Dana Karwas had two images in mind as she set about planning her 30th birthday party. It was to be the first grand celebration of her life. One image was the scene at the end of Fellini’s 8½, when a small brass band does a brief march on an Italian beach. Another was a persistent daydream about holding her friends hostage.
“I really wanted to kidnap some people and take them out to Coney Island,” she said.
So she did. On her birthday, a group of 15 people met in downtown Manhattan. At 8:45 p.m., three black cars showed up. Everybody was blindfolded, handed a bag containing a musical instrument and some drink, and then shoved into a car.
“The cars were instructed to zoom as a procession towards Coney Island,” Karwas said.
The blindfolds came off when they arrived. The late-October night was chilly—a wind blew and a slight rain had started to fall. The group was instructed to play their instruments, march along the beach and re-create the ocean-side scene that Karwas, who grew up in Missouri, had long dreamed about.
“It made me so happy, I think I cried,” she remembered.
They marched down the beach to Tatiana’s Russian restaurant, where, Karwas said, a table laden with “trays and pyramids of food” awaited them. They ate. After a performance that Karwas describes as a sort of Russian Cirque du Soleil—techno, trapeze artists, contortionists, neon lights—the evening evolved into an all-out dance party.
“And that’s when it kind of felt like a wedding,” she said.
As more people hit 30 unmarried and without children—without any real emblem of their now undeniable adulthood—the 30th birthday party has become an increasingly elaborate affair. For some, it becomes a sort of second bar (or bat) mitzvah—a full-on party with the celebrants focused wholly on the honored guest, and an atavistic return to the unencumbered joy of childhood parties. For others, the 30th is a pre-emptive declaration of elderly gravitas, where accomplishments and experiences thus far are elevated to epic proportions by a youth-obsessed culture. The 21st birthday is an amateurish bacchanal, a mere permission slip, usually memorable for the next morning’s ailments. The 40th is so far off as to be unimaginable. The 30th is where the real party is.
As a result, there’s been a proliferation of a different kind of save-the-date, like the e-mail we received last year, subject heading: “new year’s birthday / get your face melted.”
“I am turning 30 in December,” the e-mail read. December, at the time, was seven months away. “I know it’s a big commitment to trek out of the country for a 5-7 day party,” it continued, “but shit, when have we been known not to throw the parties that melt your face off.” More such e-mails followed.
“I am turning 30 in August (!), and I’m planning a birthday dinner at a restaurant in Carroll Gardens,” said another. “Let me know if you’re around, and if so, I’ll send you an invitation (yes, I printed invitations because I’m obsessed with my birthday).”
When the paper version arrived, it was lovely, like a wedding invitation, with an embossed green bicycle and elegant font on creamy paper. The card was as much a special occasion as the party, and we were reluctant to even throw it away. We sent our reply, put on a nice dress and were treated to a lavish dinner in a very nice restaurant that felt, well, like a wedding reception without the drunken uncles.
The Observer’s solicitation for more stories of extravagant 30th birthday parties at first yielded little.
“For mine I went to Grand Sichuan,” wrote one thirty-something. “I await your call.”
“A huge storm hit just before my backyard bbq and power was out for a week,” wrote another. “Not extravagant.”
“I ate a piece of steak in Nairobi by myself,” said a third.
But soon we were inundated. Those celebrating the end of their 20s rented houses in Costa Rica; they rented bars in Manhattan; they rented restaurants in Brooklyn. They rented party buses, in which they put 50 of their best friends and took them to Medieval Times in New Jersey. (“They all got crowns and big goblets of wine and beer and swords,” said the birthday boy’s wife. “It helps make a somewhat depressing age somewhat more manageable.”) The invitations were exuberant: “Think the Oscars … think of a Vegas nightclub, Kentucky Derby, or P. Diddy’s Hampton White Party,” said one invitation, for a party at a hotel in California.
In some cases, the planning was under way more than a year in advance. We called a young woman who was planning a birthday for her husband in August 2012 (she asked that her name not be used, as she wants to surprise him).
“So the tentative plan is that I would start contacting his out-of-town friends maybe six months in advance,” she outlined. “I would have everyone fly in, then rent a party bus, and it would basically be a treasure hunt from his parents’ house in New Jersey into Manhattan.
“We’ll probably rent out a restaurant for all those people,” she continued, “and then the next day fly to Vegas and then—this is a little over the top—but then we would go to a beach resort in Mexico to calm down.”
“Like a honeymoon for your birthday party?” we asked.
“That’s the vision,” she said. “If I’m going to take some days off work I might as well take a vacation.” Even married 30-year-olds were treating the birthday like a nuptials redux.
She said the birthday party would be “a different scale” than the couple’s wedding. They had 180 people there, and she expects maybe 50 people for the first phase of the birthday party. She said that she had asked her parents back in Minnesota how they had celebrated their 30th birthdays. Neither one remembered.
“A party bus makes sense; 30 is not old,” said one New York woman who works at a Manhattan private school and did not want her name used, saying she was embarrassed about her party. “My mom was like, ‘Your 30th birthday party is coming up, maybe we should have a nice party—you’ll never get married, so this is an excuse for a party.’” Instead of a party bus, her parents rented out a wine bar on the Upper West Side.
“My whole thing was that I wasn’t married and my younger sister’s married,” she said glumly. “There was just this overkill, in my mind, of ‘We’re throwing a party for you because you’re not married.’” Her parents came to the party, of course.
“I was dating this asshole but we’d only been dating for a month, and having him at the birthday put all this pressure on the relationship,” she said. “We had really good food. I didn’t eat any of it.”
Of the people The Observer interviewed, few wanted their names used, saying that they did not want to seem self-obsessed or made fun of for exaggerating something that wasn’t really that big a deal—even though most of them had in fact made a big deal out of it.
“The whole thing was tongue-in-cheek in a way, a touch of irony there to laugh at ourselves for having a 30th birthday party. We were playing up the cheesiness of Miami, with a stretch limo picking us up at the airport,” insisted a friend who did not want his name used because the excess of it embarrassed him.
He said that he remembered when his dad had turned 30—or maybe it was 35. “I remember a birthday my mom threw for my dad,” he said. “They had a really tight-knit group of friends and they had a cool adult party.”
Karwas, for her part, said that there was a way in which 30 felt like a “phantom turning point.”
“I think when I was 31 I freaked out and bought a bunch of face cream—I think that was my cultural reaction to whatever 30 is,” she said. “I believe 30 is a decade where big things happen to people, big career things, big family things.”
In the meantime: “Hey, I have no kids. I don’t have a mortgage, whoo!” she said. “Let’s celebrate!”