Doing a good deed without expecting anything in return is a mitzvah. Bringing peace and harmony among people is a very great mitzvah.
Not since Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball (which is still discussed in certain circles, dahlings!) has there been an invitation as coveted, an event so carefully orchestrated, or a tableau as magnificent as the one presented at last July’s “Bird Mitzvah” in New Jersey. African grey Soph was feted royally at his 13th birthday celebration, which spanned an entire weekend and drew guests from California, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia and England. One Floridian confided that he came from “SoBo,” his term for a town south of Boca Raton. Trendsetter Soph probably would have insisted on calling the area “NoPa,” “North of Parrot Jungle.” I, on behalf of BIRD TALK, attended the party of the millennium, and I’m going to share every detail!
The Bar Mitzvah Invite
My pre-invitation arrived in April. Inside the package was a white T-shirt emblazoned with Soph’s likeness. “Guess what I’m having July 29th?” it read. “Save the date!” The eagerly awaited formal invite was delivered in June. Inside the box, beneath a layer of red feathers was a porcelain plate fired with a photo of Soph, and in gold lettering, “Bird Mitzvah.” The invitation was embossed in gold on the back of the keepsake plate. The printed invitation was incredible. A red trifold opened to reveal a party of colorful parrots inside. “All my fine feathered friends are invited,” it read. “Cocktails, dinner, dancing, brunch” it detailed. “Ladies are requested to wear red or gray. Gentlemen, black tie optional.” Specially designed silver and red inserts included a response card, a Jumble, which, when returned with the response card, entitled the invitee to a special gift.
A card stating, “No gifts please; I am a very fortunate creature,” accompanied the invite.
Instead, Soph requested that attendees who felt compelled to give a gift make a donation to the Cecelia Foundation, which provides musical instruments to talented, but underprivileged youth. All of the inserts were embellished with either a red feather or Soph footprints.
Preparation For The Bar Mitzvah Party
I responded happily that I would attend Soph’s party. Then I shopped. After trying on every red and gray gown in Long Island, a backless, silver-shot charcoal-gray number by Laundry chose me. Gunmetal satin shoes completed the picture, and I was ready to meet the Prada, Gucci and Manolo clad crowd that was sure to attend. Because of one woman attendee’s quest for the perfect red gown, the Bird Mitzvah made the New Jersey section of The New York Times! The saleswoman had been so astounded at customer Patti Wigder’s description of the upcoming event, that she’d reported it to The Times. A sketch of a parrot wearing a yarmulke accompanied the column.
Let The Festivities Begin
Surprise! An invitation to a pre-party Italian buffet to be held the night before the Bird Mitzvah arrived. This was getting more fabulous
by the day! I registered at the hotel (Headquarters Plaza, Morristown, NJ) with an hour to spare before the Friday night bash and found a magnificent, tropical floral arrangement in my room. I pulled the card from the envelope to find little birdie footprints! The flowers were from Soph! I quickly freshened up and dashed downstairs to the ballroom. I knew I’d found the right place when I saw people wearing Soph’s message T-shirt — and there was Soph, himself, holding court from the shoulder of one of his housemates, Ed Moeckel. Flanked by uniformed hotel staff, they were posing for a formal photo to mark the beginning of the festivities. (Yes, Soph’s a male. Soph was originally thought to be female and, thus, was named for Bette Midler’s famous character. Eventually it was proved otherwise, but the name stuck.)
Dramatic floral arrangements of red gladiolus and carnations decorated the room. Edible centerpieces of bread, sprigs of fresh rosemary and straw-trimmed bottles of Chianti graced the tables. A magnificent array of cold antipasti tempted all of Soph’s guests. Mussels, squid, salads, cheeses, fine meats and artfully seasoned delicacies, including appetizer-sized gourmet pizzas, were the perfect first course to a meal featuring fresh vegetables and chicken with capers. Yum!
