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Las Vegas for a milestone birthday bash? Here’s how to do it

By John Deiner
Washington Post.

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Whether the words “Viva us!” were the highlight or the low-water mark of an otherwise extraordinary evening is still the matter of some debate. But there’s no question that it marked a turning point for the 25 hangovers-in-the-making gathered in a Sin City hideaway to celebrate three 50th birthdays – those of my wife, Janet; our childhood friend Dan; and my own. That’s 150 years of us being us, hence our hard-to-pronounce and frequently misspelled moniker for the five-day mid-May affair: the Vegas Sesquicentennial.

As it turned out, if we’d known that a destination birthday would be such a hoot, we would have turned 50 long ago.

The King of Rock ’n’ Roll was a sequin-festooned surprise from my friend Kathy, who’d found him gallivanting in front of the Bellagio fountains and offered him a gig on the spot. (She’d later tell us that booking through an agency was way more expensive, and she just “wasn’t sure if you three were worth it.”) The Sunday evening party had been running at full tilt, with guests dipping their glasses into the whiskey sour fountain, filling plates with mass-produced Italian food and comparing notes from that day’s activities in the city that never lets you sleep.

Then he arrived.

Elvis bounded through the door of our two-level Vdara Hotel suite in a pompadoured frenzy, breaking into “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and – of course – “Viva Las Vegas.” Awkward bumping and grinding ensued, followed by a flurry of heart flutters during a spot-on “Love Me Tender.” The music subsided after about a half-hour. Then Elvis got comfortable.

After a few cocktails, a heaping plate of chow, enough in-character banter to keep things interesting and an encore run through his greatest hits, Elvis finally left the building. But he’d worked his mojo: A group of people who had been largely strangers several days earlier were now closer, having survived The King Who Wouldn’t Leave.

In a town known for its gambling, our birthday bet was continuing to pay off big.

Tips for your bash

So why a Vegas Sesquicentennial? The better question: “Why not?”

At first, it was going to be a low-key event. But as the word got out, our low-key event suddenly became … an event. Casual mentions in email exchanges turned into airline reservations. VS ’13 (easier to say than “Vegas Sesquicentennial”) was going to happen, and in a monumental way. And as with most things in life, there were lessons learned along the way:

• Don’t fret over the guest list. We did next to nothing to encourage people to attend – if we dropped the party into a conversation and it wasn’t acknowledged, we figured that there was no interest. Between vacation days expended and travel costs absorbed, we were asking a tremendous amount of people, so we decided to ask nothing at all.

Truth be told, once VS ’13 arrived and our 22 guests from eight states began dribbling into McCarran International, we were too tired to care.

• Sweat the details, even if it kills you. A friend who had planned a similar extravaganza in Paris for her 10th wedding anniversary said, “Create events and let people handle their own logistics. We are all adults (or at least pretending). Otherwise your head will explode.”

So the three of us concocted a bill o’ fare for the weekend, a grab bag of get-togethers that somehow always managed to involve alcohol.

Along the way, we held a midday welcome-to-Vegas cocktail hour; a group tour to the Neon Museum (a fascinating resting place for the city’s retired signage) followed by a downtown Las Vegas pub crawl; a raucous Preakness Party replete with ’60s-era snacks; a joyous midnight cocktail hour at the Nine Fine Irishmen pub in New York New York to ring in Dan’s actual birthday; and a final-day Vdara pool party in two rented cabanas.

We had a full house for every event.

• Don’t drive yourself crazy. OK, we did, but it could have been worse.

Before we got on the plane, we’d already done much of the heavy lifting. We’d procured and packed the mandatory T-shirts and goodie bags (with personalized mint tins, chocolate gambling chips, over-the-hill rubber duckies, etc.). We mailed out itineraries, Vegas maps and info sheets to all the guests.

On the ground in Vegas, we made grocery and liquor store runs, picked up the cake we’d ordered, hit the party store for paper goods, double-checked that Maggiano’s had our catering order for the Sunday party and unpacked the cascading drink fountain we’d lugged from New Jersey to make sure that it hadn’t cracked in transport. It hadn’t.

• Get plenty of sleep.

After four days of commingling, chatter had turned from “What do you do for a living?” and “Where are you staying?” to “How did we get home last night?” and “When can I come visit you?”

The last guests left only when we left with them. Ten of us bounded out of the Vdara for 3 a.m. cocktails at the Cosmopolitan, the posher-than-you resort next door. Janet was wearing a flashing cowboy hat (thanks, Kathy!), and Dan’s head was covered in a felt birthday cake.

Fifty years goes by in a flash. But if you’re lucky enough to assemble the remnants of your past, magic can happen.

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