This Man Is Having So Much Fun!

Stocks are down, unemployment is up, and everyone’s feeling lousy. Which is exactly why you need to spend time with Steve Kemble, the most rip-roaring, merry-making, extra-outrageous party planner the state of Texas has ever seen.

June 2009By Comments

Kemble, photographed at the Stoneleigh Hotel, in Dallas, on January 16, 2009. His clients are fiercely loyal, and he has the luxury of prescreening new ones.
Photograph by Brent Humphreys

Steve Kemble has thrown so many over-the-top parties it is hard to decide which one is most outrageous. A Canadian consulate event in 1996 would certainly be a contender. The theme for the Dallas gathering was “moose.” A custom carpet with a moose motif was installed beforehand. At the gala, a chef served salmon mousse, chocolate mousse, and a Kahlúa concoction called “moose milk.” Guests had their photos taken with a person in a moose costume. A real-life Mountie checked invitations.

The classic Steve Kemble party, however, does not rely solely on theme for its grand effects. Like a judge at the Olympics, one must consider different qualities. When assessing the level of difficulty, for example, some devotees of his work nominate a debutante ball in 2000. For this occasion, the Dallas Opera’s rehearsal hall at Fair Park was outfitted with white carpeting and seven thousand yards of white spandex drapes. Belgian artist Jean Francois painted portraits of debutantes to the tune “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and serving bowls and a fifteen-foot buffet table were carved entirely out of ice. Other admirers, evaluating ambition and scale, have proposed a 2007 wedding at the Grand Ole Opry as his masterpiece. A custom arrangement of “Oh Happy Day” was sung by a 46-member gospel choir led by one of the song’s original recording artists. Any guests who weren’t sufficiently impressed had time to reconsider after leaving the party and driving by a roadside billboard with the song title plastered on it.

Many event planners in Kemble’s hometown of Dallas, such as the city’s predominant party designer, Todd Fiscus, create elegant, modish affairs. But disciples of the craft agree that nobody in Texas pushes the envelope like Kemble. He is hands down the craziest party planner in the state. For one hit party years ago he requested that a client paint the waiters light gold, dress them in Versace briefs and combat boots, and serve the guests appetizers off hubcaps. At the annual meetings for a major real estate company, he’s instructed the CEO to arrive in unusual ways, such as via helicopter or by skiing down a snow hill. This tendency toward the rare and marvelous is significant in Dallas, a city with a reputation for decadence. In some circles, Kemble is regarded as the man who single-handedly resurrected the audacious Dallas parties of legend at a time when the social scene had grown predictable. And across the country he is known as a 24-hour party person, an obsessed, eccentric, anal-retentive genius who is able to pull off stunts others wouldn’t attempt in any economic climate, fair or foul.

When I told Kemble last fall that I wanted to attend one of his parties with him, he said, “Oh, I’d love for you to see something fun and fabulous!” He ran down a list of projects: an opening for a new residential high-rise in Boston, a wedding for major league pitcher Kyle Farnsworth in Savannah, Georgia. “I’m working on a party for this adorable little girl in some of the Huggies baby commercials,” he said. “I love that.” A few weeks later, he had found the perfect event—a private Christmas party in Dallas—and confirmed the date. The e-mail’s salutation was “SO FUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Kemble would be easy to spot in any crowd in the world. He labors over his attire, which usually includes some combination of Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino, Gucci, Issey Miyake, Prada, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Richard Tyler. Many of the items are rare, such as a three-of-a-kind pair of $6,400 Gucci pants embroidered with a peacock design. (Madonna has a pair, Faith Hill has a pair, and Kemble has a pair.) But not all of his notable attire is couture. The fifty-year-old has been seen in public wearing a cardboard cake on his head. He has been known to walk into a party sporting a custom jacket made from the same material as the tablecloths. Some years ago, at a catering convention in New Orleans, he wore a red feather jacket, a silver tiara, and a copy of the Heart of the Ocean blue-diamond necklace from Titanic. Surprisingly, his enthusiasm for his wardrobe tends to impress even his most buttoned-down clients. One former businessman who hired Kemble for a wedding remembers meeting him at the site of the ceremony, a garden in Vermont. “Steve showed up in white tight leather pants and a white jacket with fur trim,” the client told me. “As we were walking through the snow, the garden curator turned to me and said, ‘If he falls off the stage, we’re going to lose him in a snowbank.’”