The voice of Andrea Bocelli emanated from the sound system. Chef’s-hatted waiters anticipated our every need. A seven piece “doo-wop” band, featuring sounds of the ’50s serenaded Soph. When several female guests got up and accompanied the band for one number, the bandleader dubbed them the “Soph-ettes.” Meanwhile, Soph presided over his own table, nibbling on carefully selected, bird-healthy snacks. When the band swung into a slightly altered Johnny Maestro oldie, “Thirteen Candles,” I shared the dance with the birthday bird and his other companion human, Ray Pietras. This fun, get-acquainted evening was topped off with trays of exquisite Italian pastries. Vowing never to eat again, I retired to my room at midnight.
All day Saturday, the hotel swarmed with decorators, florists, hotel staff and other party professionals. Lavish floral arrangements, giant ice sculptures (one in the shape of a parrot!), silver-sprayed parrot figurines, garlands of twinkly lights and plush toy hookbills transformed the lobby into a posh “parrotdise.” Cocktail tables sported red tablecloths overlaid with silver lame (in keeping with the African grey color scheme). Red place cards arranged on a silver cloth held huge cookies made in Soph’s image.
Upstairs, inside the main ballroom, Soph supervised the finishing touches, whistling and commenting from atop his “room.” “We don’t call it a cage,” explained Ed. “We don’t want him to get a complex.” The lighting technicians were working, finishing touches were put on the tables, and the birthday cake arrived. In the midst of all this elegance, Soph announced “Ed, I have to make a poop.” And so he did.
Promptly at 6:30 pm, I descended to the lobby, which was already a sea of gray-, red- and silver-gowned women and tuxedoed men. Soph, always elegantly feathered in gray and red, commanded a position of honor atop Ray’s shoulder. Three alternate drummers from the broadway production of “The Lion King,” dressed in full African regalia, provided the cocktail party entertainment. An elegant buffet table tempted guests with hors d’oeuvres to satisfy every possible taste and whim. A separate station offered red and black caviar, served on made-to-order blinis, and an array of flavored, chilled vodkas.
Japanese chefs created artistic sushi, and a seafood bar offered an assortment of shellfish. Tuxedoed, white-gloved waiters passed trays of delicate appetizers, while formally attired bartenders, sporting tropical motif bow ties, poured the beverages. Strobes flashed as photographers recorded the revelry. My dears, it was too fabu!
Suddenly, from above, heraldic trumpets commanded our attention. From the balcony overlooking the lobby, the horns dramatically announced the arrival of violinists, who then took their places on the staircase alongside the twinkling lights and plush toy parrots. The awestruck guests wended their way upstairs to the main ballroom for dinner as the musicians played.
The doors to the ballroom were thrown open. Gasps could be heard as Soph’s guests surveyed the tableau before them. Tables and chairs draped in silver and white glistened in the candlelight. Centerpieces of 50 ivory polo roses on each table were accented with life-size African grey figurines. Through the center of each flower arrangement rose a tall pole, upon which was mounted an antique, Victorian-style bird cage overflowing with flowers. Each cage was different, and an individual spotlight illuminated each one. At the front of the room, a 45-piece symphony orchestra played the Grand March from Aida as we located our seats.
The napkin rings were artificial birds’ nests with colorful exotic birds inside. The lavishly lace-trimmed napkins echoed the Victorian theme of the bird cages. A gardenia lay at each place setting. Table numbers were contained inside water globes embellished with tropical birds, lace and rosettes. An oversized champagne glass stood at each place, and inside was a curious assortment of edibles: a small chicken leg, two cherry tomatoes, something that seemed to be cheese from the top of a pizza, and a tiny sparerib. Soph personally selected the appetizers that comprised this “perch plate” — they’re his very favorite treats in the whole world. Ed and Ray shared Soph’s table. A customized tray, outfitted with a perch and oversized champagne glass, indicated the place of honor for the feted one.
