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DEANSPEAK
February 11, 2003
from Paul Dini

I’ve done a lot of foolhardy things in my life. Shot guns. Raced boats and dirt bikes. Worked cattle, rode real calves and mechanical bulls. Swam with sharks, handled rattlesnakes and tended bar in Boston, all three actions equally life threatening. Stalked grizzly bears, cougars, tigers (Sumatran and Tasmanian), rhinos, orangutans, wolverines, Komodo dragons and crocodiles in pursuit of the perfect photo. Fought off and escaped from those same cougars, wolverines and Komodo dragons when things got touchy. Dragged myself out of a leech-filled swamp after the Tasmanian tiger ditched me there. Survived encounters with purported witches, witch doctors and ghosts. Outran Indonesian pirates and out-screamed psychotic children’s TV executives. Wrestled, fenced and snowboarded. Hitchhiked up and down California accepting rides from rednecks, hippies, freaks, weirdos, bikers and Clint Eastwood. Said “Trust me, Mr. Lucas. I know I can write a great Ewoks cartoon!” Pursued a career in animation, dated actresses and authored this column.

“I’ve done a lot of foolhardy things in my life.”

Those and countless other dangerous, near suicidal and downright stupid stunts (all true, I swear) have earned me the colorful name of Pecos Paul Dini among certain friends while others just choose to make the crazy wheel gesture against their heads whenever I walk by. For most of those escapades, once was enough. I mean, video taping a charging moose through the windshield of a car while speeding backwards at seventy miles an hour was a thrilling experience, but one I don’t need to repeat anytime soon. Yet there is one impossible, completely irrational act that I insist on performing year after year – the annual Paul Dini Christmas party.

Before I go into detail, let me say one thing to the single men out there – never throw a Christmas party. Believe me, you don’t want to do this. It’s a hassle, it’s horrendously expensive, and if you’re planning anything more elaborate than throwing some pretzels into a bowl while you and your pals try out the new Gamecube you rightfully bought yourself for Christmas, than you are taking the holidays way too seriously and need to have your head examined. Besides, unless you are a total choad, someone will invite you to one of his or her parties. Do yourself a favor. Go to that party and forget having one of your own. There’s no cost, no aggravation, and nothing to pick up later except perhaps a cute companion to take back to your place.

Still, if throw a holiday fete you must, then read on, McDuff. I’ve sailed these waters many times and know where all the reefs are. Perhaps you will learn from my experiences, succeed where I have failed and throw a grand celebration that puts my next seasonal soirée to shame. And if you do, please invite me. After last December’s bacchanal, I’m sorely tempted to call quits to the whole thing. Oh it was fun alright, but as I type this column nearly two months later, I have as much enthusiasm for this year’s impending party as I would for another curse from my witchy Goth ex-girlfriend or a return bout with a certain man-eating lizard. (I know most of what I’ve written about so far reads like plots stolen from old Commander McBragg cartoons, but seriously folks, those things really do happen to me.)

Now where was I? Oh yes, the Christmas party. Done correctly there are few celebrations more glorious to behold. And mind you, I don’t mean to say that one must go into debt purchasing expensive decorations used only once a year and crudite platters that no one will eat in order to conjure up some fine holiday atmosphere. Having a handful of folks over for cookies, cocoa and the annual playing of Bert Kaempfert’s “Christmas Wonderland” will put anyone in a holiday mood, if they are in any mood to celebrate at all.

Naturally if I followed sage advice, my own or anyone else’s, I wouldn’t be chasing Tasmanian tigers through swamps 60 years after most zoology books (wrongly) told us they have died out. (They hadn’t as of 1985, but that’s another story.) The same is true for Christmas parties. When the seasonal spirit reigns, small is every bit just as good as big, but…I like ‘em big, baby! So if you’re going to do it, do it right! Put up the tree, no make that trees, one real, covered in vintage lights and the other aluminum, color wheel and all. Set up that grossly elaborate Lionel holiday train right there on the den floor where everyone is sure to step on it. Stock the bar, hire a band, call the party planners, say a Hail Mary and hold on! It’s Christmas party time, God help us everyone!

