“We’ve done hundreds of Zoom funerals”: How Toronto’s bar mitzvah kings created a booming virtual events business

“We’ve done hundreds of Zoom funerals”: How Toronto’s bar mitzvah kings created a booming virtual events business

For 20 years, Jian and Page Magen were known as the party kings of Toronto, organizing over-the-top bashes with celebrity cameos. When pandemic decimated the live event industry, they pivoted to hosting impromptu talk shows on Instagram Live, virtual trivia nights, and Zoom funerals. 

As told to Samantha Edwards

Jian: We’re Persian Jews, and growing up, we were the kids with funny names who brought shish kebabs and stews to school when most kids were having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a juice box. We wore $8 BiWay Velcro shoes when everyone else wore Nike Air Max. But we were exposed to the entertainment industry when we were young, and that had a huge impact on us.

Page: Our father was a world champion ping-pong player, and one of his childhood best friends was a wrestler, who ended up becoming the most hated man in pro wrestling: the Iron Sheik. When we were five, our family often picked him up from the airport and drove him to Maple Leaf Gardens for his matches. Watching from backstage, we’d sit on Andre the Giant’s lap and hang out with behemoths like the Macho Man, George “The Animal” Steele and Hulk Hogan. After the show, all these wrestlers would come back to our house, and my mom would cook one of her famous Iranian dinners. We were just small kids, but we marvelled at their showmanship.

Jian: We were hooked from a young age and became little showmakers. We’d stage wrestling matches in our neighbourhood and charge people to come and watch. We were always hustling. When we were 10 years old, we started selling and trading baseball, hockey and basketball cards at Dr. Flea’s Market, which was located next to our parents’ rug store in Mississauga. By the time we were in our teens, our parents were going through a rough patch. They’d opened the rug store right before the recession of the early ’90s, and it closed after three years. Then, a few of their real estate investments fell apart. All of a sudden our parents lost their jobs and our house. We were all living in a small apartment.

Page: When we were in high school, our friends asked us to organize an after-party for their fashion show. We had to find a venue, get tickets, figure out music and then tell people to come. We were like, we can make money? Let’s do this. To promote the party, we went to a bunch of high schools in Toronto, walked into classes and threw flyers into the kids’ faces. It was like we made it rain with flyers, long before making it rain was a thing. We got into shouting matches with principals—it was all part of our marketing campaign. We landed a venue, which was a place called Ardy’s near Bathurst and Elgin Mill. Around 1,700 people came, and we made $17,000. The cops shut the party down.

Jian: When we brought home the money to our parents, my mom thought we had robbed a bank. She couldn’t believe it. It was the launch of our business.

Page: We started throwing parties every month. Then every week. It was like, Halloween? No problem. Thanksgiving? No problem. Valentine’s Day? Sure. Bob Marley’s birthday? Done. We would make a party out of anything. After our parents’ business went under, we became the breadwinners in the family.

Jian: Throwing parties seemed like our ticket to a new life—so much so that we basically didn’t graduate high school until Grade 15 (our wives use that as roast material). After high school, I went to York University and got a B.A. in history, and Page went to Seneca for business. All through university, we kept throwing parties. We did Battle of the Bands, New Year’s Eve parties, even wrestling matches. We had a huge event at York University where we brought in our childhood heroes—wrestlers like King Kong Bundy and the Honky Tonk Man.

Page: One day in 2000, when we were in university, we were at a bagel place, hungover, eating breakfast. This lady came up to us with her daughter and said, “My 16-year-old says you throw the best parties. It’s my younger daughter’s bat mitzvah next year, and I’d love to have you help us with it.” We were just like, “Okay, lady,” and forgot about it. Six months later, we ran into the same woman again and realized the party was only a few months away. We weren’t sure what to do: in high school, we worked bar mitzvahs, acting as hype men to get people dancing, but we had never planned one before.

Jian: We had to rent all the equipment and carry it up to the second floor at this building at Yonge and Eglinton. We burned a bunch of CDs for our playlist. In the weeks leading up, we planned everything with acupuncture precision–what we were going to play and when, what we were going to wear. This was the early 2000s, so we played the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys, and disco, Motown and classic rock for the parents. We just zoned in on this one night. And it was magic.

Page: We started doing more parties–bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, Sweet 16s–until there were hundreds a year.

Jian: The parties were extravagant. We’ve brought in the Black Eyed Peas and other A-listers. One time, we took over a warehouse and turned it into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Another time we recreated a tailgate party and hired Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. Once we built a synthetic ice rink for the dance floor. My own wedding was a highlight—I got married at Maple Leaf Gardens, where I used to watch those wrestling matches as a kid.

