Rick Herns: Party King
By Belinda Delgado
Whether your dream party includes a live mermaid aboard a pirate ship or a giant disco ball made of blue suede shoes, Rick Herns can make your fantasies come true. Herns is a special events producer, putting together some of the Bay Area's most lavish and imaginative parties. Herns and his staff animate private and corporate celebrations throughout the year. ‘A perfect party appeals to the senses, and I take care of all of them,' declares Herns.
The end of the year, however, is a special time for Herns, as the holiday – and party – season kicks into high gear. From early November to late January, Herns and his production staff spread cheer with the ultimate in yuletide revelries. Although many of his parties are large-scale, Herns also coordinates simpler celebrations that can include a sculpture made of pasta or a surprise visit from Santa. But no matter what its size, a holiday party, he notes, must have certain extra touches to succeed. ‘I have to make sure the place smells like cinnamon sticks!' he laughs.
However simple or grand the celebration may be, Herns makes sure his parties always contain plenty of what he calls ‘the WOW factor.' This may take the form of a 24-foot-long ice tunnel lit with crystal lights or a Christmas tree that lights up, dances and sheds candy canes off its branches. ‘It's a show without a rehearsal,' remarks Herns. ‘Guests arrive at a party and are inevitably surprised to see such unexpected delights.'
Coming up with elaborate productions and themes has never been a problem for Herns. Born into a theatrical family (his father was an actor, his mom a choreographer), Herns studied music in college and was a professional drummer for 10 years. He then switched careers, concentrating on his culinary skills as a restaurant chef. Soon after, Herns was introduced to the special events business when he was hired to coordinate parties for a production company. After spending the next three years jazzing up parties for someone else's company, Herns decided to start his own business. His wife Henri Mansfield, an English designer whom he met on a cooking job, helps complete clients' parties with table centerpieces and custom-made invitations. ‘This business gives me the opportunity to combine my three passions – music, theatre and catering,' explains Herns. ‘I can't imagine doing anything else.'”
“In the realm of New Year’s bashes this year, one couple had Rick Herns of Rick Herns Productions in Redwood City, California, put together a do called “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” It is unrelated to the book, but featured the conversion of a staid country club into an elaborate garden maze trough which guests wandered to try to collect seven keys by answering questions correctly or winning games from a variety of characters, including a satanic magician, a nun and a gargoyle. At midnight, the seven keys gained them admission to a Secret Garden, where they found a fabulous dessert and champagne setup.
A Silicon Valley outfit called Silicon Graphics wanted to launch a new computer product. Rick Herns came in a did the flying saucer thing – an 18-foot saucer that flew independently (Herns won’t say how) right onto the landing platform…Very earthbound, however, was another Herns event where, to celebrate the completion of a new house, he put on a dinner that features blueprint place settings, Lincoln Log centerpieces, food served on sawhorses and lumber, and metal lunch boxes.”
“Bay Area event planner Rick Herns, a former musician, describes an ultra exclusive event that played on the attendees' million-dollar egos. Herns works out of an historic Redwood City converted theater with sloping ceilings. There are purple chairs with yellow polka dots in the lobby that look plush and comfy, but turn out to be disconcertingly hard – they're props from a previous party, sculpted out of fiberglass.
The centerpiece of the event, Herns recalls, was a piece of equipment he bought from the Israeli army: a round machine, equipped with jaws, that was designed to dig up land mines and then fly off with them. The party was for the Young Presidents Organization, an elite group of company presidents under forty, mostly heads of tech firms. They were meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and had hired Herns to plan a shindig. On the night of the soiree, the young presidents were herded into buses and told that they were being taken to a dinner engagement. Meanwhile, Herns had hired the New Mexico National Guard to help him pull off a Roswell-themed bash.
