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Valentine’s Day, all grown up

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Martha Kirkwood's annual Lovefest

Partiers at Martha Kirkwood's annual Lovefest eschew inhibitions for a Valentine-themed night of fun. (Illustration:

For the past nine Valentine’s Days, Martha Kirkwood has hosted what she calls “the high school party you always wanted to go to, but your parents won’t come home and bust this one up.”

Martha, mom to a 15-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, says, “Valentine’s Day is kind of like the un-holiday. It’s my favorite. Much more than who you love romantically, it’s a celebration of friendship and fun.”

In that spirit, she and her husband Andrew host around 200 friends each year at their “Kirkwood Lovefest.” Martha starts planning for the party before Christmas, setting the year’s theme and designing invitations. “One year it was all heart piñatas, one year was balloon sculptures, one year bubble machines.” Last year, it was papel piquado, the colorful Mexican cut-out paper.

Sounds traditional enough. But Martha is quick to point out, “It’s not a Valentine’s party. It’s a ‘Lovefest’ all about love. You know I just have a crazy mind.” Meaning crazy creative – and also hilarious.

The afternoon before Lovefest, movers transport all the furniture in the family’s living room to the garage. “I put all the couches I can fit in our breakfast room, and that’s the ‘Love Lounge,’” Martha says. A tent in the backyard holds dinner tables.

In the family room, where she puts the dance floor, Martha sets up the “Love Library,” which she describes as “a romantic library of books. It’s funny – the later the night goes, the less reservations people have about browsing through those books.

“But all that has to be boxed and taped up that night and hidden away for the rest of the year because God knows you don’t want to be caught with that!” she says.

Speaking of being caught, this is a grown-ups-only party. The Kirkwood kids get “farmed out with the same friends every year, who of course are coming to the party,” Martha says. But that doesn’t mean the kids don’t have their own fun. “The night before the party, I have a neighborhood Valentine’s party. We order pizza and turn music on.

“Saturday is the grown-up party. The kids are dying to come, but I can’t imagine that’s ever going to happen. Maybe as a college graduation present?”

For Lovefest, Martha hires a DJ and sends him a list of her “must-plays” – think Sister Sledge’s We Are Family, Madonna’s Dress You Up and Chaka Khan’s I Feel for You.

Early on, the DJ plays what Martha calls “ambience music. We’ll have appetizers passed. And then as people finish dinner we crank up the music and dance all night. Late-stayers are there until around 2!”

To get the dancing started, Martha creates a new drinks list every year. “The one that never changes is a sangria called Slut Punch.” On the menu sign she posts, the punch tag line is “order one, be one.” That’s the tamest of the drinks. “Everyone has to order the cocktails by name,” Martha says. “They’re really funny and tacky and adult-themed. It’s way bad!”

Martha is adamant that everyone is all in. Invitations read, “Don’t come if you don’t dance,” and she’s serious. “Last year I printed a notepad of party citations,” Martha says. “I walked around the party, and if you weren’t dancing or spent too much time in the backyard, or hadn’t complimented the hostess, or if you didn’t kiss your date, I’d issue a citation.” Punishment? “Appear in the court of party boredom.”

“We always, always have an old-fashioned photo booth like the ones that were at the mall,” Martha says. “One year, one of our best friends who is an oncologist took a series of pictures where he unbuttoned his shirt, one button, two buttons, all the way. That year our children had the same first grade teacher, and I photocopied that photo strip and gave it to her. The family was brand-new to Houston, and when they had their parent-teacher conference, the teacher said, ‘I saw some advertising from your office and wanted to show you,’ then she pulled out the photo strip!”

By Sunday noon, when the Kirkwood kids come home, movers have come and gone, and everything except the disco ball hook in the family room ceiling is back in place. What about the hook? “It’s my [year-round] reminder of the fun to come!

“I think when people tell me what a great time they had, the polite thing to say is, ‘Thank you.’ But I have to say, ‘I know, I know. Wasn’t it fun?’”

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