Tom and Dawna Colbert are raising their family in a beautiful house on a hill in an upscale Camarillo neighborhood. It is a quiet, dignified street, unless it happens to be the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day.
That’s when the Colbert’s massive backyard is transformed into a giant day camp for the kids and the best party of the year for the parents. It is the annual Colbert reunion party, which this year will double as a fundraiser for Haiti relief. More than 150 people have sent in their R.S.V.P.s saying, “Hell, yes, we’ll be there!”
The core of this group first met in kindergarten, and the first big Colbert gala came the day after high school graduation. It morphed into the St. Patrick’s Day event in 1982 and was dubbed “Fandango.”
After getting booted from his parents’ house and outgrowing a rented hall, Colbert had an idea: Why not make it what he referred to as a mobile wake on wheels? So double-decker buses were rented, cakes were ordered, and the rolling party hit the streets of Los Angeles.
The annual meeting place was in front of the Colbert family house. “We had a Catholic priest come out and bless the buses,” Colbert said. “An LAPD officer on a motorcycle would lead [them].”
Alicia O’Connor-Van Der Veer is one of the lucky old-timers who has fond but censored memories of those parties on wheels. “The Fandangos!” O’Connor-Van Der Veer laughed. “The bus rides, yeah, those were really great. We would go to a restaurant in Westwood. From there we would go to another restaurant — they really were bars. We sang and danced on the buses, and our arms and legs would be hanging out. I didn’t do anything crazy but I do remember that trying to get back home was always hard.”
The bus party made a great annual TV news story about drinking and driving. It didn’t hurt that at the time, Colbert worked at what is now KCBS-TV. Tapes from those days are still in circulation.
O’Connor-Van Der Veer is currently working on a biography of her famous father, the late actor Donald O’Connor. She will be taking a break from interviewing celebrities (someone’s gotta do it) for the book in order to bring her own young daughter to the big party.
“One time, we were driving down Wilshire Boulevard and screaming out the windows of the bus,” she said. “We made absolute fools of ourselves and ended up on the news. I was showing my daughter some of that tape and was saying, ‘See that arm sticking out of the bus? That’s me!’ Now our kids are experiencing the party. I think the funniest part is, my daughter gets really excited about going, and it is almost like passing a tradition on to her.”
But as the wild bunch settled down with families, the tone of the party needed to be tweaked. “When I finally met my wife and started my businesses in the early 1990s, I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ” recalls Colbert. Now the barely-in-control atmosphere has been tamed into a family-friendly event. Over the years, there have been six marriages attributable to these parties.
This year, the guests will be met by a brightly colored Wheel of Fortune that will double as a game for the children and a game for the adults. Some of the prizes for the adults are surprisingly generous. There will be a two-night stay at the Mandalay Beach Resort, four Dodger tickets, a trip to the zoo. The pot of gold will go to the Red Cross for Haiti relief. Colbert figures the guests will welcome an opportunity to donate.
“After a few drinks, who knows?” he said. “I’ll tell them if they don’t have cash, they can leave an IOU.”
The true force behind the annual parties, and the reason they are so kid-friendly, is Tom’s wife, Dawna.
“When I married Tom, I sort of knew this was coming,” she said. “He has always been the social guy, so I anticipated this. We both love this stuff.”
Dawna figures she has spent more than 100 hours preparing for the event. “This has become my creative outlet. There used to be a time in my singing career that I would organize music performances. We have quite the support team, a group of regular helpers, primarily college students. If it weren’t for them, we probably wouldn’t be able to pull any of this off because it certainly is a lot of work.”
Colbert is often asked why he does this mammoth event every year. “We do this because it is the least we can do for our friends, and I realized as we got older and our own role models started to fall away, this is a wonderful second family for support.”
(The Colberts’ annual shindig requires a little more prep than a visit to the party supply store.)
1. E-mail invitations: at three months, six weeks, one week, follow-up calls
2. Hire band
3. Hire caterer
4. Hire magician
5. Hire and coordinate 10 workers
6. Order kegs
7. Put tent on standby
8. Design and order 30-foot banner for yard
9. Have costume designed and constructed
10. Order all the trinkets
11. Make all of the trinket toys
12. Design and make all games/crafts
13. Rearrange furniture
14. Set up crafts
15. Invite neighbors (in military parlance: “Conquer Your Perimeters”)
16. Inform police watch commander of crowd
17. Invite watch commander to stop by for drink after shift
18. Sit down and breathe