Read Zach’s New Short Story “The Return of the Bar Mitzvah King”
I have to Emcee a Bar Mitzvah next week.
No, not as a favor to a relative… This is a job I am contractually obligated to do. A job I consented to nine years ago. A job that will pay me to slow dance with a 95-year-old great-grandmother as “What a Wonderful World” careens throughout the ballroom of the Calabasas Marriott Hotel. A job that is part of an occupation so nerve-wracking and terrifying, that I once swore I would never do again. Here’s the deal…
Apparently, I did such a good job of emceeing Goldie Thalberg’s Princess Fairy Tale Bat Mitzvah Celebration in 2003, that her father – Alan – had booked me to be a part of his youngest child Max’s Bar Mitzvah – for the upcoming date of September 29, 2012… According to my old boss, Mike, I took a $1000 booking fee in 2003 – and signed a contract. I have absolutely no recollection of this event whatsoever, but Mike said that if I returned the1000 bucks, I could get out of the commitment… Unfortunately, thus far in 2012, I have made a grand total of 329 dollars.
Looks like I’m doing the Bar Mitzvah.
My career shifted right around the time of the Goldie Thalberg party, I was given a small break on television and I began working somewhat consistently – for channels like ESPN, G4 and Discovery Channel. I have not emceed a Bar or Bat Mitzvah since. I actually thought I was out of the game forever. I have not thought about Bar Mitzvahs at all – and in fact – I haven’t even been to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah since 2003. And I couldn’t be happier…
For seven years, it was my only job.
See, from late 1997 to December 2003, I was a part of one of the biggest Bar/Bat Mitzvah/Wedding party planning companies in the world. We controlled the party business in southern California, sending out charismatic party emcees and hot female dancers, adequate young DJ’s and aging cheese-meisters with grease-pan hairdo’s to turn boring parties into the greatest celebrations of a family’s life. The company was called You Should Be Dancing – and at one point, I was a high-ranking performer, desired and requested by Jewish families alike across the expansive California landscape. I sacrificed my Saturday nights for paychecks soaring well into the low four-figure range – all while making a fool of myself in front of a bunch of smiling Jews and their awkward offspring. From Candlelighting ceremonies to mother-son dances, I witnessed it all. The stories are endless and the experience was invaluable, but in 2003, the minute I saw even a slight crack in the window to try and escape, I did – and I never once looked back. Until my old boss called me last week.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” I said to Mike, my onetime supervisor. “When did I do this kid’s sister’s party?”
“2003, Zach,” Mike responded. “You need to call them and start working out the details… unless you just want to return the thousand bucks.”
Hmm. Return the 1000 bucks? The bottom line is, that thousand dollars was spent long ago when I used to have something called “money” in the bank. Long before kindergarten cost 25 grand per year – and way before I knew that “escrow” was an actual thing – not Sheryl Crow’s “hip-hop name.”
Did I have the thousand bucks? Are you kidding me? My wife and I are currently scrambling to refinance our house with some bullshit 2009 Obama-bank Re-Fi that we have been rejected for nine times already. I owe my kid’s dentist $847 for my son’s eight – yes EIGHT – cavities he had filled last month… (For the record, I have never had a cavity in my life, and my kid has brushed his teeth twice a day for 5 years… I am sending this quack to the board for review). I even owe my 90-year-old grandmother five grand because she executive produced the last CD my band put out. (According to my itunes sales, it has netted me negative -3,988 dollars since its release in 2010).
Right now, it’s looking like I am going to have to emcee Max Thalberg’s Bar Mitzvah… And I am scared shitless.
Back in the day, I had a pretty impressive Bar Mitzvah routine. It was cheesy and full of feigned spontaneity, but it worked almost every night. It always started with a traditional Jewish Horah, and went into me leading a choreographed dance to Think by Aretha Franklin -which was then masterfully mixed into the YMCA and The Time Warp. Then, I’d drop the CD in the tray for a hip, new rap dance song like Gettin’ Jiggy With it before closing the set with a popular funny jam like Stacy’s Mom by Fountains of Wayne. Then came the obligatory Sinatra send-off to get people to their tables for their salads, before I would toss on James Taylor’s Greatest Hits and hit the open bar for about 5 double bourbon and ginger ales. I’m guessing that the scene may have changed a bit since then.
“Look, Zach – I’ll send you out with our hippest DJ and some glow-sticks to give away,” Mike promised. ”It’ll come right back to you, you’ve always been a natural performer.”
“I don’t know, Mike, I’m so off on the new music and everything,” I said. “Is Mase still popular?”
“I doubt it… But don’t worry, we have a bunch of Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West and Fun and all that new stuff… you’ll be fine.”
I took a deep breath. Who the hell is Fun?
“How much am I making again?” I asked.
