Dream Weaver

updated 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

TO THE UNINSPIRED EYE, the flat square of asphalt at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Madison Avenue in downtown Culver City, Calif., looks like a parking lot—the 6,000-square-foot one outside Sony Studios, to be precise. But Hollywood party planner Mary Micucci, who on this hot June morning is here making copious notes, envisions something else: a carpet of AstroTurf; cocktail-bearing knights in armor; trumpeters blowing fanfares; rose-petal-shaped confetti everywhere.

Transforming concrete into Camelot for the June 19 premiere party for the romantic adventure First Knight will be no problem for Micucci, 50. "It doesn't matter whether it's a parking lot, an airplane hangar or a warehouse with nothing but four walls," she says, eyeing the expanse of parked cars. "I just close my eyes, envision a blank palette and fill in all the details."

Details are her business. As the founder of Along Came Mary, Hollywood's premiere party-planning company, she has spent the last 20 years making evenings to remember, even by the impossible standards of Tinseltown. For the Popeye premiere in 1980, Micucci created a seaside setting, dressed waiters in striped sailor shirts and served—what else—spinach pie. For Forrest Gump in 1994, the menu included five shrimp dishes, and entertainment was provided by professional Ping-Pong players. A West L.A. parking garage became a ballroom on a Southern plantation, complete with white-wigged waiters and a blues band, for last year's Interview with the Vampire gala. And then there are her smaller-scale assignments—like Steven Spielberg's 1994 Democratic fund-raiser for 100, where Micucci served President Clinton key lime pie. "If you hire Mary," says First Knight executive producer Janet Zucker, whose 1987 wedding to director Jerry Zucker was a Micucci affair, "you can feel very secure." Carlotta Florio, Sony's vice president for special events, goes further. "Mary," she says, "is a visionary."

But even when stars are in her eyes, she's well-grounded. A Long Island, N.Y., butcher's daughter and former flight attendant, Micucci started Along Came Mary in 1973 as a bartending service. She now oversees a staff of 40 and grosses some $6 million a year. "The end result of what we do is always fun and glamorous," says Micucci, whose budget for a premiere bash runs between $100,000 and $300,000. "But behind the scenes it's very serious business."

Serious in Hollywood terms, anyway. In addition to planning menus with her three full-time chefs, hiring 18-piece orchestras and ordering some $20,000 worth of flowers for each occasion, Micucci knows where to find, say, 24 Renaissance-fair actors to brandish hatchets, as she did for last May's celebration of Mel Gibson's Braveheart. Getting the right look for First Knight is a special challenge for Micucci and company: It's another Middle Ages theme just weeks after Braveheart. But Hollywood's entertainment impresario has no fears of repeating herself. "Braveheart was rustic," Micucci explains. "We want to keep this much more elegant." Therefore, the stuffed dog corpse she finds in the medieval section of Sony's prop warehouse goes back on the shelf. But she adores the skinny swords. "I'd get a bunch of this stuff," she says excitedly to her art director, John Hoselton. "Keep with the silver and pewter."

By the afternoon of the premiere, the First Knight fete is set to go. Two months in the making—months when Micucci also planned an exotic jungle-themed opening for Congo and a Florida dinner party with palm trees and white muslin canopies for Apollo 13—the scene at Sony Studios' parking lot is an Arthurian extravaganza. Ten-foot Gothic banners flutter at the entrance; just outside, two trumpeters test their instruments. A wash of blue light gives the 79 dining tables (set for 1,000) a mysterious Old World glow, and Micucci, draped in a blue warrior's cape, orders a spotlight directed on the glistening ice-sculpture castle. Micucci makes sure her serving staff—decked out in armor, tunics and gowns from First Knight—follow her instructions. "We know the policy about lollygagging with the stars," Micucci reminds them. "You look great, everyone. Good luck."

First Knight's stars—Richard Gere, Sean Connery and Julia Ormond—arrive without a hitch, and when the lot hasn't cleared by 11:30, it's obvious that Micucci has masterminded another hit. Guest Blair Underwood is certainly impressed. "I love this kind of stuff," says the former L.A. Lawyer and theme-party veteran, who galloped into his own Camelot-style wedding on horseback. Micucci is pleased but beat. "It would be a pleasure," she admits, "for me not to do anything for a while." But her public would never stand for it. "This is great," Friends' Courteney Cox Arquette can be heard telling another First Knight guest. "I'm going to have a theme party in a couple weeks—I think I'll call Mary."

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