Now I mentioned party planners. They are important if you’re going to go the big stupid Christmas party route as you simply cannot plan and execute it on your own. My friend Shane Black knows this for every year he throws a big stupid Halloween party and he needs an army of minions to pull that off. Shuttle van drivers, special effects technicians, security personnel, I think he even had the US Marines helping out in some capacity last year. Me, I don’t do parties quite on Shane’s scale, but I need lots of help just the same. My personal party planners are a lovely couple by the name of Jay and Christy Lewis. If you live in Southern California and are in need of friendly folks to help you throw a fun event, I give the Lewis Events folks my highest recommendation. They especially excel at theme events and as I decided to go with an old Hollywood nightclub motif, that was right up their alley.

We quickly agreed that if I was going to turn my house into a Christmas-theme nightclub, I would need appropriate entertainment. I had already booked L.A. swing band leader Dean Mora to bring the cut-down Swingtet version of his much larger Modern Rhythmists band to supply the appropriate musical feel of the late 30’s/early 40’s. (Note to all swing fans: I cannot recommend Dean’s music enough. He is a true master of the genre and I encourage you to seek out his albums, “Mr. Rhythmist Goes To Town”, “Call Of The Freaks” and the just released tribute to Spud Murphy, “Goblin Market.”) Party planner Jay said he knew where there was an old WW II bomber for rent, just the thing to give my front yard that look of 1940’s authenticity, especially if we painted a sexy pose of Jingle Belle on the plane’s nose a’la Memphis Belle. A quick series of measurements proved there was no way the bomber would be getting up my driveway and onto my yard unless one of us got it airborne and then crashed there, so that was out. Also abandoned in the concept stage was the idea of getting a small herd of trained reindeer from an animal rental service to graze on my lawn. As it is, I have live mule deer coming down from Griffith Park each night to raid my flowerbeds, and the last thing I needed was an antler and hoof battle for species dominance while guests were trying to enter the house. In keeping with the nightclub theme, I had considered trying to hire a model friend who sometimes works with Dean’s band to perform her world-famous Martini glass bathing act inside a giant cup of eggnog, but was sure her horrified answer would have been “Eggnog?!? Not on this body and hair, buddy!”

In the end I decided to aim for more G-rated entertainment, and on Jay and Christy’s recommendation, hired a young actress they knew to play Jingle Belle and greet my guests at the door. Better yet, we would transform the entire driveway into a sound stage recreation of the North Pole with “Jing” welcoming party-goers to the filming of her first movie, a notion not so far-fetched, but more on that in a future column.

The day of the party, bedlam reigned from dawn until the first guests arrived. Jay, Christy and a small army of construction people worked all day to transform my backyard into a tented nightclub complete with real and fake palm trees, fire fountains and a bandstand. The driveway movie set went up too, beneath a huge Christmas Club theatre marquee Jay had constructed for the event. Me, I was busy doing the final booze run, helping the caterer set up and answering about two-dozen last-minute calls for directions. Small disasters flared up and fizzled out through the day. The refrigerator took it into its fool head to leak water all over the kitchen floor when one of the caterers forgot to close the freezer door. Writer and funny man Ron Zimmerman e-mailed to say he was showing up with his “posse”, no more then seven or eight additional folks-no problem, right? “None.” I wrote back, making a mental note to drag those three boxes of frozen White Castle burgers out of the freezer if we ran out of appetizers. The manager of the valet parking company called to say he was running a little late but assured me he and his team would be there no later than seven to meet the first guests at seven-thirty. At about four o’clock I decided the Jing movie set could use more atmosphere, but what? A-ha! Of course! The stuffed musk ox I had bought several years back to use as reference for the first Jingle Belle comic! Unfortunately the beast was now wedged firmly behind a ton of crates in my garage. Given the fleeting time remaining, there was no way I’d be pulling it loose, and after an hour of pounding, prying and swearing, I gave up in frustration. Around five-thirty there was a knock at the door and I opened it to admit a tall, good-looking young man a few years younger than myself. “Who the hell are you?” I demanded, staring blankly at the stranger. “Your brother, Bruce.” He replied, shouldering his way past me and dropping his overnight bag in my guest room. “Okay, and you’re here because…?” I said, temporarily spacing on the forty or so years of history I shared with the dude. “You invited me.” He shrugged. “I told you I wasn’t doing anything this weekend and you said you were throwing a big party and that there would be cute girls and that I should fly down from Monterey and make new friends.” “Oh yeah, I guess I did.” I nodded. “Well, cut up some lemons or something. People will be here soon.” The valet parking guys called again to say there was a ton of traffic on the 405 freeway and they were running later still, but would be in place and ready to start moving cars before the guests arrived, honest.