One night last fall in Oklahoma City, at a cocktail party at a hotel following an intensive bridal-planning weekend called the Wedding Workshop, I waited while Kemble changed clothes in his room. Kemble gracefully slid into the lobby, waving as he approached, his mouth in an open smile. He had replaced a white brocade jacket he had worn earlier with a dark-purple crushed-velvet coat and a lavender tie. His beard and mustache were trimmed into a Vandyke, and his brown hair, receding slightly at the temples, was trimmed short. Kemble had the dramatic energy of Richard Simmons, the comic timing of Pee-wee Herman, and the controlled, singsong laugh of a thirties movie star. Anyone not looking in his direction was doing so intentionally, to avoid staring. He charted his way through the sea of guests like a sailboat in a small port, stopping to chat with a wedding dance instructor demonstrating her salsa. An event organizer who stood with a shrimp hors d’oeuvre in hand took a bite, then held the meatless tail and asked Kemble, “What am I supposed to do with this?” prompting Kemble to whisper one of his party rules: “No napkins or tails or garlic.”

Kemble’s flair for the dramatic is no act. One day last winter in Dallas, he picked me up in his black Mercedes at 6:05 in the morning and began telling me about his day. “Last night after dinner I went to the Ritz until about two and then I got up at four-thirty-ish to return e-mails and I realized that a piece I needed to write for the Hartford Courant was due this morning!” He screamed. “So I wrote that up and I looked at the clock and it was five-forty-five, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God! I’m supposed to pick Katy up at six!’” We drove to Fort Worth, where Kemble recorded his seven o’clock radio segment, then we headed back to Dallas. He shouted as we flew down the highway: “Everyone, get up! It’s seven-fifty and we’re already on to our second stop!”

Kemble travels three weeks out of the month, and there is not a day when he is not at his laptop from five in the morning until ten at night—unless he’s doing an event, in which case he’s working seemingly 24 hours a day. (“I don’t need a lot of sleep,” he told me. “It’s a family thing.”) He has many long-standing clients, so he has the luxury of declining offers from new prospects. He spends a lot of time with a potential customer on the phone, a process he refers to as “prequalifying.” “It has to be a perfect match,” he explained, “because regardless of what the party may be—corporate, social, or nonprofit—I’m going to be spending a lot of time with this person, and we have to be able to get along.” Those who make the cut marvel at his abilities, particularly because he works solo. Clients such as Charlotte Jones Anderson, a vice president of the Dallas Cowboys, and Penny Pritzker, the founder and chairperson of Classic Residence by Hyatt, know that when they hire Steve Kemble Event Design, the party won’t be spearheaded by an assistant or a team, as it is with most companies. His resulting schedule may explain his penchant for very strong caffeinated beverages.

Despite a party’s cost, which can range from $10,000 for an intimate affair to $1 million for an all-out bash (Kemble’s cut is a flat fee determined in the negotiation process, though the industry rate is about 20 percent), his clients speak of him wistfully, as if he were the greatest vacation they had ever had. “People will always talk about these parties,” one of Kemble’s clients told me. “The ones I have done? Yeah, they’re expensive. But how much fun it is to work with him!” After complaining about a dull event she was coordinating, she began to talk about Kemble as if she had an itch she needed to scratch. “Give me a reason to throw a party again,” she said.

Big fun comes with strict rules. Kemble established his guidelines years ago. Rule number one: Touch all the senses. Kemble goes to great pains to create what he calls sensory points, and this objective often leads to a complete overhaul of a space. He doesn’t blink when a client walks into a hotel ballroom and suggests that he replace all the chandeliers or re-create the space to look like the client’s living room. In fact, he frequently re-carpets the event area in order to hit two sensory points at once: look and feel. “We’ll put a pad down and re-carpet over the pad,” he told me one day last fall, during lunch at the Four Seasons in Austin. “People walk in, and they’re just like, ‘Oooh.’”

Rule number two: He runs the party. “I want the guests to feel like someone is in control here,” he said. Some event planners check in at the beginning of the event, then hightail it. He wouldn’t dream of that. “I’m completely driving the mood and feeling, whether it be the music, the food presentation, whatever.” He insists on controlling the function as a conductor would direct an orchestra, which leads to a third rule: a new sensory point about every forty minutes. “It kinda makes me crazy when you walk into a party and it’s the same all the time. I want the music to change. I want the lighting levels to change. I want the food to change.” He’s bragged about an event at which he made 120 lighting adjustments. Because of his desire to direct the vibe, he stays until every last guest is gone. “I can guarantee you that with every party I do, there are, like, ten things that happen that I saw coming,” he said. “For example, the buffet is going to be empty in twenty minutes and I’m—whoosh—to the kitchen.” He began to imitate himself at a party, talking to the caterer through a big, fake, stiff smile. “That buffet out there? I know someone is watching, but I’m just making sure someone is watching it.”

