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Hoping the world attends her party

Published February 1, 2008


You don't hear much about sweet 16 parties.

Bat mitzvah parties, sometimes. Quinceaneras, this being Tampa. But Cassandra Pinyan's fantasy of a semiformal coming-out party seemed unusual even before her grandmother got involved.

Then it became an international incident.

* * *

It seems forever (actually it's a little more than a mile) from the gate of the Eagles to the cheery Keystone home of Ann and Terry Owen. Here, three generations of women sat at the kitchen table last week poring over color printouts of gangster characters, e-mails from France and catering estimates. It was all neatly organized even though they seemed to be planning this party on the fly.

"My friends are so excited about this," Cassandra said. "We've been talking about this for a year and a half."

There will be an old Hollywood theme. There will be cars with rumble seats and an Al Capone look-alike whom Owen hired for $150 an hour. There will pizza, chicken fingers and canned - must be canned - green beans, because that's what Cassandra likes.

And there will be contemporary music. "I love to dance," said Cassandra, a sophomore at the Cambridge School.

This being 2008, there is a campaign to get this party on MTV, and that's where the bid for publicity comes in. Cassandra got the idea from the show, and let's just say Owen ran with it.

She posted a handwritten sign on the lawn (amazing the deed restriction people didn't go ballistic), printed business cards and hit up customers at the office of her medical services business. That included the burnouts coming in to be drug tested. "See that pretty girl? Vote for her."

Cassandra is embarrassed, but she believes her party has a lot of votes, and that there's money from MTV if she's chosen.

Besides, she's used to Owen's ways. Ann and husband Terry took Cassandra in during a dark time in her mother's life. It's the kind of family that stays close, no matter what. Cassandra's mother, Melanie Saledas, lives in nearby Westchase and works in Owen's office. There are half-siblings and uncles.

They're all orbiting around the high-energy Owen, who always visited her sons at college and who rejoiced when they came home to stay.

The French connection happened this way: Someone e-mailed Cassandra on her sweet 16 party Web site. They said they were with French television. They said they were curious about this American custom of the sweet 16. Everyone was suspicious at first. But Saledas and Owen called Paris and indeed, a legitimate news organization wanted to do a documentary. As they explained it, young French women have coming-out parties at 18. But they should know that, hey, you're already a woman at 16.

So Saledas and Owen helped the crew get a deal at a hotel, and the party took on a new dimension: a filming schedule. They need to film the trip to a jewelry store to buy Cassandra her Irish claddagh ring. They'll need to rent Cassandra's birthday car. She's not ready to drive the car they will really buy her, probably in the summer. And so forth.

They don't mind doing it, Owen and Saledas say, because Cassandra is not a spoiled brat, not like you see on MTV.

No, she grew up in the kind of family where every child has to play a sport. She attended Christian schools because Owen was aghast at the disorder she saw at a public school orientation. She reads well beyond her grade level. She wants to be a marine biologist in the Navy.

Does she realize how lucky she is to have such a support system? "Oh, yes," she said, smiling broadly. "All my friends tell me, 'Cass, you're so lucky.' "

Between them, Ann and Terry Owen work three jobs. They'll do a lot of the decorating themselves - not to save money, but because it's their party. A 12-year-old grandson and his friend will be gangsters in rented zoot suits, as will one of Owen's sons.

There will be a college band, a real DJ and a guest list that includes personalities from Cassandra's favorite radio station. Beer and wine for the adults? The women couldn't decide the day I visited. Owen didn't even know how much the whole party would cost. "Five thousand?" she guessed. We all laughed.

They were on pins and needles to find out if MTV would choose their party.

"If they did, I'd get the ice sculpture," Owen said. "I'd get the extras. More gangsters." Her eyes teared up for a moment. "I just hope I can enjoy myself."

But in half a second, she was upbeat again, talking about New Year's Eve and Las Vegas and shuffling pictures of what the dance floor will look like and what the backdrop might have looked like if money really, truly were no object.

All for a girl who is sure she will stay in town for college.

Fast facts

To show your party support

Cassandra Pinyan's party site, where she is collecting votes, is at (There are three t's in brunette).


[Last modified January 31, 2008, 21:27:45]

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