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Theme Parties: The New Fountain of Youth

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Anyone can be a party animal...all it takes is a little creativity. (Dina Mann/CNS)

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Partying is so sweet: Images from Top R. James Reed's DioramaShiva party, Rebecca Gholdston's dioramarama, pictures from Joshua Jacobs' elaborate invitations for his "color" party, and (left) images from Rebecca Gholdston's art exchange party. (Courtesy of James Reed/Rebecca Gholdston/Joshua Jacobs)

Green cups were strewn all around. Pretzels were crunched into the wood floor. An intoxicated Kermit the Frog lounged on a futon. Had someone spiked the bug juice? Was Miss Piggy out of town? Had things gone awry on Sesame Street?

None of the above, actually. The scene was the living room of Jake Friedman’s New York City apartment. Kermit was one of several people who came in costume to a theme party Friedman had hosted to honor the birthday of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets and co-founder of “Sesame Street.”

Like Friedman, many creative entertainers are throwing parties that aim to elevate the festivities beyond plain old fraternization. These hosts are choosing themes, setting guidelines and having a lot of fun in the meantime.

For many of them, another goal is to recapture or hold on to cultural moments and events from their childhoods--and to savor those moments with friends. “Everybody who grows up in this country has certain things in common,” said William Helmreich, professor of sociology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. This type of party “gives people a common thing to think about.”

Friedman, 26, had plenty of Jim Henson material to think about and draw on when planning his party. His invitation on Facebook.com instructed friends to “dress Muppety” and promised that green drinks would be served. (They were.) To set the mood, Friedman downloaded Muppet imagery, which ran during the party as a slide show on his computer. He also screened “The Muppet Show,” “Fraggle Rock” and other Henson creations. “I wanted to get people excited,” said Friedman, who is a freelance animator by day. “My theory is to indulge the senses.”

Different senses were indulged at Joshua Jacobs’ Big Lebowski party, based on the cult film of the same name. Like Lebowski, Jacobs loves to bowl. Throughout the party, instructional bowling videos played on the television, and Jacobs, 26, showcased his multiple bowling awards.

Jacobs has felt compelled to throw parties since 2005, when he moved into his grandmother’s spacious New York apartment. (She had moved to Florida.) A former stand-up comedian who now works as a freelance cinematographer, Jacobs invests an abundance of effort in his shindigs. “I spend more time writing party invitations than my papers in college,” Jacobs said. His wordy personal invites go out via e-mail to between 60 and 100 people.

“Space” was the theme of Jacobs’ first party, in April 2005, a word for which his friends had a wide range of interpretations. There were those, of course, who came in garb that would be suitable for travel to the moon. “I had a friend who dated a guy who went to space camp, and she borrowed his clothing,” Jacobs said. Others dressed as visitors from foreign countries, wearing kimonos and babushkas.

Whatever partygoers wore, the costumes added to the fun. “When people dress up, it lowers people’s defenses to acting like a kid,” Jacobs said.

Acting like a kid is part of the appeal of Rebecca Gholdston’s arts-and-crafts parties, where activities have included creative paper cutting, modifying thrift store artwork, designing ironic T-shirts, and building dioramas. Gholdston, who is 28 and lives in San Francisco, said she gets some of her ideas from art displayed in local galleries. Bex, as she is known on her blog, the New Awesome, uses crafts to liven up her extended dinner parties. “I go to enough parties where people are just hanging out,” Gholdston said. “Everyone likes to party with a purpose.”

Rachel Rosen’s friend had a purpose when she hosted a diorama party in Berkeley, Calif. Rosen’s friend was moving and needed to rid herself of some collected tchotchkes. Guests brought their own shoe boxes, and the hostess supplied the materials, which included plastic dinosaurs, doll arms and tiny trees. “It was good for the inner child,” Rosen, 24, said.

Making and celebrating dioramas has become a popular party activity. At the DioramaShiva, in Eugene, Ore., participants show off their goods and compete for prizes, including Best in Show, Best Last-Minute, and Funniest. Contestants plead their cases for receiving certain awards. “People will do elaborate presentations with key points,” said James Reed, organizer of DioramaShiva. “Others will make 20-minute-long, moving, very personal presentations.”

Reed, 40, started DioramaShiva in 2004 and has hosted four diorama events since then. He was inspired by an episode of “The Simpsons” (No. 602) in which Lisa competes against fellow classmates in a fair called Dioramarama. Because that Web domain name was already taken, Reed dubbed his event DioramaShiva. (“Shiva” refers to the Hindu deity.)

The 30 to 40 people who participate in DioramaShiva choose their own subject matter, unlike the diorama makers at some theme parties. “Dioramas are more free-form,” Reed said. “You don’t need a hypothesis.”

This was not quite the case at the science-fair party Christopher Allen, 32, attended in Chicago in 2006. At that party, real and fake science experiments were presented by the guests, who were mostly in their 20s and 30s. “It allowed people to be creative and unique,” said Allen, who lives in Dyer, Ind.

While some elite party planners look down on themes, they can add creativity and fun to an event, especially for young people trying to hold on to childhood while they navigate the first few years after college. “I think between the ages of 20 and 40, people are much more concerned about getting old,” said the sociology professor Helmreich. At least while they’re partying, they can remain as young as they feel.

E-mail: dym2103@columbia.edu