Crossing Party Lines

On the last friday in may, more than 450 guests gathered at Laurie and Peter Grauer’s magnificent waterfront home in Belle Haven for the Family Center’s annual benefit. The timing for this year’s party—Gatsby on the Sound—was propitious; the movie had premiered the night before in New York City and Gatsby fever was at an all-time high. As revelers mixed and mingled in their Gatsby-esque finery, badminton players in old-fashioned tennis costumes swatted birdies across a net. There was a cigarette girl in fishnet stockings, a strolling magician, a photographer with retro props, a ragtime trio, and a signature drink called “The Daisy.” Inside the tented dining area, pearl-draped tables held pillar candles and silver lanterns, feather boas and 72-inch long cigarette holders. There was even an ice sculpture of a girl reclining in a crescent moon. While guests sipped champagne and dined to the toe-tapping sounds of a swing band, flappers in drop-waist beaded dresses danced the Charleston. When it was time to call it a night, a group of Keystone Cops came in and “busted” the party.

“That was a fun touch,” says Brett Galley, whose Greenwich-based event planning company, Hollywood Pop, staged the gala, which raised more than $650,000 for the charity. “It was definitely something people will remember.” After twenty years in the business, Brett, one of Fairfield County’s most sought-after party planners, knows a thing or two about creating a lasting impression.

Parties Near & Far

From its modest beginnings as an art gallery on Greenwich Avenue, Brett’s company, Hollywood Pop, has morphed into a multifaceted powerhouse that plans and stages private parties and corporate events for some of the biggest names in sports, business and entertainment.

With offices in Greenwich, New York City and London, Brett and her team (all women, all with backgrounds in the creative arts, and several who have been with her from the start) have feted, dazzled and celebrated the likes of Robert De Niro and Whoopi Goldberg, Diana Ross and Bette Midler. They have designed and produced parties for Cirque du Soleil, the London Olympics, American Express, the Museum of Modern Art and the Robin Hood Foundation. Locally, Hollywood Pop has worked with Family Centers, Kids in Crisis and the Greenwich Audubon. They book the entertainment for the Greenwich Town Party and for years orchestrated the annual Halloween haunted house and neighborhood party at the Belle Haven home of Paul Tudor Jones.

More than half of Brett’s clientele lives in Greenwich and the New York metro area, including the Hamptons, but her work frequently involves traveling to distant locales. In the past three years, she’s done events in California, France, Colorado, Maryland, London and Mexico, to name just a few. Although her official title is director of special events, Brett says a more accurate description of her role would be party therapist. “We start by getting to know the client or guest of honor. Then we try to personalize and specialize as many of the details as possible,” she says. “We work hard to make every event, big or small, be reflective of who the clients are and what they want.” Like the surprise ninetieth birthday party she organized two years ago at a country club in Memphis.

The guest of honor thought he was going out to dinner with his wife. Meanwhile, his entire extended family had flown in from around the world and was waiting behind closed doors. “As soon as the couple sat down, they all walked into the room,” says Brett. “I’ll never forget the expression on his face!” After dinner, the party moved to a tent for dancing. But first, there was one more surprise in store: a performance by Tony Bennett, the birthday boy’s idol.

Or, the surprise seventy-fifth birthday party she planned recently for a woman whose favorite era was the 1940s. “We had a great act, very Rat Pack’” says Brett. “And then, because she loves to dance, we hired four of the professional dancers from Dancing with the Stars to come twirl her and her guests around the dance floor.”

Or, the twenty-first birthday party that featured a giant inflatable rat (a nod to the birthday girl’s nickname.)

Or, the Paris-themed bar mitzvah, where the servers and vendors had to speak with a French accent.

Or, the marriage proposal on a beach in L.A. that involved a monkey.

A monkey?

“A monkey,” Brett confirms. “He ran up the beach and presented the ring.”

Whether staged in town or on the road, an intimate dinner for fifty or a blowout for 1,000-plus, every job is a team effort, says Brett. “The logistics, budgeting and timeline are a make or break for any party. We have meetings in- house over and over to update and fine-tune the details. You always need to have a Plan B,” says Brett. “If a misstep does occur, it’s important to remain calm while you figure out a solution.”

Such was the case a few years ago, during Whoopi Goldberg’s annual holiday party in Westchester. When one of the actors suddenly got sick, Brett reluctantly, but gamely, donned an elf costume and sang carols with Santa and his crew. She tried to stay out of sight, she says, but somehow Ms. Goldberg picked her out of the crowd. “She said to me, ‘Really Brett, is there nothing you won’t do?’”

Eclectic Passion

If her ability to go with the flow comes from years of on-the-job training, her flair for the dramatic is likely hardwired into her DNA. Her mother, Joyce, is an artist of some repute. Her father, with whom she has lost touch, is an explorer who lives in Hawaii. Her parents divorced when she was young, and at the age of five, Brett and her mom began traveling and living in countries throughout Europe and the Middle East. “My mom is a very strong, creative, girl-power type of woman,” she says. “From her I learned that you follow your passion.”

On this end-of-summer day, Brett is enjoying a rare few hours at her main office in Greenwich, in a renovated Victorian on Field Point Road. After sixteen years in its original location, Hollywood Pop moved to its present sight in 2010. Located on the first floor of the building, with a production studio in the basement, the space is divided into three separate areas, each of which has a distinct point-of-view: To the right, the décor is meant to evoke SoHo chic. Straight ahead, Zen glamour. To the left, in Brett’s office, the Moulin Rouge.