Of course, Kemble knows that even the most perfect design can be annihilated by acts of God or upset by unforeseen developments, which is why he is able to forge ahead when, say, high winds destroy the hospitality tents at a professional golf tournament or a certain married businessman at a Fortune 500 company party requests a male stripper who turns out to be his secret boyfriend. What bothers Kemble more are avoidable annoyances. In particular, he hates cold rooms. He once tied a rope around the top of a lamb chop and hung it on a hotel meeting manager’s office door with a note that read “The meeting room is still too cold.” He discusses his pet peeves with a passion that some people reserve for teenage delinquents. Notable offenses include orange extension cords (“I’m like, ‘You went to Home Depot and there was black and green, and you picked orange?’”), napkins sticking out of dinner glasses (“Who thought that was cute?”), and garlic-and-onion breath (“I don’t want the whole party to smell like that”).

More than anything, however, he is bothered when people have sex at his parties. “I did a holiday party years ago at a wonderful couple’s home—an extremely nice, sophisticated party—and some guests came as Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus. Cute, fabulous costumes. Must have spent a million dollars on the outfits. Well, we’re having a ball, blah, blah, and somebody tells me, ‘We want to take a picture with Santa! Where did he go?’ Well, I went to look for them, and when I found them,” he whispered, “let’s just say they were making holiday cheer. Still in their outfits!

“I’m amazed at how often that happens,” he said. “These are nice people. These aren’t college fraternity parties.” He toyed with his salad and reflected for a moment, genuinely disgusted. Then a smile crept across his face as he continued, with a shrug, “But then I figure I must have created the most fabulous, romantic atmosphere that everyone wants.”

Dallas is a perfect match for Kemble. Though he grew up in Georgetown, where his father, brother, stepbrother, two uncles, and two cousins were football coaches, he set his sights on event planning, something that could happen only in a party-loving city. And he wasted no time in getting there. After graduating from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State), in San Marcos, in 1982, with a degree in public relations, he worked as an event planner on Congressman Jim Collins’s failed senatorial campaign against Lloyd Bentsen. Then, only six months out of college, he moved to Dallas to work for the chamber of commerce, promoting the city in Germany, Japan, Mexico, England, and Canada.

His timing was fortuitous. Dallas in the eighties was glamorous and decadent, and socialites could hobnob with celebrities every night at four or five lavish soirees. Countess Florence Crespi Howell, who had hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the forties and Ronald and Nancy Reagan in the sixties, threw a party for Jimmy Stewart at her mansion. In 1984, when the Republican National Convention came to town, the city’s socialites presented the appropriate dazzle. Every inch of the party scene seemed to be taken over with festivities. One woman even entertained the Georgia delegation inside her 1,200-square-foot closet. Kemble, wanting to do his part, served as the official elephant mascot for the entire year, losing several pounds because of the hot velour costume.

When he finally went into business for himself, in 1987, the initial stages of his independent venture relied heavily on trial and error. At one of his first events, for example, he decided on grilled shrimp for 1,500 guests, not realizing he’d need to enlist six neighbors to cook six thousand shrimp. Humbled, he devised a method to refine his approach. “I’m so wired after a party I’ll stay up for two hours and jot notes into my computer, then circle back with the vendors and ask them how we can improve the event for next year,” he told me. Were the guests into dancing? Splurge on a good band. Were they more interested in eating? Cancel the band. Need a gazillion grilled shrimp? Hire a capable caterer. He debriefed the client with his observations and together they devised a plan for the following year. He was hired back every time.

By the early nineties, he was on the verge of something big. “I wanted my brand to be fabulous, creative, dynamic parties, but not like something you saw two weeks ago,” he said. He was particularly good at branding corporations and nonprofits through their events and helping them use their parties as marketing tools. In a relatively short period of time, he gained enthusiastic admirers. In 1993 the following paragraph appeared in the Dallas Morning News: “Steve Kemble of Event Design was at the Dallas Convention Center on Tuesday to coordinate a party for 4,000 people at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association Convention. On Wednesday, he’ll be in Minneapolis for another meeting and the next day he’ll be in Washington producing an event called ‘The Ultimate Power Breakfast.’ We could go on and on because this is a 21-day trip ending at Laguna Beach, Calif., where he’ll organize a beach-side bike tour. To accommodate the changes in the weather from city to city, he’s filled six suitcases with suits, ties, shoes, overcoats, etc.” The writer added, in what must have been disbelief, “He also packed 14 belts.”