‘Halfway out in the desert,” he explains, “They were stopped by the National Guard. I had Hummers and helicopters. Guys in suits and sunglasses boarded each bus and handed everyone dossiers. When they opened them, there was a letter signed with a presidential seal, which, of course, I'd forged.” The letter was ostensibly from Jimmy Carter, and it said that, unbeknownst to the American public, he'd been negotiating for several months with alien beings who wanted to form a trade agreement with planet Earth. Before they did, though, they wanted to meet the American business elite.
The young presidents bought it. ‘The YPO guys are so totally ego-involved in who they are that they believed it,' he says. ‘They totally believed it, because I had the National Guard right outside their windows and helicopters buzzing around. Think about it – if this were to happen, this might be the way it would happen.'
The buses proceeded to drive off the freeway and into the desert, an area that's just ‘hundreds of acres of nothing,' says Herns. ‘We set up a beautiful, pristine white tent and surrounded it with what looked like radar and scientific apparatus, just like in the movies.' The young presidents went in and were served dinner. When the meal was done, the Israeli machine, decorated to look like a UFO, flew into the tent and landed on the dance floor, where people in alien costumes climbed out. The bill for the whole charade? ‘Several hundred thousand dollars,' says Herns.”
And the elves, and the world's tallest cowgirl. You meet the most interesting people at Rick Herns' parties.
Coming up with new ideas is no problem for Rick Herns, a man known for his wild, inventive imagination. In fact, party producer and planner extraordinaire Herns says his biggest problem is executing his clients' fantasies. ‘They constantly come up with ideas that challenge us,' he says.
His latest challenge was someone who asked for a party with a Basque theme. After finding out what that meant – that the Basque region was between Spain and France – Herns went to work. “I had a man who caves anything out of foam make us some Gypsy cellar signs, got posters from the Spanish Tourist Board, did centerpieces that were actually edible using foods from the region.”
If a request for a Basque party was no problem, has anyone ever stumped Herns? “More typical,” he says “is a client who says ‘I want to have a party – what should I do?' and talking to people, finding out who they are, about their style and their budget, is part of the fun. It's my job to educate them to the possibilities and produce a party they couldn't have done on their own.”
His ease with and knowledge of the elements of a good party comes to him naturally. He is from, as he puts it, “a theatrical family” – his grandfather was a pianist who accompanied silent movies, his mother a choreographer and his father a regular actor in community theatre productions. “The tradition in my house,” Herns says, “was not Little League. My parents, brother, sister and I were always in some show.” Herns studied music in high school and college, and then worked as a professional musician for ten years.
His other passion was cooking, and, after starting at the bottom, he worked as a chef at the Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park for three years. So, with his experience in theatre, music and catering under his belt, he was a natural for the party business. “I didn't know there was such a thing as special events,” Herns says, but he was discovered and recruited by the owner of Crest Productions in Belmont, where he worked for three years. “They specialized in providing entertainment for conventions so, through them, I had experience working with name entertainers and got a lot of behind-the-scenes production experience.”
Eventually, Herns decided to open his own company, Rick Herns Productions, in Redwood City, and to expend beyond providing entertainment to providing food, graphics and stage sets as well. “It's still theater, really,” he says, “theater with no rehearsal.”
How does a Herns-planned party actually take shape? “First,” says Herns, “we set a date and find a site.” Although many Herns parties take place in the host's own home, if the crowd is large, possible sites are limited to convention centers and large hotels. For smaller crowds, however, Herns has planned parties in the lions' den at the San Francisco Zoo, in privately rentable mansions, at the Portola Valley Town Center gym (good, Herns says, for a nostalgic sock hop or prom). A personal favorite is the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, which Herns chose as the setting for his own wedding.
A Herns party really begins when the guests receive their invitations in the mail. For a sports-themed party, the invitation might be in the shape of a basketball or a stadium ticket. An invitation to a party Herns called Beach Blanket Barbara was a full sized beach towel decorated with a bikini-clad caricature of the hostess.
