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Mitzvah-Palooza, Tom Petty!

A night to remember

New York City is known for its extravagant lifestyle. Mitzvah-Palooza was so over the top that it’s in a category all its own.

I was hired by the producer of the lighting to photograph a party at the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center on Nov 26, 2005, that he assured me “was going to knock my socks off.” I had no idea.

As the evening began, I realized what an amazing opportunity I had. I was not responsible for shooting any of the bat-mitzvah ceremony itself, I needed to photograph the performers and the lighting of the same. It gave me a freedom to experiment and take images that were so much more than the party itself.

It started with a bang. When I was handed the list of shots needed, it was a photographers dream.

Start the evening with “appetizers and cocktails” with Kenny G. Follow the kids to their “dance party” with Ciara. Everyone comes together in the main room for “introductions” with Fitty Cent. “Dinner music” with Don Henley, Joe Walsh, and Stevie Nicks. Have your “desert” with an acoustic performance by Tom Petty. And finally, end the evening with the “after-performance” by Aerosmith.

At the time, I didn’t even know the name of the family throwing the party. By the end of the night and the years since, I have come to know and realize just how despicable the people involved truly were. I can’t and won’t blast the girl whose bat-mitzvah it was, but her father definitely paid the price for his excesses.

Elizabeth Brooks’ bat mitzvah will always be called “Mitzvahpalooza.” Her father, David, died in jail on Nov. 1, 2018, serving a 17-year sentence after being convicted in 2010 for his role in what prosecutors described as a $200 million fraud.

In 2005, he spared no expense to celebrate his daughter’s Jewish coming of age. Brooks, CEO of DHB Industries, a Westbury-based manufacturer of bulletproof vests, went so far as dispatching his company jet to retrieve Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry from their concert in Pittsburgh. The garish display of rock ‘n’ roll idol worship was over the top.

Each room was decorated and lit to excess. R & B diva Ciara played to a packed room of teenagers underneath a ceiling covered with oversized butterflies. I have to be honest, in 2005 I didn’t know who she was, but the energy from the teenagers screaming to her music told me that I needed to find out who she was.

Walking into the room with appetizers and cocktails, I overheard more than one guest say, “Oh my God, that’s Kenny G!” His music was definitely there for the older crowd of parents and grandparents seated around the room.

The lights flashed and everyone moved into the main dining room where a huge concert-sized stage dominated the center of the room, surrounded by flower laden tables and trestles. Curtis James Jackson III, better known at the time as Fitty Cent, and now reduced to the even shorter moniker of 50 cent, took to the stage and brought a whole new level of profanity to what was supposed to be a religious ceremony. At one point his security guards came over and tried to grab my camera shouting “NO PICTURES!” at me. Fat chance, I slipped into the crowd and just kept shooting.

The same thing happened when Don Henley took to the stage with Eagles’ bandmate Joe Walsh and Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks. Security went crazy as Henley said from the stage, “What do you mean we’re at a bat mitzvah?” And he meant it. Henley was definitely not happy to be there as Stevie Nicks welcomed the girl of the hour to the stage with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Watch CNBC's "American Greed: A $10 million Party"

But the top moment for me was the moment I walked into the lounge, set up with tables laden with deserts, and a simple riser with a chair and an electric piano at the front of the room. We all sat on the floor at the feet of Tom Petty, who smoked from the minute he sat down and strummed magical music through his guitar. At one point he looked at me and said “Is this really a bat mitzvah? That’s what they told me on the car ride over.” As I shook my head yes, he launched into “Well, I won’t back down” and all thoughts of the Brooks disappeared for me. It was 45-minutes that I will never forget with one of my all-time favorite performers. It still is one of my favorite photographs.

The night came to an abrupt end after that when Steven Tyler made sure that no one would photograph him at the bat mitzvah. No matter what I tried I could not get by the security at the entrance to the ballroom. He was just not having it. Yes I was bummed when early cellphone pictures appeared of Aerosmith serenading Elizabeth Brooks, but my client was happy with everything from the evening and we sat outside and listened to the music.

So now David Brooks passed away in jail. Those of us who were there will always tell of the crazy night at the Rainbow Room when one party brought forth the excesses of corporate greed. It was a hell of a way to blow $10 million dollars.

MITZVAH-PALOOZA, TOM PETTY! for your collection


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