How does a person make a mark in a town known for its legendary parties? Imaginative soirees have always been a Dallas hallmark. In Fixin’ to Party Texas Style, former Morning News society columnist Helen Bryant wrote about an incarcerated Dallas stockbroker who orchestrated a rodeo for the visiting Princess Grace and Prince Rainier. A woman kept a full-size yacht in her backyard just for parties. One die-hard partygoer had himself presented at his own wake dressed in a tuxedo and propped in his favorite chair. And a businessman preparing to file for bankruptcy threw himself a final send-off at Union Station that featured several bands and a race car in the middle of the room (a touch that sounds very Steve Kemble, if you ask me).

Most of the excess rode the coattails of the oil boom, however, and when it bottomed out, in 1986, people who had frequented Dallas parties for many decades were inclined to believe that the truly golden years of extravagance had passed. The major hostesses held their own, of course. Imperial Russia was the theme of Nancy Hamon’s eightieth birthday party (see: Hagman, Larry, in furry hat), competing with her theme party a year previous, colonial India (see: turbans, live snakes). Still, most people who followed the scene noticed that corporate and nonprofit events had lost their luster.

That all changed—at least according to Paula Fenner, the director of catering at the Adolphus hotel—on the night of November 12, 1993. The event was the National Association of Catering Executives’ fundraiser for the March of Dimes. The organizer was Steve Kemble. The theme was Copacabana. “People wore five-foot-tall headpieces made of tropical fruit,” Fenner told me. She says she remembers looking around the room amazed. “That’s when we all went, ‘Okay, this guy is really going to do it.’” To clarify, I asked her if she thought Kemble resuscitated the Dallas party scene. “Oh, heck yes,” she said. “Yes, I do.”

In the years that followed, Kemble organized events with appropriately excessive Dallas joie de vivre. He planned an affair for 3,500 guests at Pioneer Plaza featuring the Kilgore Rangerettes, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, a cavalry unit from Fort Concho, fiddler Ricky Bowman, country singer Steve Fromholz, a German oompah band, and a cattle drive of fifteen steers (headed by Kemble, who dressed as a cow for the event). He presented a live burro at a Dallas cheerleading competition’s Tex-Mex fiesta. He brought in a large model of the Alamo, a beach with dancing lifeguards, and a herd of Fort Worth cattle for an international tourism conference at Old City Park. He created a martini bar made of ice for a party honoring Emmitt Smith. He outfitted the Dallas Museum of Art with a deejay and a Jamba Juice hut for former mayor Laura Miller’s daughter’s bat mitzvah.

He also got busy on the business of Steve Kemble. Yearning to become an icon along the lines of Oprah or Martha Stewart, he brainstormed with a professional team to market himself. In 2004 he was reborn as “Steve Kemble, America’s sassiest lifestyle guru,” a tagline that became somewhat like a personal theme song. He started working on publicity for himself three hours a day on top of his regular schedule, conducting a minimum of three media interviews a week. He was writing a fashion column for Us Weekly and appearing on numerous television shows, from Whose Wedding Is It Anyway? to Sheer Dallas, which aired footage of Kemble getting Botox shot into his forehead.

And though he is not yet a household name, his ambitions haven’t diminished. He recently began promoting a beverage called ViB, which claims to reduce stress and anxiety, on billboards around Dallas (the other spokesmen on area billboards were celebrity athletes Mike Modano and Jason Witten, but Kemble was the only one of the three wearing a Hawaiian lei). He wants his own television show, along with a line of cards, napkins, plates, and cups. He’d also like to plan bigger events. He hopes to create a Super Bowl halftime show. “I am so into pageantry. I just want it to be colorful, extravagant, with dancers and marching bands—a real halftime, not just a concert,” he told me. “I wanna do one really bad. And then, when I do that successfully, I want to do either the opening or closing ceremonies of the Olympics.” He bit his lip. “But I need to do the Super Bowl halftime first.”