“Well, since you already took the advance, I’ll pay you what all the emcees get these days… $250.”
250 bucks. Not bad for a night’s work, but the pressure and anxiety I used to face preparing for and executing these parties was already beginning to creep back up on me. I wasn’t sure if it was worth it. I opened a bottle of red wine before stumbling upstairs to give my kids a bath. As I soaked them in the tub, I sipped the congenial, crimson liquid and leaned back… wondering how the hell my life had led me back here.
The first time I had to emcee a Bar Mitzvah was when I was 22-years-old. It was a Saturday night, the first summer I was spending in the real world after college, and most of my friends were out at the beach, sucking down Mexican beer and talking to beautiful women, deciding between playing the Rolling Stones or Snoop Dogg on some jukebox. I was stuck in a $50 tuxedo talking to a 13-year-old girl about which song I was going to play next: Barbie Girl by Aquaor MMMBop by Hanson. That night, as the familiar words to “Hava Nagilah” crusaded off the back wall of the party room at Temple Adat Elohim, I nervously took the microphone and was forced to direct the Horah dance as best I could. I had the men grasp hands and come to the middle, circle to the left, stop and clap, circle to the right… I even had to bring in a chair on which to seat little Joshy Schnozzleman as he was hoisted into the ceiling by a bunch of inebriated uncles and proud parents. I was 22 and nervous, breaking a debilitating sweat and completely unable to grasp the concept that I had graduated USC two months earlier with a Broadcast Journalism degree – and was now officially a “Bar Mitzvah Emcee.” I gave myself three months at the job, thinking in the back of my head that some great acting job would come along and take me away from Bar Mitzvah hell…
Little did I know, this would be my profession during my 20’s. Mike even coined a phrase for all of the employees. We had to refer to ourselves as the “Pied Pipers of Party People.” I am not kidding.
By my second year into the job, I had made some good friends. We were all actors and musicians, and we had a job that allowed us to get to auditions during the week and make a decent living on the weekends. Plus, once we figured out a way to have bartenders serve us alcohol during parties, the job eased up and became a lot more fun… And then the incredible stories started coming out.
At a wedding in 1999, a DJ named Ronnie Jacobs had sex with a bride ten minutes after her first dance in a broom closet.
Rick Freed slept with a 45-year-old mother of the Bat Mitzvah girl while meeting her to organize the slide show.
Brad Billings got paid $1000 to show a woman his dick at a wedding.
It went on and on.
The name that was thrown around the You Should Be Dancing offices nearly every day, was Paul Rudd. Apparently, in 1994 or so, Paul had worked at the company as a DJ and emcee before getting his break in the film Clueless. We all aspired to be Paul Rudd, and looked at this job as a launching pad to our acting careers. (Years later, when I interviewed Paul Rudd, I mentioned to him that I used to work at the same company he did… He laughed and asked me how I “got out.” – Like I had broken out of a Civil War prison camp or something). I even saw Paul on a late night talk show spinning stories from his days on the Bar Mitzvah circuit, and even those yarns were entirely inspiring to every one of us.
If he could get out, we all could…
After overdrawing my bank account for a Trader Joe’s purchase, I realized that there was no way out of the party. Thankfully, it was then that I realized that this could, in fact, be a great opportunity. After all, I had met plenty of Hollywood folks at parties over the years – maybe someone would like my dance rendition of Greased Lightning and offer me a walk-on role on Two Broke Girls? Heck, I used to DJ Bar Mitzvahs that Jonah Hill attended… back when he was the funny fat kid who ate all the dreidel-shaped sugar cookies. Maybe this party would open an unexpected door that I hadn’t even considered? I immediately called Mike and told him I was on the job. He gave me the Thalberg’s number and I dialed it up, preparing to fill out the typical Bar Mitzvah worksheet I used to live my life by all those years ago.
Here goes… I thought to myself.
“Hello?” Alan Thalberg said as he picked up his phone.
I promptly hung up.
Nervous and anxious, I decided to look up my old friend Rick Freed on Facebook and see if he was still working in the business. Sure enough, he was. He had branched out and started his own company called “FREED YOUR MIND” and was doing quite well. I messaged him and gave him my number. He called me within two minutes.
“Zach!” He screamed. “Dude! I saw you on TV last month! You’re killing it, dude! How’s life?”
“Not bad, Rick, how are you?” I asked.
“Still sleeping with Bar Mitzvah moms, bro!”
I was taken aback. Was he serious? Was he still in the game of Bar Mitzvah MILF hunting? He must be 42 or 43 by now… hadn’t the whole novelty of that all worn off?
Rick updated me on some of our old friends from the business: Good old Ronnie Jacobs got fired in 2005 when he hit on a girl who turned out to be 16-years-old. He thought she was 25. Turns out, she was a high school junior with an Accutane prescription. Last he heard, Ronnie was DJ-ing at the Spearmint Rhino strip club in the valley.