When the guests arrive, they could be greeted by almost anyone. At a Herns barn dance party, guests were greeted by the world's tallest cowgirl and a group of rodeo clowns (there were also pony rides for children and the world's smallest horse in attendance). At Beach Blanket Barbra, guests were greeted and entertained by The Funicellos, a doo-wop girl group of Herns' invention who wore bouffant hair-dos and sang songs specifically written about the hostess and her guests. 1,500 guests at a party for a high tech company at the Santa Clara Convention Center were greeted by robots and alien creatures before they had cocktails at the Cosmos Bar (a close relative, Herns says, to the Star Wars bar) and then ate dinner served from four giant buffet stations situated in an alien landscape with a 16-foot volcano and lighted Martian towers. Talk about (and Herns frequently does) the WOW factor!
Herns says that it is “fun and a challenge to take an idea and have the resources to pull it together with all the senses involved. A lot of people don't have the budget to do it all, but it's my job to give them the option.” Herns adds that he is happy to do a party for a six-year old for “a few hundred dollars” – a party that might include the appearance of a clown bearing half of a mysterious treasure map (the matching half is found under the birthday child's bed; when put together, the map leads to a buried treasure in the backyard).
Herns clearly believes that a party should be like a plan with a plot that has a beginning, a middle and an end. “You don't want to give it all away at the beginning, to have all the food displayed, the band playing and everything going at once when the guests first arrive.” Herns is also a great believer in interactive activities that act as icebreakers for guests. At a corporate Christmas party, a group of elves gave each of the arriving guests a number, and many people spent much of the party trying to find the guest with the matching number so the two of them could claim their prize.
“People go to a party to be transformed out of their everyday live,” says Herns. “They are often delighted to know that within a reasonable budget, we can change their backyard into Club Med or a Grecian palace of a cave or a winter wonderland.”
A City of Ziti
Pasta, not Rice-A-Roni, may be the newest San Francisco treat – but in this case, only for the eyes. All roads in this pasta city led to San Francisco, but a rigatoni road only leads to heartburn.
The creator of these spaghetti skyscrapers was Rick Herns of Rick Herns Productions. For Fiesta Italiano, an event produced for the Fisherman's Wharf, Herns was hired by The Anchorage, a shopping center in Fisherman's Wharf, to build Rome from sand.
Instead, Herns chose to use a more Italian material to build what he calls a “caricatured sculpture of San Francisco.”
He and his team experimented with different shapes, colors and sizes of dried pasta. Golden Grain, a local pasta company, donated the pasta and Anchorage provided an empty store-front at the wharf where the group could begin building an al dente San Francisco.
For three days, shoppers and visitors watched the best-known city landmarks rise up from 54 pounds of fettucine and lasagne.
Of course, the 8-by-8-foot sculpture could not be complete without the wharf, Victorian houses, Coit Tower, cable cars, boats and the Golden Gate Bridge, but its crowning glory to past architecture was the 6-foot-high replica of the TransAmerica Pyramid.
San Carlos man is top Bay Area event planner who specializes in the usual and theatrical
By Bill Workman Chronicle Staff Writer
Party producer Rick Herns of San Carlos has a reputation for being able to stock a client’s bash with unusual performers, like fire-eaters, belly dancers and acrobats on horseback.
But he admits that he was taken aback when he set out to hire Tim the Torture King, a Seattle entertainer who Herns had heard did bizarre things to his body.
Herns recalls that after tracking down the Torture Kind through “a series of stranger sources, like San Francisco piercing parlors,” he finally got on the phone with him to Seattle.
When Herns was about to give the off-beat performer his phone number, the other man could be heard casually asking someone to hand him a hypodermic needle – so he could scratch Herns’ number on his arm.
“I’m used to people doing illusions and magic, but this guy was the real thing,” said Herns, shaking his head. “He goes into a meditative state and does things like stick a skewer through his cheeks or lies down on shattered martini glasses and has guests walk on his bare back.
