Picking the best services for a simcha is all in a days work

Now this was a party.

The bat mitzvah, held in a refurbished airplane hangar, was thrown and planned by one of the top event coordinators in San Francisco, with an army of hired help including hundreds of chefs, waiters, runners, hosts, valets and coat checks.

There was a runway fashion show, a circus troupe from Montreal and live music. The fashion show alone took 25 stylists and make up artists, with outfits from a major motion-picture company. A fast-food chain parked a van in front of the building for informal noshes. The evening ended with fireworks shot from a tugboat out in San Francisco Bay.

No, coming-of-age for Jewish boys and girls in the Bay Area isn't what it used to be, but most parents fight the urge to overdo it.

At the B'nai Mitzvah Vendor Fair in April at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, b'nai mitzvah memories that would be more down to earth — though no less important for their families — began to assume form.

For the kids, hip-hop dancers, day-glo candy and pop music from navel-baring divas were hot. Meanwhile, for parents, the one-day showcase was a welcome respite from multiple phone calls and shlepping down freeways in pursuit of top providers of b'nai mitzvah joy.

In all, more than 35 exhibitors showed up, and hundreds of families moved from table to table to inspect their wares and price sheets.

The showcase — the brainchild of b'nai mitzvah parents at Temple Isaiah — was the first of its kind in many years for the sponsoring East Bay community of congregations.

According to Temple Isaiah member Steve Wolfert, one of the fair's coordinating staff members, the idea was a no-brainer.

"I'm originally from the East Coast," he said, pointing out that his son Brendan will become a bar mitzvah in September. "A lot of organizations there do sponsor bar- and bat mitzvah showcases. We thought rather than run around and find quality vendors on our own, we could have them all come to one place and see the best of the best."

The vendors paid $250 each for the privilege of setting up tables, video displays and, in some cases, even turntables and speakers. They included event producers, DJs, dance troupes, hotels, caterers, country clubs, photographers and videographers. According to Wolfert, with such a strong turnout organizers hope to make it an annual event.

Out on the floor, families nibbled tasty samples, leafed through photo albums and picked up brochures — their preteens a few steps behind.

Along one wall, party industry veterans Steve Johnson and Richard Mayer entertained customers with displays from past b'nai mitzvahs. Both waxed philosophical about the enduring power of the event.

"It's more than a nice thing to look back on. It's tradition," said Johnson, a videographer. "Now the party, that's going to become very dated. The sound and style is going to be very dated. But the big thing is that everybody in the family will be there. Last night I had two sets of grandparents and a great-grandmother. They're going to pass on someday, but they'll always have them here" — Johnson said, patting the TV screen — "presented in a way that's very flattering."

Mayer, a photographer, agreed. Even more than weddings, the b'nai mitzvah is a celebration of a family's completeness.

"Unlike the wedding, you actually still have the grandparents there," he said. "At a bar mitzvah, it's the togetherness of family. When you think about it, a wedding is actually a break up. And by the time the wedding happens you often don't have the grandparents. That's why I think of it as just such a wonderful celebration."

So what's Mayer's price for all this good intention?

"Oh, I'm about $2,900," he said.

Elsewhere, event planner and caterer Barbara Llewellyn was showing off some of her kitchen staff's recent work: a smoked salmon rosette on Yukon gold potatoes, a crudite platter with pita chips and bevy of dips, and a chocolate and coffee buttercream cake shaped like a Torah.

"It's a very personal event, not unlike a wedding," she said. "It's also very kid focused. We do some creative things. Hamburger bars, pasta bars and Mexican food taco bars are always very popular. "

Joel Nelson, a wedding and bar mitzvah music producer for 24 years, remains one the most popular vendors. He greeted people at the entrance with his crew, who gave out candy-filled tubes to the kids.

With packages that begin at $850 and up, Nelson said he books between five and 10 events each weekend for his San Jose-based company, Joel Nelson Productions. He said he'd just been booked for an event that was still two-and-a-half years away.

Many parents at the showcase were planning for events as far as three years away. In Nelson's case, despite the lead time, some details wouldn't come together until the last minute.

"The song list you probably won't get until about three weeks before because kids' music changes all the time."

He pointed to one of his dancers — a trim, athletic type dancing to "Lady Marmalade."

"This new guy here, right now he's the hottest guy, brand new from Florida. Incredible dancer. We're always looking for new talent."

Back inside, Ilana Schatz of the Volunteer Action Center of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay was giving away pamphlets on tikkun olam projects for b'nai mitzvah. Among this year's suggestions: instead of floral centerpieces on the tables, wrap real gifts and donate them to low-income neighborhoods afterwards.

Tradition, convenience, tzedakah and more, the impact of the vendor fair was undeniably helpful for many adults. But for the kids, it wasn't necessarily clear that all in attendance were buying the shpiel.

"It's good. Really fun. I like the free stuff," said bar mitzvah-to-be Aaron Arnold. After showing up to do some planning for his party — his family's third — he and his parents were getting set to leave.

"There's only a handful of things you have to do for the bar mitzvah, really," said his mother. "But if you don't know what you're doing, you go the first time through and you get lost. You've covered the rabbi and the synagogue part of it, but how do you make it special for your occasion?"

She looked at her son. "Aaron, what did you learn here that you didn't know?"

He looked back at the chaotic scene inside and said, "That DJs give out candy."