Inside Bette Midler‘s Legendary Hulaween Bash
We spoke with designer Douglas Little about crafting the annual celebration, which benefits Midler’s New York Restoration Project
TEXT BY STEFANIE WALDEK
Posted October 28, 2016
When it comes to Halloween, there’s a seemingly endless list of parties to attendâ€”but Bette Midler’s Hulaween fÃªte is certainly the one not to miss. Held annually to celebrate Midler’s New York Restoration Project (NYRP), a nonprofit that has been dedicated to bringing much-needed public green space to New Yorkers for more than two decades, this year’s celebration happens tonight at the Waldorf Astoria, hosted by Kathy Griffin. (Marc Jacobs will serve as the costume contest judge, and Darlene Love will be the music act.) We sat down with event designer Douglas Little, who’s been decorating the bash for years, to ask him about his inspiration for the party, as well as what advice he has for hosting your own. nyrp.org
Architectural Digest: How do you determine the theme each year?
Douglas Little: I usually start conjuring ideas early in the year and try to have them ready for Bette to review in June or July. The Divine Miss M likes to see wit and whimsy in the party decor, so it’s my job to take the traditional ideas of Halloween and shake them up. I draw inspiration from film and cultural references and see where it takes me.
AD: How do you make the decor feel fresh and different every year?
DL: I start with big ideas and cook it for a while until it reduces down to a usable broth. For me the devil is in the details, and I want the decorations to surprise and delight the guests. One of the ways that the decor stays fresh and fun is that Bette loves to see color, color, color, so this in and of itself is a great way of keeping things looking fresh and different.
AD: What decorations can we expect at this year’s party?
DL: The ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria is enormous, so it was important to push the color palette of the tables over the top to make them pop in the room. I incorporated Halloween orange, absinthe green, and corpse purple as the table colors, with sheer, black-striped table toppers to pull it all together. A pair of mannequin legs sticks straight out of the center of the table wearing mismatched striped socks and custom-designed glitter-encrusted witches’ shoes. The legs are firmly planted in a sparkly tutu to seal the deal. It literally looks like a witch has crash-landed into the table. I’ve called this year’s design “driving while hexing.”
Another fun part of the decor is the stage backdrop. As this is a “witches’ ball,” what better backdrop could we have than a giant Ouija board? I created a playful take on the spooky board game using the NYRP as the focal point for the design.
AD: What are some unexpected themes for a Halloween party?
DL: With Halloween there are no rules. One of the things I love about working with Bette is that she draws inspiration from far and wide and loves to mash up themes. For instance, Hulaween is a playful take on Bette’s heritage of growing up in Hawaii and her love of Halloween. Taking traditional Hawaiian themes and making them creepy is endless fun and puts a fresh perspective on the traditional black-and-orange palette. Zombies, headhunters, and witch doctors all fit perfectly into a spooky tropical theme, as do exotic fruits like pineapple and melons carved into jack-o’-lanterns. Exploding volcanoes, human sacrifice, scary tiki gods, weird tropical drinks and snacks, and bizarre color combinations can make for a night to dismember.
AD: What type of menu would you serve at a themed party?
DL: With cultural mash-up themes, you can riff off traditional food, which makes the whole event concept come to life in a spectacular way. Almost every culture has a holiday that commemorates those who have passed, and from here you can drive inspiration for a fabulous Halloween party with a unique twist.
The centerpiece at one of Bette Midler’s recent Hulaween parties.
AD: What is the most important thing to consider when throwing a Halloween bash?
DL: If I had to pick one thing, it would be lighting. Halloween is about a specific moodâ€”you want to create an air of mystery that is palpable. Dim all the lights (using plug-in dimmers if you don’t have dimmer switches) and light a million candles. Even if you do nothing else, this will give your space a fantastic mood that sets the tone.
AD: What are unique favors or gifts to give guests?
DL: Remember, the only thing that limits you for Halloween is your imagination. Nothing is taboo or off-limits, so you can really push the envelope. It’s important that your favor or gift ties back into the theme of your party. I have given my guests everything from a dried chicken foot tied with a black silk ribbon to a bottle of snake liquor complete with a preserved snake in the bottle to a miniature coffin (made for holding kids’ action figures) stuffed full of homemade truffles rolled in raw cacao powder.
AD: What’s your favorite Halloween party you’ve ever been to?
DL: I have a handful of friends who all enjoy the holiday, and a few years back, I thought it would be fun to put together a full weekend itinerary that culminated in Halloween night. It was almost like a planning a wedding, with a welcome reception dinner followed by two days of activities all inspired by the holiday. I did this in upstate New York and embraced all of the magic of fall. We hosted our weekend in a spooky vintage house and enjoyed pumpkin carving, a ghost hunt, fortune telling, and lots of delicious food and drinks.
AD: Whatâ€™s your favorite thing about Halloween?
DL: My favorite part about Halloween is the undeniable creepy-cool factorâ€”and that there are no rules, per se. You can have fun with whatever you are doing. The event design this year is very reflective of these ideas: It’s irreverent, funny, and also has a Hocus Pocusâ€“meetsâ€“Tim Burton vibe that gives it an edge.
AD: How do you feel about the traditional black-and-orange color palette? Is there any way youâ€™d change it up?
DL: I am a huge fan of vintage Halloweenâ€”the type that emerged in the 1920s through the 1950s. During this time period, paper and party decor companies like Dennison and Beistle were introducing fun and easy ways to decorate for Halloween with their paper goods. The decorations were built around the classic Halloween iconography of witches, pumpkins, ghosts, black cats, and spiders in the very traditional black and orange. I have always loved this lookâ€”it has a charm and magic that is undeniable. I have done many traditional black-and-orange Halloween parties, so I have a massive collection of vintage Halloween decorations that I haul out every year. When working in this palette, I tend to stay away from bright orange and look for more rust and saffron hues to give it a more vintage and romantic feeling. I also love using only paper products when doing this traditional Halloween theme: Lots of crepe and tissue paper decorations (such as honeycomb balls and twisted paper streamers) can create a very romantic atmosphere for this wonderful holiday. I also love a black-and-white Halloweenâ€”here again, I stray away from pure white and go for an ivory. Super chic and hauntingly elegant.
AD: Is there anything else youâ€™d like to add?
DL: If you can’t already tell, it’s my favorite holiday. It’s a day for fun, revelry, remembrance, and fantasy. Make it your own and make it whimsical. Wishing you the happiest of Halloweens filled with luck, magic, and charm!