Page: For 20 years, we work six days a week. We’d maybe get one of two days off after New Year’s or around the Jewish holidays. We worked with around 300 vendors.

Jian: When the pandemic started, we had to cancel around 400 events booked between March to June 2020. We were on the verge of bankruptcy. It was so chaotic: people were asking us for deposits back, moving their dates from spring to fall, asking us questions that we didn’t know the answers to. At first we returned deposits, but as our financial situation deteriorated, we started offering credit instead. Then all of a sudden, that was it. There was no one calling. It was silence. We went from getting dozens of inquiries a day to nothing. We started thinking, “What are we going to do? Is this the end of our business?”

Page: We had to furlough staff and temporarily close our office. Events were our whole livelihood, and we had no other income coming in. But we didn’t waste time pitying ourselves. Our parties created meaningful memories for families, and we still wanted to do that kind of thing during Covid. I started going on Instagram Live and just talking to my friends. My audience built up, and soon I started an impromptu talk show. I reached out to people in my rolodex—comedians, musicians and actors—and because no one had anything to do, they usually said yes. My guests included the president of the Miami Dolphins, Rob Corddry and Cash Warren, a movie producer who’s married to Jessica Alba. I’d also have people come on to promote their charities and help fundraise for Covid.

People started thinking that we were experts at streaming and filming, when really I was just pressing “Live” on Instagram. Someone mentioned they’d watched a livestream of a funeral—it was filmed with an iPhone, and  you couldn’t really watch it. We have a long-time relationship with Michael Benjamin of Benjamin’s Funeral Home, and we told him we thought we could do funerals in a more meaningful way.

In the Jewish religion, the funeral has to happen within a day or two of the death. Then there’s the seven-day shiva, where extended family and friends visit the mourners and offer their condolences. Because of Covid, people couldn’t do all of this. It had to be all virtual. The funeral home didn’t have the experience to manage virtual funerals, so within a few weeks of the pandemic hitting, we were able to start helping them.

Jian: In the beginning of the pandemic, you could only have 10 people inside for funerals. We would use our high-end AV equipment to film the service and stream it so people can witness it in real time. We’d also stream the Shiva, which was very Brady Bunch–esque, with everyone’s faces in their own boxes.

Page: We approach funerals with the same seriousness as we would any other events. There’s no room for error there. We cannot mess it up. We want to create an experience that makes it feel like you’re there. We have to think, how do we create that authenticity? It has to do with where the camera starts, how we follow the audience and pan through the guests, and all of these other ways to create connection for people watching at home.

Jian: We’re doing funerals every day. We’ve done hundreds so far.

Page: We don’t want to be defined as the funeral guys, but we like doing good for people. We planted our seeds as entrepreneurs in the Jewish community, and they’ve helped us get where we are. We’ll often get calls from someone’s cousin or aunt or someone else connected to a funeral and they’;; say, “I heard you did this funeral and I’m so grateful for your touch and that you were able to handle it with so much care.” Funerals are now around five to 10 per cent of our total business. They’re not a money-maker. It’s more about providing a service. We’ll continue to do the virtual funerals as long as the need is there.

Jian: We’re doing tons of other virtual events, like trivia nights at Raptors’ and Leafs’ half-time show. We put on a New Year’s Eve with comedians and musical guests, like members from Boyz II Men, and hosted Joy Drive, where we delivered tens of thousands of toys to Toronto kids in need. Now that in-person events are happening again, we’re doing micro-weddings. In the summer, we planned around 100 tented weddings with live music and entertainment, often with just a month’s notice. We were used to working two years in advance, and now we’re planning a whole wedding a month out. We planned one wedding with just 12 hours’ notice. Right now, you have to adapt to the times or else you’ll be forgotten.

Page: We also recently launched a partnership with Charitybuzz Canada, which is a charitable platform where you can bid on different experiences, like golfing with Barack Obama or a walk-on part on your favourite TV show. And we curate custom events for clients—like if someone’s wife loves James Taylor, we’ll put together a meet-and-greet at his next concert.

Jian: Our revenue isn’t even close to what it was pre-pandemic, but we can see the light. People keep saying, “Live events are coming back. It’s going to be the Roaring 20s, so you better be ready.’ And we’ll be ready. We were born ready. But now we want to do parties with a certain level of social responsibility. We’ve looked back at some of the excess over the years, and we’re excited to find ways to turn that into a social good. We’re going to partner with different charities so that the client can choose where they want us to donate to on their behalf. We also want parties to be more eco-friendly, with less waste.

Page: We’re lucky that we came out of this pandemic with a positive outlook. We’ve realized that the money isn’t everything. I feel like we’re just getting started. And I know this sounds strange, since our industry was burned to the ground during the pandemic, but this is the calmest and most focused we’ve ever been.