Directly in front of Soph’s table, the birthday cake shone under a spotlight. Created by Colette Peters, author of Colette’s Wedding Cakes (and three other titles), designer of two of the Miller sisters’ wedding cakes (you do know Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece?), and creator of holiday window fantasies for Tiffany & Co., this confection looked more like porcelain than something edible. A Victorian bird cage, fabricated of royal icing rose above a white base of cake and icing. Exquisitely crafted, amazingly lifelike, edible sugar paste flowers filled the interior of the cage. Peters, who has appeared with her cakes on numerous television programs, including Oprah’s show on celebrity weddings, told me Soph’s cake took more than a week, and the assistance of a team of flower makers to complete at her studio in Greenwich Village, New York. Her next avian adventure will be a bird cage wedding cake!
Later, Ed told me that Peters had actually inspired the theme for the party. “Colette decorated three of the mantles of the White House for Christmas, 1998. A photo of her ice palace mantle appeared in The New York Times. Then it was a two-year quest to locate all the antique bird cages to decorate the tables.” Friends who challenged, “There’s no way you can top this” after attending a joint 60th birthday bash the pair threw two years ago also motivated Ray and Ed. “It occurred to us that Soph’s 13th birthday was on the horizon, so we decided to celebrate it with a ‘Bird Mitzvah,’ but we purposely didn’t make it religious, as we didn’t want to offend anyone.”
There was a brief ceremony, however, a chamotzeh or Ha-motzi, depending on the source, performed by close friend, Ben Rosen. A chamotzeh is a “blessing of the bread” somewhat analogous to saying grace or giving thanks before a meal. It is traditional for an elder man to give this blessing and then distribute the bread, or challah at a Bar Mitzvah or Jewish wedding. Following the chamotzeh, each tall candle surrounding the birthday cake was lit by a special person in Soph’s life, and a young girl read a poem written in Soph’s honor.
And The Fun’s Not Over Yet
The surprises kept coming. The room was darkened, and a large screen was illuminated with Soph’s likeness. The video that followed chronicled Soph’s part in planning the festivities and included a pre-party visit to veterinarian Warren Briggs at the Ocean County Veterinary Hospital for a checkup and wing-feather trim. Viewers saw Soph at home with his doting “Grandma,” Ray’s mom, Genevieve Pietras, and watched him riding in a limo to the airport for a winter sojourn in Florida. We saw the jet-setting Soph entertaining passengers on a plane and listened to his comments (most were done in voice-over by someone who sounded like a Catskills comic) on life and love.
The generosity of our hosts was boundless. Gifts of parrot-stemmed Murano goblets were dispensed to people who had traveled great distances, to those who had helped with party preparations, those very dear to Soph, or who had been bitten by Soph. At each table, there was one napkin ring that didn’t have a bird in the nest. The person with the empty nest was selected to keep the African grey figurine. The lucky individual to his or her right was designated as recipient of the Victorian bird cage above the table. The guest whose birthday was closest to July 29th was invited to take the centerpiece of roses. We all (nearly 400 of us!) then sang Happy Birthday to Soph, accompanied by the orchestra’s harpist and pianist.
The music was magnificent. Soprano Maria Zito-Kauffman of the Key West Opera, accompanied by the Orchestra of St. Peters by the Sea, treated us to a glorious rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night.” The orchestra, conducted by Father Alphonse Stephenson, who was conductor and musical director of A Chorus Line on Broadway, played throughout dinner. Gabrielle Stravelli graced us with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” wearing a different dress designed by Ed for each song. Appropriately, one frock featured a red feathered bodice, and another was all red, accented with a voluminous, crystal pleated silver wrap. Soph, ever the high-flying admirer, flapped his wings in apparent appreciation. Baritone Raymond Martin brought the audience to its feet with “Old Man River,” and finally, to prophetically end the dinner portion of the night, sang “Some Enchanted Evening.”