Brad Billings was a weatherman in Piggott, Arkansas. He had 5 kids.
Rick was, indeed, still sleeping with Bar Mitzvah moms.
“Wow, man… that’s crazy,” I offered. “Listen… I have to do a Bar Mitzvah next week and I’m a little rusty… can you help me out?”
Rick greeted me with silence. His heavy breathing sounded beleaguered as he slowly let his voice drop to a whisper.
“Are you serious, man? I don’t have any positions to hire you…”
“No, no -it’s not like that, man – I made a promise to a family nine years ago that I’d do their son’s party and, well… it’s been nine years. I have to emcee a week from Saturday. I was hoping you could give me some tips.”
Rick proceeded to break it all down for me. He was a lifesaver. His main point was that nothing had changed but the pop music. The dance moves were all the same, the Candlelighting ceremony and mother-son dance hadn’t changed – and they even still played Donna Summer’s Last Dance to close the night. The only thing I might need to do is help the dancers lead a choreographed routine to “All the Single Ladies” by Beyonce.
“Watch the video on YouTube and learn the moves,” he said. “Kids LOVE it.”
You have got to be kidding me.
After thanking Rick profusely and promising him I’d meet him for a beer in the next couple of weeks, I felt somewhat relieved that I might still be able to pull off the YMCA and Grease songs, but that All the Single Ladies idea scared me blind. I quickly Googled the video and began yelling at my wife across the house as I witnessed Beyonce and her dance partners do things the human body was never supposed to do.
“White people aren’t supposed to move like this!!” I screamed.
I finally called Alan Thalberg, who it turns out, had been shocked that I was still available. He promised me a fun night – and said that his kid Max was trying to get him to throw a Playboy Magazine- themed party. He wanted to hire actual Playmates to walk around and dance the Horah in a throne rather than a chair – all while wearing a monogrammed Hugh Hefner-inspired bathrobe instead of a suit.
Max was my kind of dude.
Over the next week, I organized a musical playlist and rented a tuxedo. I learned maybe 4 moves by Beyonce and just accepted the fact that my performance was going to suck. I asked Mike to have the DJ bring the equipment so I didn’t have to lug it all around, and he told me that it was all done on laptops these days. The 350-pound equipment I used to have to carry around was long gone. Everything could be run off of an amp and a MacBook Pro. I cursed the hernia I got from this job in 1998.
When Saturday came around, I avoided drinking beer and watching football during the day so that I would be on my game that night. I combed my hair, brushed up on some Travolta steps from Grease and left two hours early to guarantee I wouldn’t be late.
When I got to the Calabasas Marriott, it was as if had entered a time warp. The same worrisome caterers were arguing over how to plate the chicken. The uptight party planner stressed out over where the chicken fingers and pizza would be stationed during the kids dinner. Even the photographer, who had long given up his dream of becoming the next Walter Iooss, jr. in favor of party photography – looked the same. It was a black hole into 2003… Except now, I had less hair and no idea what these kids were listening to anymore.
When I got to meet Max, I didn’t remember him. After all, he was four-years-old when we had first met. He took me aside and told me how he had originally wanted a Playboy-themed party. Instead, his parents had forced him to have a Hunger Games theme.
“Totally gay,” Max said, the way only a 13-year-old can. “I hated that lame movie.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen…” I began, my palms sweating as the first crowd entered the room. “Welcome to Max’s Hunger Games! Please choose a weapon from the guest table and proceed to your local DISTRICT… also known as your TABLE!”
These are the exact moments why I quit the business for good.
The DJ I had been assigned to work with was named Gus. He was 23 and told me he was really an actor – but was only doing this job for a few months until “his career took off.” I laughed and wished him luck. I made sure he knew the routine… How to transition from the Horah into the YMCA, etc. and he told me not to worry. In fact, he had cued up every song on his laptop to play back-to-back.
“All I have to do is press one button, and we can coast until the salads are served,” he said. “It’s what all the big DJ’s do too, like Skrillex and David Guetta – it’s all total show. They get pad two million dollars to play a pre-recorded EDM track on their laptops.”
Even though I had no idea what EDM was, I thought back to how miserable we used to have it. I used to make sure I had a WALKMAN on stand-by with cassettes in case of emergencies. I dealt with CDs skipping, levels dropping unexpectedly and bad beat mixes between songs. Occasionally, music would come to a complete stop in the middle of a pulsating dance set… It was a DJ nightmare, and we dealt with it all the time. I used to have anxiety dreams about it the night before parties… Now, all Gus had to worry about was pressing one button. Spoiled little prick.
