What a year! The real estate bust, a global financial crisis and hedge funds crashing all around us. But Sarasota kept on partying, and though some fund raisers bit the dust and more than one auction faltered, many were better than ever.
And that’s thanks to the indefatigable spirit of Sarasota’s volunteers and not-for-profit leaders, who rose to the occasion and pulled off one unforgettable event after another. Many managed to keep costs lower than ever before but to raise the fun level to new heights.
For such grace under pressure, the movers and shakers behind this season’s galas deserve some extra-special recognition. So we assembled a group of inveterate gala-goers, from serial chairwomen to gossip columnists, and looked back at the 2008-2009 social season. It wasn’t easy—and the decibel levels in our conference room occasionally reached record heights—but our passionate panel finally agreed on the people and parties that rose to the top this year. We salute them all, the winners of our first-ever Gala Golds.
(Special thanks to our panel, including Veronica Brady, Leslie Glass, Nora Johnson, Matt Orr, Cliff Roles, Sally Schule and Jocelyn Stevens.)
Best Theme: At Selby Gardens’ Orchid Ball, “Out of Africa” was the pitch-perfect theme, from the vintage Land Rovers that doubled as champagne stations to the African drummers and dancers who greeted party-goers on the Great Lawn. We loved the elegant safari feel of the tent with its raffia chairs and vivid orange and purple heliconia centerpieces, and everyone thrilled to the mysterious trumpeting of elephants that echoed off the garden pathways.
Best Guy Event: Many a male heart pitter-pattered over the Ferraris and Exotics weekend in February that benefited the Child Protection Center. First, a cool Friday night party amid exotic cars and flashy jets at the Rectrix Aerodrome Center. On Saturday, traffic was backed up from the Ringling Causeway all the way to Selby Gardens as folks flocked to St. Armands to ogle more than 80 sports cars. And Sunday saw a road rally that ended at the Ritz-Carlton golf club. It will roar back this February under a new name—the Sarasota Exotic Car Fest.
Best Chair to Watch: Every few years, everybody laments that there’s no one young and wonderful to join the ranks of Sarasota’s established super-chairs, but somehow a rising star always comes along. This year it was Kyla Weiner, 28, a SunTrust marketing executive. Bright and enthusiastic, she chaired or co-chaired several high-profile—and highly successful—events this season, including Dog's Night Out for the Humane Society and the Junior League child advocacy luncheon.
Best Entertainment: The Sarasota Orchestra celebrated its 60th anniversary with a parade of thrills. The Fire and Ice gala began with an ultra-elegant dinner at the Hyatt. Then everybody strolled over to the Van Wezel for the world premiere of a work by young Sarasota-bred composer Roger Zare and then a tour de force by violin virtuoso Karen Gomyo. Next the full orchestra played while circus acts performed. The evening ended in a blaze of glory with the 1812 Overture and fireworks across the bay.
Best Catering Staff: When an event chair walks into the party and sees Tracy McCammack and Henry Alberico—Phil Mancini’s fantastic catering chiefs—she always heaves a sigh of relief. Henry has been to more parties than anyone in Sarasota, and is the soul of discretion. And nothing—and we mean nothing—is ever a problem for Tracy, composed and cheerful and usually wearing a vintage brooch from her collection.
Best Band: Jazz and R&B belter Kat Williams brought her band to the Asolo Rep’s 50th anniversary party in February and showed everybody why she soared last year on NBC-TV’s America’s Got Talent. Even party-goers who never dance were up on their feet.
Best Party to Spot Celebrities: Sports broadcaster Dick Vitale’s springtime gala dedicated to raising funds to fight cancer, which felled his late friend, legendary North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano, always attracts an A-list of athletes, especially basketball stars. At this year’s event, which raised $1.1 million, Louisville b-ball coach Rick Pitino and UF’s Billy Donovan were the special guests.
Best Reinvented Event: The YMCA’s 18-year-old Going for the Gold was transformed into a stunning modern celebration called Element Au (the symbol for pure gold). Event whiz Jennifer Grondahl and the four co-chairs vowed to amaze, and they certainly did. From the Liquid Gold Lounge with white draperies in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom to gold-painted “statues” (models and modern dancers from Moving Ethos), everything, right down to the gilded desserts lit with gold sparklers, was electric—and the final take a fantastic $434,000.
