She loved that.  This area became the background for a bunch of pictures we took with her and her friends. Time:  The party took place the last weekend in July, so the weather was warm and the sun was bright.  We decided to hold the party from 1-5pm.  With this we had plenty of time to prepare beforehand, and still plenty of daylight for people to get home (older people don’t like driving in the dark) and time for us to clean up and wind down.  

Logistics:  In order to hide the guest’s 40 some odd vehicles, we called the wholesale florist shop down the street about 2 weeks in advance and asked if we could park the cars there for the party.  They were happy to grant our request since their shop is closed on Saturday afternoons anyways.  So, we planted my dad at the end of our driveway to direct cars down the hill to the shop (by stopping at our house first, any handicapped passengers could be dropped off) and then we had 2 vans shuttle the guests back up to the house.  After the party, we did this in reverse shuttling drivers down, then they could swing back by the house to pick up passengers.   As far as the weather went, we made backup plans in case of rain.  We didn’t want our guests to be outside if it was raining or cold, of course, OR even if the grass was wet. Since many of our guests were elderly, we did not want to risk anyone falling down or getting injured. 

So, we called our church and they did not have a problem with letting us use the hall where our church dinners were held in case of bad weather.  We even printed up driving directions from our house to the church (about 10 minutes away) that we would be able to hand out at the last minute-always prepared.(Fortunately, the weather was great-warm and sunny- but it is always good to have a backup plan in place.)  Another way the churched helped us out was by letting us use the sturdy tables and folding chairs also used for church suppers.  We didn’t want to use any flimsy card tables, especially since our backyard is pretty uneven.  We only put out sturdy chairs-no white lawn chairs-because we did not want to risk anyone falling backwards.  We had to take a lot of safety concerns into account due to the age of many of our guests.

Entertainment:  We were able to find a great duo in our area.  (This pair often performs at nursing homes.) They were two men, one was also 80 years old and the other was probably in his 50s.  They were great.  The older man played keyboard and the accordion (the accordion was a must because our family is Polish).  The younger played guitar and banjo, and they both sang!  They held an interactive sing along. Everyone had a great time.  We had a wide variety of ages- 8 to 80 something- and everyone had a great time. There was the hokey-pokey, boom-sa-daisy, silly songs...classics all generations can enjoy.   There were also just some songs that he sang and people got out on the lawn and started dancing. 

Babci danced with all her sons and she was grinning ear to ear the whole time.  These guys brought in all their own equipment- amps, instruments, microphone... all they needed was an outlet. At the end of their performance, they sang an original song they made up for Babci’s special birthday and presented her with a copy to keep for her memoirs.  (Of course we had the whole thing on videotape too.)  They played for a little over an hour, and this is where the majority of our budget went-$200.  We booked them about 3 weeks in advance.

Our mix of party guests really did not need that much entertainment-they mostly sat around talking, laughing, eating, drinking, and posing for pictures. (Oh yeah, we got a lot of liquor-older people like that too.  We put my uncle on patrol, though, to keep tabs on who was drinking how much.  His job was to pull the drinks if he thought it was necessary.  But, we didn’t have a problem with this.)  We did have a limbo game though, for the younger generation, but there were some older participants.  The winner was actually an over the hill guest!  Babci even took a shot at it (yes, the one that turned 80).  We didn’t really worry about anyone getting hurt because we figured no one would attempt it if they thought they might get injured.  During the party we played a mix of big band swing music and Polish accordion polkas (Babci’s favorites) as upbeat background music.

We also did a short activity called How well do you know Stel?  We put down about 20 questions like... What is Stel’s middle name?, What street did she grow up on?  Favorite food, color, tv show, sandwich filling,..etc.  While everyone was filling out their surveys, so did Stella, and we used hers as the answer key.  Everyone had a lot of fun guessing and Stella enjoyed going back and reading the answers that some people put down.  They cracked her up.  In the end we read the answers out loud together and had a prize for the winner, a garden stake.  (The winner turned out to be her sister.)  Other than this prize we did not bother with party favors because often you just end up giving out junk that no one really can use.