As Max and his friends took their seats at the Katniss Everdeen Table I suddenly caught the eye of a fantastically stunning brunette in a blue ball gown. She was probably 21, and her flirtatious gaze caught me off guard. What was this girl doing at a party like this? It was Saturday night! She should be out hitting the clubs… dating Charlie Sheen… whatever! She was radiant and young, sexy and enticing. And she was walking towards me…
“Hey Zach,” She said, coyly.
It was then that I realized. This sparkling gem of a female was none other than Goldie Thalberg. And she was smoking hot.
“Remember me? Goldie?”
I took a step back. Here I was, 37-years-old and married, staring at a perfectly shaped young woman whose Bat Mitzvah I had emceed nine years earlier.
“I go to UCLA now,” she continued. “I kept up with your career! You did some cool stuff on TV! It’s so cool that you’d come back to do Max’s party. Can we take a picture?”
“Uhh, sure,” I said, even though she had already snapped it with her iphone.
She turned back towards her table. I caught her looking over her shoulder a second later.
“Hey, save me a dance, will ya?”
Keep it in your pants, Selwyn…
As the evening rolled along and I found myself having no problem with the old routine, I did notice one peculiar thing about the kids. They weren’t interested in glow-sticks and flashy novelty giveaway rings anymore… All they did was TEXT. Every 13-year-old kid had an iPhone and was tweeting, updating a Facebook status and occasionally taking photos. At one point, a group of young girls asked to take my picture. I happily posed for them. They asked if they could “tag” me, and I said sure. For a moment, I actually felt kind of cool! Like I was back relating to the youngsters again, the way I used to do all those years ago…
And then, three minutes later, I got a Facebook update. They had tagged me on their page as “The douchey emcee at Max’s Bar Mitzvah.”
Following my terrible rendition of “All the Single Ladies,” where I just gave up halfway through, I found myself leading a “snowball” dance amongst the kids, where everyone changes partners. It was then that Goldie Thalberg asked me to dance. I obliged, and we awkwardly embraced in that junior high way that hormone-ravaged‘tweens often do. As I spun her in a swing-dance pattern, as a way to keep things lighthearted, I happened to catch Alan Thalberg’s eye. His furious squint said it all. He gave me a signal that I quickly read as “Get the fuck away from my daughter.”
I turned to Gus and told him, “Play anything fast – NOW!”
He did. Goldie went to eat dessert and I snuck off to the bar for a double bourbon and ginger ale.
“Dude, you’re not allowed to drink at parties,” Gus told me nervously.
Two drinks later, the party was in full swing. Max shot fake Hunger Games arrows at his family during the Candlelighting ceremony and Goldie got sick and apparently puked up champagne in the bathroom. As the four-hour extravaganza came to a close, I was relieved when I turned to Gus and announced, “Play Last Dance.”
Moments later, the party came to a superbly happy end. The guests sauntered back to their cars and into the San Fernando Valley night as Gus and I went to the bar for a beer before leaving. As per tradition, Alan Thalberg came up to us with cash tips in an envelope.
“Gentlemen, terrific job tonight,” he said.
“Thanks so much,” I responded.
“Zach, at least three of my friend’s have kids Max’s age and were asking if you’d be available in the next few months… I’ll pass along your number if you like…”
I swallowed my beer and looked at Alan. Was he serious? Suddenly, I was back on top! The one time king of the Bar Mitzvah had returned! I was in demand! For the first time in about nine years, I recalled that feeling of accomplishment and recognition after a live performance… That sense that I had brought happiness to the family and had been admired by the crowd… It felt good. Almost like I was willing to step back in the Bar Mitzvah emcee game once again… And after all, you never get cash tips after you nail a take on TV.
“Uhm, you know what, Alan… sure!” I said. “Give my number to whoever you want!”
Alan thanked us again and walked away. I watched Gus gobble an olive from the bar tray before looking up from his iPhone.
“Can I ask you a question?” Gus said.
“Sure,” I responded.
“How old are you?”
“37, wow! I hope I’m not still doing parties when I’m your age!” He said.” No offense, but I’m like, with the best agent now… and I’m doing a sketch show at UCB…”
“You sound a lot like me when I was your age,” I said.
Gus rambled on about how a girl from his acting class had co-starred on “Rules of Engagement” and how he hated reality TV – and then he said something that made me want to punch him in the nose.
“Did you know that Paul Rudd used to work at the company?” He blurted. “Can you believe that? He’s like, a comedy legend, bro!”
I slammed what remained of my beer and patted Gus firmly on the shoulder. I sauntered back to the DJ booth to gather my car keys and jacket. As I strolled out to the parking lot, I took one look back at the cracked façade of the one-time famed Calabasas Marriott Hotel.
A familiar thought rushed over me…
I am never doing one of these fucking parties again…
ZACH SELWYN * LOS ANGELES, CA. * OCTOBER 3, 2012