His ability to diversify as half event planner, half media star proved to be his saving grace last year when the economy began to collapse. He indulged interviewers who wanted him to explain ways to create parties on a budget, though it was clear he lacked enthusiasm for the topic, and he began to notice that many of his high-end clients were toning down their parties, not necessarily for lack of funds but in deference to the current climate. Reassuring me that his events wouldn’t become hay barn hoedowns, he said, “We’ll use the same amount of money, but we’ll have better wine, less flash.” I couldn’t imagine Kemble’s private reaction to being asked to rein things in. It might be like Mariah Carey’s response to a stage manager’s telling her that the audience is sensitive to the upper registers, so would she please not belt out those high notes?

One Thursday morning last December, Kemble pulled up at an Italianate villa on Lakeside Drive that used to belong to Alex Rodriguez. He told me that this was his last big party of the holiday season. It was a private Christmas gathering for 150 guests at the Dallas home of Natalie and Mike McGuire, the daughter and son-in-law of the beer distributor Barry Andrews. In classic Kemble fashion, it would flood the senses with food and decor. But he didn’t stop there.

The house’s exterior decorations were appropriately Christmassy, with an evergreen wreath the size of a Smart car above the front doors, a life-size Santa display next to a fountain, and tall Italian cypress trees brought in specifically for the occasion loaded with tiny white lights. A small man in a baseball cap stood on a ladder in front of the house, Windexing the ten-foot-high glass doors in the entryway.

“Everything looks fabulous!” Kemble squealed as he strode into the two-story foyer.

“I know!” Natalie shouted back from upstairs. She walked down the front staircase to give him a kiss on each cheek. Clearly familiar with Kemble, she did not comment on his full-length black Gucci coat with a fur-lined collar. She was model-pretty, with shiny dark-brown hair and dark-brown eyes, and she talked in a Texas drawl as she took Kemble on a tour of the house, stopping only briefly to show him a decorated four-foot-tall white tree. “I had the florist move this tree centerpiece to the back room so we could have the front room table covered with white hydrangeas,” she said. Kemble nodded, then strolled through the three living rooms on the main floor, craning his neck to admire an antique-looking chandelier that the floral designer had transformed into an explosion of icicles, silver balls, and thin, silver-colored branches.

By 3:45, a full team was working in every room of the house. One man was setting up propane heaters and tables for the caterers. The caterer was constructing a kitchen in the garage. The entertainment vendor was working on the sound. The floral designer had finished arranging more than fifteen vases full of white hydrangeas and was now walking in with four bags of large white candles from Crate & Barrel. Leaf blowers were blasting debris off the grounds, and a man with several trays of white pansies was plugging the flowers into the front garden. “I’m off!” Natalie shouted, running to her hair appointment. The phone was ringing. The doorbell was buzzing. Kemble stood in the center of the chaos for a moment, smiling. He was hopped up on more caffeine than, frankly, I’d like to know, though he seemed as calm as a man getting his feet rubbed.

By seven o’clock, Natalie was dressed in a knee-length Santa-red dress and white fur wrap, and Mike, fit as a marathoner in his perfectly tailored suit, smiled and greeted the guests with a double kiss as they began to arrive. Men looked like Armani models; women walked confidently in their four-and-a-half-inch spiked heels. The guests’ eyes wandered to the second story of the foyer, where snowflakes the size of unicycle wheels were projected onto the walls. Garlands swept the stairway banister. A light, sweet scent of vanilla wafted through the house—and not a hint of garlic from the grilled Brie sandwiches or mini sausage rolls. Three crackling fireplaces on the ground floor gave the rooms an earthy warmth. At the top of the stairs, a group of ten men from the Turtle Creek Chorale were singing Christmas carols. Socialites who knew exactly which end was up surveyed the area like lionesses in the wild, aware of every bird’s motion on every branch around them. There was no trademark look, no one identifiable fingerprint. Still, the women concluded: Steve Kemble must have been near.

“Steve!” Natalie hollered over the chorale’s rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock.” “I want you to meet somebody!” Kemble was unmistakable as he glided through the foyer. No other man at the party was wearing a dark-silver Versace suit with a Nehru collar and a silver Yves Saint Laurent sequined vest. “Everything is so beautiful!” a woman told Natalie. “The snowflakes! The chorale!” As the guest looked around in awe, her coat began to fall off her back. Kemble jumped in to whisk it away.

Many in attendance knew him well. On the way to the coatroom, he was stopped by Kimberly Schlegel Whitman, the Pavestone heiress, who was wearing large diamond earrings and a black dress. “Well, hello!” he said, leaning back dramatically, then kissing her on both cheeks. “I saw your billboard!” Whitman said to him. He shrugged flirtatiously, then responded with a compliment of his own. “I saw your book,” he said, explaining to me that it was a big hardcover about table settings. “It’s fabulous!”