Afterward, we were ushered down the stairs, along a corridor lined with ficus trees and uniformed guards (to protect us from the paparazzi, no doubt!) and into a magical rain forest passage, complete with thunder, lightning, jungle noises, lush foliage and literally hundreds of plush African animals. We exited the tunnel into a whimsical African savanna. Tiki huts replete with a dizzying assortment of desserts and liqueurs lined the walls. A jungle-themed center island offered cakes, pies and other sweets. The wait staff, now attired in colorful jungle and parrot print shirts, anticipated our every whim.
Huge, stage-set elephants flanked the door to the main room, where another dessert and coffee station stood nestled among the palms. Tables and chairs were draped with tropical-printed fabric, plush monkeys hung from vines draped across the ceiling and huge animal cutouts lurked among the foliage. Plush lions and other jungle denizens peeked out from every quarter. There were no snakes. Ed and Ray had banished them from the jungle, because they didn’t want to spook Soph. Birds of paradise centerpieces, accented with gorilla and giraffe figurines, decorated the tables. Slender palms arose from each tabletop, turning the room into a veritable palm tree forest.
A 15-piece swing band struck up a tune in front of the spacious dance floor, as Soph calmly surveyed the scene from Ray’s shoulder. I’ve never met such a self-possessed African grey. Ray and Ed explained that Soph is a seasoned socialite, regularly attending parties and accompanying them to restaurants. Soph came to Ed and Ray from Bird Jungle in Ocean, New Jersey, and keeps the schedule of a pampered blue (grey!) blood, sleeping later in the morning than most parrots and often “power napping” in the afternoon. (Soph is always referred to as “Soph.” never “the bird.”)
Unwilling to break the spell of the evening, I left just before the lights went up after the last dance. I returned to my room to find a box of chocolates had been delivered. Soph again!
The Sunday Brunch
Sunday morning found about 100 of us downstairs at a private Catholic Mass Ed and Ray had arranged with Father Alphonse. Afterward, we all trooped up to the main ballroom for brunch. Miniature picket fence enclosures on each table were filled with flowers, and whimsical bird cages overflowing with blossoms decorated the glorious breakfast buffet. Soph dined on scrambled eggs and wheat toast, then circulated (alternating between Ed and Ray’s shoulders) among his guests.
That incredible cake (uncut the night before) stood illuminated beneath a spotlight. When dessert time arrived, three ice cream cakes, all bearing Soph’s likeness, were brought out to join Colette’s creation. Poor Soph, alas, was unable to partake of his own birthday confections.
Longtime BIRD TALK subscriber, and loyal subject of two double-yellowheaded Amazons and two cockatiels, Alex Matthews rhapsodized, “The Bird Mitzvah was incredible. Ray and Ed are two of the least pretentious people I know. They are so giving. Their generosity really shined through by giving 400 friends and family a memory that will last a lifetime. I’m still in awe when I think of all the events surrounding the three days — dinner, dancing, decorations, orchestra and the food, not to mention the fabulous cake. Soph couldn’t have asked for better parents. He’s top bird, and he knows it. Ray and Ed include him in all aspects of their lives. Soph truly is one of the family.”
The morning passed too quickly, and it was time to bid adieu to my new-found friends. Hugs all around, and I took my leave, my head spinning from the love, joy and glamour of the past 48 hours.
Yes, the beautiful people are back, and this time they’ve got birds!
Why not have a party for your bird? Of course not all parrots get to invite 400 of their closest friends to such a lavish gala, but there’s no reason you can’t adapt some of Ed and Ray’s ideas to your own specifications. Decorate your home or patio with bird-safe tropical plants and twinkly lights. Visit a local party store for parrot-motif decorations (they’ll have them in the luau section). Coordinate your color scheme with your bird’s plumage, and ask guests to dress accordingly. Play Jimmy Buffet tunes and island-style music on the stereo. Prepare bird-safe snacks for your pet, and supervise guests to be sure they don’t offer your bird any forbidden treats. (Remember, chocolate contains theobromine, which is toxic to birds and other animals.) Make sure your bird gets enough rest prior to the party, and allow it to retire early if the festivities seem to tire or stress your bird. Ask guests to forego gifts in favor of a donation to your favorite avian cause!