”Considered one of the top corporate event planners in the Bay Area, Herns, 45, says what makes a good party is good theater: “You have to have a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end,” building suspense throughout.
That formula was never more in dramatic evidence than at his media event two years ago for an Alameda video game company announcing it has bought CD-ROM rights for “Magic: The Gathering.” The popular fantasy role-playing card game.
Herns and a half-dozen Rick Herns Productions staff built a Renaissance village on a Fort Mason pier and populated it with actors playing costumed beggars, court jesters, knights and peasants who accompanied guests through a drawbridge into a castle-like interior.
There, in a gladiator pit, the fantasy gave was re-created as theatre by Herns, with the help of jugglers who snatched hurled swords out of the air, an illusionist “wizard” who disappeared behind a cloud of smoke, a whip-snapping stunt man from the “Nash Bridges” TV series, a pyrotechnic and a stunt horse trained to ride through the roar of explosives.
Herns said he had to “dig deep into my Rolodex” of uncommon performers and special effects technicians to pull off that one. He was also called on to write a script for the event. “Magic: The Gathering” is a complex game, Herns said. “It can take three to four days to play, but I had to present it in 20 minutes in an exciting way that would appeal to both people who were experts in it and people who knew nothing about it.”Herns got $40,000 for the event. “But I really didn’t charge enough,” he said, smiling.
Herns, whose party-decorated offices are located in an historic downtown Redwood City building that once housed the 19th century Alhambra Theatre, keeps a warehouse out back crammed with props, staging and costumes for theme parties.
Some motifs he offers: Oktoberfests with 10-foot-tall beer steins and giant pretzels; a pirate setting that can include a 4-foot-long pirate ship, Jamaican steel band, mermaid and parrots; or a Western scenario in which cowboy stuntmen hold a shootout (with blanks) at the party.
A San Francisco native, Herns was raised in a theatrical family that included a grandfather who played piano for silent movies, a jeweler father who acted in community theaters and a choreographer mother.
From an early age, he was prompted by his parents to perform with them, along with his brother and sister, in productions up and down the Peninsula. “There was no Little League in our house, only theatre,” Herns said.
As a teenager, he became a serious student of percussion instruments and studied classical music at San Jose State University, although he did not complete his degree work.Herns was already earning a living as a drummer in Bay Area rock bands when he left college after his junior year. “Like Mark Twain said, ‘I never let school get in the way of my education.’”
A professional musician for a decade, Herns eventually realized his prospects for recording industry fame were dim, and he turned to another passion of his, cooking. Starting as a vegetable cutter, he worked his way up to chef at the Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park.
With his background in theatre, music and catering, Herns was recruited into the event-planning industry in 1986 by a Belmont firm that booked entertainment for the Moscone Center and other large venues. The experience encouraged him three years later to start his own company.
It wasn’t long before Herns had made Ripley’s “Believe It of Not” for an event at which he and a couple of sculptors crafted an 8 foot square model of San Francisco- including a 6-foot-tall Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and Victorian houses – made entirely out of pasta, 54 pounds of the stuff.
Herns had been hired by the marketing director of the Anchorage shopping center at the wharf to build Rome out of sand for Fiesta Italiano, a promotional event sponsored by wharf merchants.
Confessing he had little expertise in sand sculpture, Herns said he came up with the pasta idea in desperation after he remembered seeing the remarkable Ferris wheel and carnival created from toothpicks that are on display at San Francisco’s Musee Mechanique.
Herns is already signed up to do a “millennium” party for the city of Los Altos, a big-band extravaganza that will put 2,000 people into a tent the size of a soccer field at the civic center on New Year’s Eve.
But he warns that anyone who is thinking of hosting a large party should get cracking. Entertainers, caterers and other who work the party circuits are getting four and five times their regular rates for the night.
“The truth is, you better reserve your Porta Potties right now,” he advises.