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Ending high school with a big bash; Lavish affairs gain popularity

There are benefits to being an only child like having parents willing to splurge on your graduation party. That's what Paula Stuhler did for her daughter, Kelsey.

Stuhler sent out 125 invitations last month for the backyard-and-pool party held Saturday. Her daughter also created a Facebook group to promote the event. Then there was the matter of renting the tent, hiring the caterer, booking the DJ and stocking the bar.

"We obviously are going to have a nice graduation party because we only get to do it once," Stuhler said Friday before her daughter graduated from Sweet Home High School that night.

The weekend marked the beginning of the summerlong graduation party season. More and more parents are spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on these celebratory affairs.

"They seem to get a little bigger and a little more intense each year," said Michael Forester, sales manager for All Season Party and Tent Rental in East Amherst. "I'm starting to think the parents are in a little competition in these neighborhoods."

Mike Schweikowsky, owner of Backyard Party Supply in South Buffalo, said he expanded his rental offerings to keep up with inquiries from clients who want more than just a tent, tables and chairs to celebrate their child's achievement.

Bounce houses were sold out at many rental companies.

"That's why we got them," Schweikowsky said, "because of the huge increase in demand."

Though some vendors have seen customers cut back on such extras in the past couple of years, many agree that the number of booked graduation parties is climbing.

Stuhler didn't rent a bounce house, but she did hire a DJ, arrange for s'mores-making at the firepit, ready the backyard pool and work with her husband to convert the garage into a game room. Her husband also stockpiled drinks.

"I swear," she said, "we have enough drinks for an army."

To make sure underage kids don't wind up sneaking booze, Stuhler hired a bartender.

She estimated that she was spending more than $2,500 on the party but said her daughter is worth it.

"She's just always made me proud," she said. "She's just a good kid. She's never done anything that's disappointed me. I just think it's good to reward good behavior."

There's no denying that hosting such events can be expensive.

A survey last year by GraduationParty.com found that parents spent an average of $983 on their child's graduation parties. More than half surveyed rented party equipment and purchased food from a restaurant or hired a caterer.

Several local caterers said their main source of business -- 75 percent -- is high school graduation parties.

John Fortini, owner of Chick-n-Pizza Works, has been involved with the family business since he was 12.

"Graduation parties create about six full-time positions for the summer," said Fortini. "I bring on extra prep cooks, delivery people, even an extra person in the office to help handle the extra volume of calls."

Other caterers also have expanded their operations due, in part, to the number of graduation parties they serve. Owner of Buffalo's Best Food, Kim Hammerl, said the number of parties gets bigger each year.

"They just don't want to do the work," Hammerl of clients. "Some people even hire a partial staff to maintain the serving of food during the party."

Once food is taken care of, graduates might begin lobbying efforts for extra options.

Forester said more people are asking about extra party supply items, ranging from dunk tanks to dance floors, but the costs can be prohibitive. Ultimately, while some parents opt to throw graduation parties that would rival a glitzy affair in L.A., many choose to stick to basic needs like renting tents, tables and chairs.

Even that is a big step above what many kids got a generation ago.

Wilson resident Diane Magoon said that when she graduated from high school, she got a nice dinner at home with a few friends and family members. So with her daughter's graduation over the weekend, Magoon tried to keep it simple -- as simple as it gets when you're cooking for 75.

"I think kids get too much stuff now," said Magoon, who didn't hire a caterer or rent a tent, despite owning a large house on Lake Ontario. "Everything doesn't have to cost you a fortune, and everything doesn't have to be overblown."

Stuhler recalled her own graduation party menu consisting of beef on weck, some salads and a beer keg back when the legal drinking age was still 18.

Times have changed.

Party-supply vendors and caterers have watched the influence of reality TV and event-planning shows create consumers who are more informed about their party options and increasingly ask about them.

Parents are also more savvy about scheduling their graduation parties. Many pull out their calendars weeks ahead of graduation day and scheduling when their child's party will be so there are fewer conflicts and less competition among party throwers.

"People don't really talk about it, but obviously they want their party to be better," said Kelsey, 17.

She admitted to being stressed about the fact that five other friends, or friends of friends, were holding their graduation bash the same day as hers.

"I'm hoping people will come by in shifts," she said. "That would be good."

Graduation party pressure and anxiety do tend to vary by gender, party vendors said.

"Girls are much more specific," Forester said. "When it comes [to] 18-year-old girls and 18-year-old boys, the girls care much more about appearance than the boys do. The boys just want you to bring a check."

He said he's gotten plenty of desperate, last-minute calls from parents who want a last-minute date change for a graduation party because a more popular girl is holding her party the same day.

"There's crying and upset people," he said.

That's why vendors like Keith Magiera, owner of Big City Tent Rental, make the bulk of their revenue during the graduation party "season" that continues through the second weekend in August, shortly before many kids leave for college.

"We're talking about high school kids," Forester said. "Right now they've got 80 friends, and next year they're not going to be talking to each other."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com and emazzu@buffnews.com