Documenting: About 2 weeks after the party, I presented Babci with a scrapbook of the party.  It contained pictures from the party of her with her friends as well as the memory cards mentioned earlier.  We probably took about 300 pictures over the course of the 4 hour party.  I had disposable cameras set on the middle of each table and gave a couple to family members.  I had the digital camera.  The cameras all got passed around and we were able to catch all the special moments.  With the digital camera, we were later able to cull out the pictures we didn’t want but keep all the good ones. 

All these pictures went into the scrapbook.  She absolutely loves that scrapbook and she has showed it to everyone.  All the party guests get a kick out of seeing their own pictures and reading all the memory cards.  For those that weren’t there, it is a great way to share this special event with them.  The scrapbook is something that she treasures.  In the back of it we left a big envelope that she put all the cards she received inside.  In addition to snapshots we had the camcorder out and got everything on film.  This also got passed around so no one person was behind the camera for the whole party, everyone took turns.  The party took place in July and we edited the videotape so we could show it at Thanksgiving, the next time the whole family would be together.

Food: My aunt and uncle took care of all the food- appetizers and lunch.  They made finger sandwiches and a couple different kind of pasta salads in addition to regular garden salad.  Everything was cold and nothing had to be cooked the day of the party.  All we did on the party day was cut vegetables for veggie plates.  We made several dips-guacamole, salsa pesto, and a store bought veggie dip-and then had chips, vegetables, and other finger foods as appetizers.  One mistake we made was putting out too many appetizers before we announced that lunch was on the way.  I don’t think many of the guests were aware that there was going to be real food and not just chips.  This could have been cleared up by putting in the invitation Lunch will be served.  (We ended up having leftover sandwiches every meal for the next week.)

Cake + ice cream: We bought a half-sheet cake from our local Shaws (about $26) which was more than enough for our 55 guests.  We even had some cake left over.  The cake was  half chocolate and half white- something to please everybody.  We just got a white frosted cake with some balloons and confetti and Happy 80th Birthday Stella on it.  But, you could have an old (or new) picture of the guest of honor put onto the cake for only $5 more.  As for ice cream, we bought 2-5 quart buckets of neapolitan (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry).  This was WAY more than enough.  We had almost all of the second bucket left.  As far as plates, napkins, flatware… and that stuff went, we were able to get plastic plate holders from Christmas Tree Shop. The way these work is that paper or styrofoam plates snap into these plastic holders.  The plastic holders give the plates sturdiness, and they are reusable.  So we bought a bunch of those ($1 for 6) and then bought 150 cheap styrofoam plates ($1).  This carried us through appetizers, lunch, and cake & ice cream.  People did a pretty good job of keeping track of their own plastic cups, and we had plastic flatware.  Everything was disposable- which is what you always want for big parties.  

Clean up:  Clean up was a breeze because all we did was clean out our big outdoor trash barrels before the party (so they didn’t smell bad) and line them with big trash bags.  We set them in several convenient locations around the yard so people could throw away their own trash.  Anything we tossed after the party just went in the barrel, the cover went on, and the yard was clean!  With 8 people helping, cleanup seriously only took 30 minutes. 

The biggest task was folding up all the tables and chairs and loading them back onto the truck so they could be returned to the church. Looking Back: Looking back we were fortunate because no one spilled the beans or let the cat out of the bag-Stella was completely surprised!  We were worried that since she saw her friends on a regular basis and we sent the invitations out so far ahead of time, that one of the old ladies would slip.  But, everything worked out fine as far as keeping the secret, and the look on Stella’s surprised face was priceless.  However, afterwards, although she loved her party, there were some of her friends that we did not invite that she wished had been there.  If she had known about the party she could have made up her own guest list and all her friends could have been there.  

After the party several of her friends called us just to tell us what a good time they had and what a great job we did putting everything together.  Even a year later, people a still talking about what a fun party it was.

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