After a speech at the St. Louis Press Club, I received a call from one of my Mother’s dear friends whose boyfriend, age 88, was a member of the Press Club. She had heard me speak and wanted to hire me to MC her 90th birthday party. I knew that my Mother, who has been dead for 17 years, would never forgive me if I didn’t do it pro bono, but I also knew that at 90, Felicia would have a very severe case of sticker shock if she knew what a professional speaker, even someone in the K-Mart range, charged, for what would amount to around 8-9 hours of work.
First task, interview the birthday “girl.” I always start with the question, “When your guests leave, how would you like them to think, feel or act differently?” Felecia explained that she would like her guests to feel warm and happy and welcomed. I then asked her about your childhood, her nursing career, her courtship, her years as a Mother and so on. One of the most interesting responses was to the question, “If you could live your life over, what would you change?” She answered immediately, “I would like to have had a Mother. Mine died when I was 18 months old.” When I later interviewed her three children, they were all surprised at this response: That at 90, that was still such a hole in their Mother’s heart.
We looked at photos, she shared stories and showed me around her apartment. Going to the home of the person who is being celebrated is a great gift. You can see the layers of their personality. It turns out that she was a friend of the great Southwestern artist Gorman and had some magnificent originals. There were books that she was reading and she shared photos of her 85th birthday and told me what she enjoyed.
The next step was to interview the kids. These were phone interviews, as the “kids” now in their fifties and sixties, lived out of town. They made it very clear that this was to be a toast and NOT a roast. As a professional, it is very important to get the tone just right. What might appear maudlin to a gruff old duffer, might be just the right touch for an elegant lady in pearls. Felicia had given me the name of her contact at the Ritz and told me to make arrangement for a microphone and anything else that I needed. I checked with her daughters to find out who was making the arrangements with the hotel and asked that they take care of this. I NEVER request anything from a hotel that will cost my client money without the person who is signing the checks making the request. When I’m not sure, as in this case, I keep asking.
It was decided that the grandchildren and two of the great grandchildren would like to make toasts in addition to Felicia’s three children and her sweetie, Eddie. I typed out my speech notes and the order of speakers on 18 point type on yellow card stock. The reason I use a different color paper is so that no one will walk away with my notes. This might really seem ridiculous, but I also try to match the card stock to my outfit. As I pointed out in my speech, I look like the love child of Barbra Streisand and Henry Kissinger, so I need all the help I can get, but also, it takes attention away from the notes.
I welcomed the guests on Felicia’s behalf when we sat down for dinner and told that that there would be no speeches until after dinner and wished them a Bon Appetite. Had there been a prayer, this would obviously been the time to introduce the person offering the blessing. After dinner, I started by announcing that this was an HBT event. Horizontal By Ten. I don’t know who appreciated this announcement more, the young couples in love, or the ninty year olds in long line bras. Suffice it to say, they were pleased. Every speech needs a premise. Mine was to compare Felicia to the great first ladies. She seemed very pleased with the comparison. During the comparisons, I tried to weave in the other people in the room. For instance, when I compared Felecia to Jackie Kennedy, I said that although Jackie certainly had great style and knew the top designers of her day, if Caroline had needed a new outfit for her Barbie doll, Jackie would not have the help of a sewing club like Felecia’s Club. I then introduced the 5 remaining members of the original 8 members of her sewing club that started over 60 years ago during WWII.
Next was introducing the other speakers. For folks who are not used to using a microphone, it is helpful to stay near in case you have to help them hold it a little closer or further from their mouths. You will want to have a cordless microphone so that you can run to people who want to talk who might feel shy. This is particularly important when working with children, older folks or the disabled. Several of the guests were in wheelchairs and I could easily get to them and not worry about tripping myself or someone else or having them have to come to the front. It was, after all, an HBT event, so I had to keep it moving. And nothing delays an event like a broken leg and the intervention of the EMTs.
I asked people to share “a fond memory.” Had it been my birthday, I would have wanted my friends to share “a funny story.” Again, its the MC’s job to set the tone and keep it on track.
Felecia had the last words, thanking her guests and inviting them to join her for cake. While she and her great grandchildren prepared to blow out the candles, the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” and they blew out the candles.
My sister is a retired Obstetrician. No one would ever say to her what was said to me at the end. One of the ladies said, “You just have a natural gift!” After only 9 hours of work, it should look effortless. I left laughing was was HBT.