Things quieted down just after seven. With the food being set out, the band tuning up and my brother on duty to greet any early arrivals, I hurried into the bathroom to take a shower and make myself presentable for the evening ahead. I had just gotten all good and drenched when party planner Christy popped open the door to announce: “Paul! There’s someone here to meet you!” I growled something unpleasant as I pulled on a bathrobe, slipped across my bedroom floor and made my way dripping into the foyer. Standing there was Jingle Belle looking every bit as cute as she does in Bone’s illustration. I can tell you it’s quite a surreal experience to be wearing a sopping-wet bathrobe while shaking hands with a flesh and blood version of a character who has heretofore just existed as some lines on paper and a bobble head doll.

Yet the young actress, whose name is Virginia, was a perfect Jingle Belle. She had put together a near-perfect version of Jing’s costume and had done her homework on the character, too. She talked about what a hassle it had been to convince Santa to give her the night off so close to Christmas, chatted with her friends Gretchen, Ida Red and Polly on her cell phone and passed out treats and wisecracks to the arriving guests. She was so spot on that well into January party guests kept insisting that I must have hired her out of Central Casting.

At seven-thirty “Jing” went down to her station at the movie set entrance, Jay turned on the marquee lights and the Christmas Club was officially open for business. For about ninety seconds that is, then the all power blew out, plunging my home and the hill it’s built on into total darkness. Luckily the phones were still working, because the valet parking crew called to say they were lost and had no idea how to find my house and would now be forty minutes late. A few hastily shouted directions and a frantic rewiring job later, the power flickered on again just as the guests began arriving en masse.

Let me say this about my parties – once they start, I quickly go into this weird host mode where the entire evening passes in a blur. I remember little flashes but as I’m tending to my guests, I rarely remember much of what actually went on. After a Halloween party I threw some years ago I was stunned to find I had apparently hosted dressed as Captain Marvel, though I had no memory at all as to how I got the suit. But this Christmas, owing to careful planning and a crack support team, I actually managed to enjoy myself and get involved in some of the fun.

The guests consisted of a pretty thorough cross section of my friends, with a few enemies thrown in just to make things interesting. Lots of creative folks including artists, film directors, actors, musicians, comedians, showgirls, writers and assorted Hollywood lowlifes. True to his word, Ron Zimmerman showed up with his posse, which happily consisted mostly of gorgeous model types. On top of that, Ron brought me a popcorn popper for my fireplace. What a guy! Naturally many members of the Warner Bros. animation crew were also in attendance. One of my fellow Duck Dodgers producers staked his claim at Ida Red’s Saloon, the large, western-style bar that takes up most of my living room, and stayed there all night. I stopped by after a couple of hours to see how he was doing. “The food looks good.” He said. “My wife had some and really liked it.” “Cool.” I nodded. “Did you get any?” “No,” He answered. “I’m drinking gin.” “Oh. Not having anything else?” I asked. “No.” He replied. “Just gin.”

Chynna Clugston-Major drove all the way up from San Diego with her posse, each member stylishly dressed in vintage 40’s attire. The Chynna-girl does the party thing right, she does. Bongo Comics big shot Bill Morrison arrived with his lovely wife Kayre, who is the usual singer with Dean’s band. Though this was her night off, Kayre was kind enough to sing a few numbers with the band, much to the delight of the crowd. Wanting to get into the act, I yanked Jingle Belle on stage to join me in one of Dean’s best holiday numbers, his jazzy rendition of “We Are Santa’s Elves” from the famous Rankin/Bass Rudolph special. Naturally Jing protested the song, claiming it demeaned elves in general and insulted her personally. I reminded her it was a long walk back to the North Pole without airfare and she truculently joined in, though she loudly (and adorably) sang “Blah, blah, blah, blah, elves!” through most of it.