Here, a framed poster of the nightclub’s can-can girls decorates one wall. Red curtain panels and black-and-white tasseled valances frame the window; white walls with red accents are lined with red leather boxes that serve as filing cabinets. There is a pair of miniature Eiffel towers and, oddly, a pair of red leather boxing gloves hanging over a doorknob. When asked the significance of these un-Moulin Rouge-like accessories, Brett smiles and says, “They’re from a party we did for Diana Ross. Her dad was a boxer.” Turns out, the former Greenwich resident was one of Brett’s earliest champions. “She taught me so much,” Brett says.

Dressed in black leggings, a slim-fitting black and red tunic, chic black ankle boots and a backward-facing feather-trimmed black felt fedora, the raven-haired Brett looks like she, too, just stepped out of a Parisian streetscape. “I believe in having a lot of visuals,” she says. “One of the reasons we created the separate themes in our own office is for inspiration. We get so caught up in planning for other people, I believe it’s important for us to keep things fresh.”

She walks over to a corner of her office, pulls a book from a pile on the floor and heads over to the conference table. The book, Le Pop Nouveau, showcases many of her most memorable events from the past ten years. “People go to so many events now, they become jaded,” she says. “I am constantly trying to reinvent the wheel.”

It’s a lesson she learned early on. “My mother was such a creative force. Even in our home she had rooms with different themes. There was the circus room, the pink and white room. She made everything so much fun.”

When they weren’t traveling, the Galleys summered in Westport, where her mother’s circle of friends included painters, writers and actors. In 1993 Brett enrolled in the Cooper Union Art School with vague plans to become an art dealer. “I always loved the arts,” she said. “But I was never a talented artist.” That was the year her mother started a gallery above what used to be Le Figaro so that she and three artist friends could exhibit their work, most of which was 3-D or pop art. As for the Hollywood part of the name? “My mom’s dad was somewhat involved in the movie industry,” Brett says.

With its quirky, eclectic vibe, Hollywood Pop earned a reputation as a cool venue for private parties. At first, clients brought in their own entertainment and décor. “We had no idea there was this whole world of party planning going on,” says Brett. “We had no formal training. We were just learning the ropes as we went along.”

The women were quick studies. In fact, it was at the gallery’s first party that they met Tamara Schrader, a dancer and choreographer, who became an integral part of the Hollywood Pop team. She introduced the Galleys to a whole new world of performers in New York City. “All of them were super-talented, though not necessarily household names,” says Brett.

By the time people started hiring Hollywood Pop to plan parties at private homes and clubs, they had the resources at hand to book talent, hire caterers and arrange décor. One event in particular stands out in Brett’s memory. “It was for a client who was originally from Queens. Mom came up with the theme: Back to the Boroughs.” There were subway-themed hors d’oeuvres trays (the Queens F local, the Brooklyn Q express), New York food stations (Manhattan’s Oyster Bar, Brooklyn’s Blue Smoke Barbeque, Staten Island Sweets) and drinks (Long Island Iced Tea, classic Manhattans). The tent was meant to evoke a starry night in Central Park. At the end of the evening, departing guests received Bloomingdale’s-style Little Brown Bags filled with souvenirs from the Times Square newsstand. “Mom thought about having someone pretend to sell fake Fendi bags from the trunk of a car but the client didn’t go for it,” Brett says. “Mom was always very ‘method’ in her approach.”

Hitting Tinseltown

As the business flourished, Brett took a leave of absence from school. “I still wasn’t sure about party planning as a career choice.” She remembers voicing her concerns one night, while driving one of the performers to a job. “I told him it felt so frivolous, that I wanted to do something important. He said, ‘What you are doing is a noble career because you are creating experiences and memories that will last a lifetime.’ That stuck with me.”

Ironically, as she was becoming more and more passionate about her work, Joyce was starting to pull away. She left Hollywood Pop for good in 1998. “She was ready to move on,” Brett says. “It’s a very consuming business, very stressful. But it’s very addictive, too.”

In 2002, a client approached her with a challenging request: Could she arrange for Grammy Award-winning jazz and soul guitarist George Benson to perform at a private party? The client wanted Brett and her team to design an entire set to mimic a low-country bayou. It was the first time she’d been called upon to stage this kind of event with name talent. It was a huge success. She discovered she loved the private concert side of the business and soon Brett was traveling to L.A. to meet with agents and talent scouts. “The next few years were a whirlwind,” she says. “For two years I lived out of a hotel room.” That was in the heyday of the early 2000s when clients flew everyone—even their party planner—private. “That ended in 2008,” Brett says with a laugh.

The days of traveling on corporate jets may be over—for now—but business is booming. Events are slicker thanks to technology, but also more sophisticated. “Everything is a bit more streamlined,” she says. “It’s less about big splashy themes and more about the small details.” As an example, Brett points to one of the summer’s biggest trends: poolside cocktail parties with canopied conversation pits and cushioned seating. “It’s that shore club look that was big in Miami about ten years ago,” she says.

As she flips through the pages of her company’s look book, a lot of familiar faces emerge: Lionel Richie, Jon Bon Jovi, Earth Wind and Fire, Katy Perry. When asked how much someone like Katy Perry or Jon Bon Jovi costs for the night—$1 million? $2 million? Brett turns evasive. “Whoever is a million, we’ll get them for less,” she says. “Over the years we’ve developed great contacts with agents and managers and even in some cases the talent, and that helps.”

Sometimes getting someone to perform at an event is all a question of timing. “We were able to get Seal for a party in Mexico because it was on his tour route,” she says. Other times, it’s all about persistence. “We tried for a long time to get Tony Bennett for that client,” she says. “The first two times we struck out.”

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