Best Economizing with Style: Children First’s Soiree by the Sea at Sharky’s on the Pier was wonderful in all sorts of ways, but the crowning glory was the seaside tent, perched right on the sand and decorated in sea-blues and greens with big white paper lanterns. And best of all, that tent didn’t cost the organization a cent, because it was actually erected for the wedding of Sharky’s co-owner Mike Pachota’s son on the following day. What a beautiful blend of synergy, smarts and generosity!
Best Auction Item: Many live auctions fizzled this season, with guests guarding their pocketbooks rather than splurging on jewelry and other luxuries. But the bidding was so wild on one auction item at the elegant 20th Anniversary Catholic Charities Ball that it sold for a whopping $6,750—twice. What caused all the frenzy? Just dinner for eight in your own home—with Bishop Frank Dewane. Now, that’s what we call spirited bidding.
Best-Dressed Male Partygoer: Hedge fund recruiter Robert Warren breathed fresh air into male style when he arrived in Sarasota a few years ago. With his surfer-length locks and easy smile, he looks equally relaxed and modern in frayed blue jeans and a designer jacket or a beautifully cut tux.
Best Tear-Jerker Moment: Nobody is more respected in fund-raising circles than self-effacing Stanley Kane, and when he got up to accept his award as the YMCA’s First Citizen luncheon, the crowd exploded. But the real emotion flowed when Kane, who is devoted to his family, looked out at the table where his wife, Janet, who is suffering from health issues, was sitting with his daughters, and choked up, unable to go on. It was a rare display of emotion from the usually reserved Kane, and faces all across the hushed ballroom were damp with tears of love and sympathy.
Best New Emcee Marjorie North: vowed she was going to do “absolutely nothing” after she retired from her longtime “Let’s Talk” column for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in January, but there she was at the mike at YMCA CEO Carl Weinrich’s retirement party just a few months later. Her loving jabs and irreverent jokes cracked up the crowd—looks like she may have found a second career!
Best Girlfriend Event: At UCP’s Gathering of the Goddesses luncheon at Michael’s On East, women retreat from the cold, cruel world to celebrate the joys of female friendship. It’s BYOT—bring your own tiara—and the goddesses for the day are escorted to their seats by skimpily clad gladiators waving palm fronds who hand-feed them grapes while they watch a fashion show and enjoy lunch. Everyone goes home with gifts—but the biggest gift is the renewed spirit of sisterhood that binds them all together.
Best Competition: Who needed those reality TV series when you could enjoy some of Sarasota’s pluckiest celebs taking their spins on the dance floor in Community AIDS Network’s ninth annual “Dancing with Our Stars” fund raiser? Wendy Resnick’s cha-cha and Matt Orr’s jump and jive were memorable, but the big winner was Dr. Todd Horiuchi, who dyed his hair purple and did a mean samba with dance partner Margaret Burns. (He’s a pulmonologist, so it figures he has stamina.)
Best Cross-County Event: Sarasota and Manatee can seem like two separate ends of the earth, but not during the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee’s Brunch on the Bay. Close to 1,000 folks from the two counties forget their differences as they gather under the big tent on the bay to raise scholarship funds. Champagne flows; the food, from 16 top restaurants, is sensational; and the speeches are mercifully short. Whether you’re an urban sophisticate or a good old boy, you’re a Bull for the day.
Best Venue: From the UnGala Gala in October to the Forks and Corks restaurant festival in late May (and a couple of pull-out-all-the-stops private weddings in between), the courtyard of the Ringling Museum once again proved to be the most glamorous, exciting and completely magical venue in town. John and Mable Ringling, Sarasota’s fabled It couple, may be so last century, but the enchanting space they created is more fashionable than ever.
Best Fund-raising Energy: At too many events this year, the auctions sparked more dread than dollars, but at Historic Spanish Point’s “Bay Breezes to Butterflies” luncheon in February, supporters got into the spirit. After chefs Judi Gallagher and Phil Mancini warmed up the 300 guests with a high-energy cooking demo, the ladies opened their wallets for raffle tickets for fabulous themed baskets and a half-dozen well-chosen live auction items. Net results? $60,000—and a rousing good time.