“Steve says everyone is fabulous,” she told me with a wink.

Troy Aikman arrived. Then Daryl Johnston and his wife, Diane. Then Lori Jones, Jerry Jones Jr.’s wife, who told me, “I guess in Los Angeles or New York you can get this type of party. Otherwise, it’s Steve.” In came her brother-in-law, Stephen Jones, and his wife, Karen.

“Where have you been?” Natalie’s mother, Lana, asked Kemble, leaning in for her kisses. Turning to me, she said, “This is awesome. A great event. It’s all about the event.” Lana was a petite woman with dark shoulder-length hair, and she wore a navy-blue dress and spiked heels. “Barry thought about not having a company party this year,” she continued, “but some people only have one party they go to during the season.”

“Steve!” Natalie shouted from a few yards away, and he was off.

Seven-forty: the first sensory-point change, right on schedule. The complete buffet, by George Catering, was brought out, overflowing with Texas blue crab dip, grilled chicken satay with pomegranate sauce, apple-smoked-bacon-stuffed mushrooms, and zucchini muffins with turkey breast and Parmesan mayonnaise. Kemble hustled between the catering kitchen in the garage and the buffet, making sure that the plates stayed full. Then he ran to the foyer to give kisses and take coats and say something witty before hustling back to continue his rounds. One man gawked at the buffet table’s mountain of white hydrangeas and the explosion of winter-wonderland decor and muttered, “Looks like Neiman’s in here.”

Eight-twenty: the second sensory-point change. Kemble gave the chorale a break and turned up the volume on a female vocalist hammering out some jazzy songs on her keyboard, so much so that a group of four women fawning over one another’s long manes had to shout over “Mack the Knife,” “In my next life I want your hair!”

Nine o’clock: the third sensory-point change. Natalie had tried a cocktail on a trip to La Jolla, California, and had asked Kemble to track down the recipe so she could replicate the drink at her party. The result was a custom cocktail called the snow bunny. “The snow bunny is Kahlúa and vanilla ice cream and Grand Marnier, all kinds of stuff like that. It’s like a milk shake,” Kemble told me in the foyer. “Very dangerous.” It did not bode well that a waitress with a tray of drinks got just three feet away from the bar before she was attacked by guests and left holding an empty tray, returning a few minutes later only to be attacked again.

Around 9:40, it was clear that people had downed their share of snow bunnies. The chorale, which had been on break, started another set, while the guests herded into the bar to sample more of the deadly cocktail. Soon afterward, folks became engaged in animated conversation. They didn’t move anymore when people tried to pass. A smorgasbord of cologne and perfume drowned out the scented candles. Natalie’s hairdresser extricated himself from a flock of devotees to say, “Steve Kemble and Natalie McGuire? I wouldn’t miss it. This is by far the best party I’ve been to this season. It just pulls out all the stops.”

Normally a Thursday night affair would end at ten o’clock, but as the night wore on, it became clear that the McGuires would be lucky if everyone left by midnight. Even after the chorale marched down the stairs and out the front door, guests were making themselves comfortable near fireplaces, arranging themselves on couches and sitting on armrests. Kemble hadn’t planned for more sensory changes, and yet some guests were still arriving. The female singer, who had taken only one break, was still plugging away. A woman started dancing next to her. Another woman, in the kitchen, looked at two friends sitting on the countertop and commented on their elaborate shoes. “Those look like a baby grand,” she said, then sighed and gazed longingly into the corner of the room. “Isn’t Daryl Johnston just the cutest thing in the world?”

Around 11:15, Kemble sensed a shift. “Ooo, I see a wave,” he said. “Let me get some coats.” Natalie began hugging her guests, who were now leaving in clusters. As she extracted herself from the final group, a woman approached Kemble for her goodbye. “We’re going to D.C. tomorrow to have dinner with the president,” she said. “When it’s all done, I’ll be like, ‘Where’s the party? Steve!’”

In her voice, I heard a yearning so common among his clients. She did not want to leave and suggested that the caterers remove the centerpiece so that she and Kemble could dance on the table. “Yes!” he said. And he seemed not only sincere but capable of running a few laps around the block afterward. The woman was thrilled. She kissed him on both cheeks. “You know, I tried to point you out to somebody tonight,” she said. “This man asked me, ‘Who’s Steve Kemble?’ I said, ‘He’s the one in the sequin vest,’ and he asks me, ‘What’s sequin?’” They both leaned back and howled.

“Some people just don’t get it,” she said.

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