When hostess Marlene Gualtieri tells guests to dress up for her next party, they always comply. Not in formalwear. Try togas.

At an Olympics-themed party earlier this month, about 50 retirement-age guests gamely donned sheets and competed in events such as "javelin"-throwing (pool noodles), "horseback" riding (hobby horses) and a relay race involving demitasse spoons and grapes.

At a Moroccan dinner party in June, guests garbed as belly dancers and Bedouins, sultans and sheiks, then browsed for trinkets while sipping cocktails at a souk (market) set up in her living room.

Coming up with a creative, over-the-top costume for Gualtieri's theme parties is part of the fun, said neighbor Deanne Mellecker, who tries to dream up "something a little bit different."

For the Moroccan party, she wore a fabric-draped hula hoop to transform herself into "Omar the Tentmaker." Her husband, Richard, "the Snake Charmer," wore a giant stuffed reptile around his neck ("it's our grandbaby's," he explained) with plenty of glittering gold jewelry, on loan from his wife.

Gualtieri, her husband, Pete, and their guests all live at the Four Seasons at Rush Creek, a 55-plus community in Maple Grove. They like to party.

"On the outside, we may be rounder and have a few wrinkles, but on the inside, we're as young and fun as ever," Mellecker said.

The neighbors at the Four Seasons get together frequently, with many taking their turn at hosting. But Gualtieri throws the best parties, guests agreed.

"She puts on the biggest shows, always so extravagant in every detail," Jan Pauwen said.

"She's the queen of big parties -- she carries it off like it's so simple," marveled Nancy Camarote.

"Each one is more spectacular than the last," Gail Hanka said.

"It's a hard act to follow," said Cecelia Bistner.

Extreme DIY

Gaultieri's over-the-top soirees are all the more impressive in that they're DIY affairs. She creates her own invitations, featuring original poems penned to set the mood for her theme.

She makes all the decorations, scouring dollar stores, craft and thrift shops and websites for months in advance. "I don't have the wallet to go with my extravagance," she said.

She even makes all the food herself, with printed theme menus. Her close friends often ask if they can bring an appetizer, but she politely declines offers to contribute a course. "I want to control what's coming," she said.

She does enlist guests to help serve, however, labeling all the courses in her refrigerator and printing out instructions, "so they don't have to ask me everything. It makes it manageable," she said. "Otherwise, I'm serving 50 people."

Husband Pete, her high school sweetheart from Niagara Falls, Ontario, goes along for the ride, sporting a tassled fez that Gualtieri made for him using a plastic pail and red spray-paint. "This is her hobby, and I'm the overseer," he said with a laugh.

Gualtieri's elaborate parties are a lot of work, she admitted, but she enjoys all the research, bargain-hunting and crafting that goes into throwing them.

"I was a teacher for 34 years. I'm very creative," she said. Now that she's retired, without a classroom to decorate and no students to motivate, her parties give her an outlet for her creativity.

"As a kindergarten teacher, I always taught by themes," she said. "This is just a carryover."

And it's worth the effort, she said.

"What's the point of having a home and friends if you can't enjoy it? I enjoy seeing my friends happy."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784