Best Rolling up Their Sleeves and Making it Happen: For low frills and high fun, the award goes to the board members of the Suncoast Community Blood Bank’s Low Country Boil at the Sarasota Sailing Squadron. The gentlemen and ladies donned their aprons and prepared shrimp, sausage and other South Carolina specialties that would have done Paula Deen proud. They served it all cafeteria-style to 215 guests, then Kettle of Fish played rootsy blues. You did good, y’all!
Best-Dressed Female Partygoer: Beautiful, poised and elegant, Jacqueline Morton is the epitome of original style, whether she’s wearing a vintage find from some obscure antique shop or a perfectly fitted designer gown.
Best Party Energy: October’s Key to the Cure has become Sarasota’s unofficial season kick-off, where everybody’s psyched about reconnecting after the long, hot summer. And when you walked into Saks for this year’s “Groovin’” event and were welcomed by chairs Chris Pfahler and Veronica Brady wearing blond disco wigs and pink T-shirts (co-chair and store manager Sally Schule wore her own spiky do, in deference
to visiting corporate bosses), you knew you were in for a wild ride.
Best Event Series: Saks Fifth Avenue’s Little Black Dress series allowed the store to partner with all sorts of organizations (Selby Gardens, Boys and Girls Club, Children First and more) in an affordable and fun way. Guests paid a modest $35 to attend a luncheon, where they enjoyed a fashion show that was staged by Saks. By dessert time, the not-for-profit had some new fans—and Saks had some new shoppers. Talk about a win-win!
Best Event Chair: Tall, blond, calm Chris Pfahler brought “the organizational skills of an alien,” as one judge put it, along with passionate commitment to every one of the dozen or so events she chaired or co-chaired this season. She’ll do whatever it takes to make sure an event succeeds, right down to soliciting items for a faltering silent auction. Then she’ll morph into a glamorous hostess on the night of the event, from her wavy hair extensions to her form-fitting designer gown.
Chill-est Event: That would be Chillounge on Palm Avenue, where a cool-looking crowd of every age wanders down the street, taking in the fashion show, ogling the sexy dancers in the Brazilian Carnivale parade, ducking into martini bars and lounging on the big white sofas in the street. No auction, no speeches—just hanging out under the stars on one of Sarasota’s most fashionable avenues.
Best Blend of Event and Mission: The Hermitage Artist Retreat on Manasota Beach is all about creativity, history, ecology and community; and its Lobster Bake last fall, set under a tent amid the beautifully restored, 100-year-old beachfront cottages, deftly introduced party-goers to all four elements of its mission. After dusk, Hermitage Fellow and video artist Guy Hundere aired his eerily beautiful computer-generated videos. Unforgettable.
Best Entertainment Trend: Replacing expensive bands with creative DJs who can put the party into exactly the right mood and give it a modern, techno feel. Cases in point: Club 40 for Forty Carrots Family Center, Key to the Cure, ARC and the Ferraris and Exotics party for the Child Protection Center.
Most Inspiring Event: We all needed a lift midway through this challenging season, and the Girls Inc.’s 21st annual Celebration Luncheon at the Ritz gave us a big one. When 18-year-old Jessica Escobar sobbed her way through her speech about how the organization really has made her “strong, smart and bold,” the 750 attendees spontaneously rose as one to support her. Nobody left the room doubting that programs like this really do change lives.
Most Fun Event: Hands down, it had to be Rock the Ritz, the reincarnation of Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation’s old Corinthian Ball. The ball gowns and tuxes were left home, they eschewed a live auction, and everybody just got goofy on the dance floor. Is this the Next Generation gala? We hope so!
Best Event Trend: Some smart supporters chose to put on “friendraisers” rather than costly galas. A friendraiser is a smallish party that aims to cultivate new audiences and build buzz for a cause rather than raise large sums of money. Among the best: dinners for the Asolo and Women’s Resource Center in private homes, and ALSO’s progressive dinner, staged in various inexpensive venues around town and culminating in dessert and a silent auction at Zoria’s.
Most Beautiful Event: Only in its second year, the Sarasota Conservation Foundation’s Palm Ball hit new heights of understated elegance. The 200 guests (small is beautiful!) strolled the four-acre Bay Preserve at Osprey at sunset—think twinkling lights in majestic live oaks on a lawn that rolled down to the bay—then dined and danced under a tent aglow with hot pink tablecloths and pretty pink roses. It was like we always imagined being in The Great Gatsby would be—without the unhappy ending.