There were no more major disasters though a few problems did pop up. The parking guys finally appeared around nine and created instant gridlock trying to service all the cars lined up on my street. I asked the band if they could play the Tom Waits song “Jersey Girl” as a surprise for Kevin and Jennifer Smith, only to be told by Dean that with the exception of a few Christmas songs, they didn’t play anything written after 1937. D’oh! And then there was the matter of my brother who spent the evening toasting marshmallows over the fire fountain while flirting with an actress I used to date. “What do you think of her?” My bro asked me in a private moment. “I think she’s great.” I growled. “I thought she was great when we were dating four years ago.” “Oh, were you guys dating?” Bruce said. “That’s what I called it.” I frowned. “Remember when all I could talk about at Thanksgiving one year was that girl I was going out with who was on that TV show? The girl whose action figure I kept on my office desk in lieu of a photo? That’s her.” “You had a doll of her on your desk?” My brother said in disbelief. “I thought it was charming.” I countered. “No, dude, that’s creepy.” Bruce replied. “Oh well, that’s over now, isn’t it?” “Is it? You tell me,” I snapped, getting the strange sensation we were six and eight again and about to fight to the death over the space ship model we both wanted in our box of Quisp. “Well, it’s just that she just now invited me to go to London with her next month on a film shoot.” Bruce said with a casual shrug. I swallowed my gorge, muttered “Fine”, and turned my attention back to my other guests. In a wise and mature move, I determined it was neither the time nor the place for this discussion. Besides, Bruce was spending the night and I would have ample opportunity later to murder my brother in his sleep.

Responding to a scream from downstairs, I ran down to see a sensitive young lady staring in horror at the life-sized reproductions of the Komodo dragon and Tasmanian tiger mounted in my writing room. “Are those real?!?” She fearfully stammered. I assured her they were not. The dragon is a realistic carving done by an Indonesian artist well acquainted with the lizards while the thylacine is a near-perfect recreation made by a friend who constructs movie monsters. “Now the bear and boar heads in my bedroom, those are real.” I nodded. “Oh my God, it’s a charnel house!” The girl sobbed. “How could you own such things?” Rather than go on about my life-long interest in animals, my original desire to become a zoologist, the long hours I spent in the Harvard Zoology Museum analyzing the taxonomic similarities between sarcophilus, thylacinus and other carnivorous marsupials, and how a study of animal skin and bones benefits an artist in general, I decided to just make light of the whole thing. “Well, much in the same way that Superman keeps life-sized models of his enemies in his fortress of solitude,” I wryly began “So do I keep reproductions of some of the more vicious creatures that have tried to kill me.” I was hoping to affect a light-hearted, almost Seinfeldian tone, but one look at the girl’s wide-eyed frozen grimace told me I might as well have been giving her a lecture on the Great Pumpkin. Thirty seconds later she was out the door and gone, though I did see her pause long enough to slip my brother her phone number.

I did a fast patrol of the buffet table to make sure the food was holding out (it did, the coconut shrimp and chicken cordon bleu were both big hits) and then moved onto the bar. “We’re almost out of gin.” The bartender said, waving an empty bottle of Tanqueray at me. I glanced at my co-producer who had not budged from his stool all night. He simply grinned and pointed expectantly to his empty glass. “We should have some interesting Daffy Duck cartoons if this keeps up.” I told myself as I handed Christy fifty bucks for an emergency booze run.

A little after ten the party shifted into high gear. On the bandstand, Dean and his swingtet launched into a lively Spud Murphy arrangement of “Jingle Bells”. Jing herself danced nearby, merrily tootling along on a toy flute. Around the pool friends I hadn’t seen in too long a time danced, talked or kissed. The holiday spirit reigned and it felt very good. As I surveyed my domain, I congratulated myself for once again pulling it off. True, the party lacked the exhilarating danger of a rhino charge, but the probability for disaster had been about the same, and once again I had sidestepped trouble in the nick of time. Even without grounded bombers or strippers in eggnog, it was a celebration to be proud of, one for the ages. And wasn’t I the consummate holiday host? I had melded the beneficence of Fezziwig with the mystery of Drosselmeyer and made the personas of each of those Yuletide icons part of my own. Truly in this moment, I had become the King of Christmas. From the direction of the fire fountain I heard a woman’s voice rise in a shrieking laugh. “He really kept my action figure on his desk? That’s so creepy!” Suitably humbled, the King hurried back into the kitchen to refill the ice trays

The party started to break up a little after midnight and I was still throwing people out the front door by quarter of two. Soon after, Christy, Jay, Dean and the parking guys presented their bills, and the final total for everything came out to be maybe six dollars less than what Bush’s spending to invade Iraq. It didn’t matter. I’d have spent it all again and more. The party was a success, I was in a good mood and I had almost completely given up the idea of later smothering my brother with a pillow. Just before three, I closed the doors on the Christmas Club and staggered wearily but happily off to bed. I knew that if I never threw another over the top theme holiday bash again, I couldn’t have gone out on a better one. However, Christmas is only ten months away, and just between us, I’m starting to think Tiki.

P.D.

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