Like most of the other guests, I gasped when I walked into the Sarasota Y for this May’s Element Au gala. The cavernous gym had been transformed into a stunning ballroom with walls paneled with gold and white spandex and glowing 12-foot-tall fabric pillars. After an acrobat performed suspended on white silk from the ceiling, the splendidly attired guests dined on beef tenderloin, then raised their paddles to donate $535,000 to YMCA programs.
Unlike most of the other guests, I remembered the ancestor of this glittering black-tie evening, the very first YMCA charity auction, held in the same spot 20 years ago. The Saturday-afternoon event featured pony rides and Sahib Shriners driving miniature cars in the parking lot, along with booths and games. YMCA Foundation president Karin Gustafson set the style standard, wearing a pink visor and T-shirt, and the featured fare was popcorn and hot dogs, Unfortunately, most of the families plopped their kids on the ponies for a brief ride and then headed home. The booths and games were ignored, and even the bus driver hired to ferry people from a nearby parking lot to the Y got bored and drove off with his bus. Only a few valiant supporters stayed for the auction. We sat on bleachers and bid on some art, trips, a pair of scooters, and a black Persian kitten, who promptly went into hiding in a nearby office, emerging from under the desk two days later. At the end of the long, hot day, the Y had raised $15,000.
When it comes to parties, Sarasota, we’ve come a long, long way.
That’s abundantly clear in our “Parties of the Year” story, which highlights some of the creatively conceived and brilliantly executed events that raised millions for charitable causes here this year. And volunteers and party professionals keep raising the bar, with ever more imaginative décor, food and entertainment.
We asked two party pros, Jennifer Grondahl, whose Maestro Events orchestrated this year’s Element Au, and Go-To Girl’s Molly Klauber, what might dazzle us at fund raisers in the season ahead. On their radar:
Circus-style entertainment. Perfect example: a group of Orlando performers who bring in aerialist equipment and hang from the ceiling, pouring champagne for guests. In addition to aerial bartenders, we’ll see tricks with lighted hula hoops and performers encased in big bubbles.
Retro entertainment, especially burlesque dancers. Coming in all shapes and sizes and wearing cute little outfits (tassel alert!), the dancers are a little bit naughty but mainly nice, doing stand-up comedy and even opera as well as some sexy dances.
Forget the groaning buffet. Instead, you’ll see abstract presentations, like one perfect appetizer served in a champagne glass, or novelty items like cotton candy. Interactive food will be big, from fondue bars to ice cream on a stick that you roll in your choice of sauces and toppings. Showstopping cakes will be the grand finale.
Tech and more tech. We’ll see LED lighting, video curtains and flip books that you create by dancing with props in front of a computerized camera. The book prints after you perform, and with a flip of your finger you can turn your antics into animated art. Event websites will get new bells and whistles to entice guests to attend, and social media will build post-party buzz.
Ultra-cool drinks with special effects, like smoking cocktails (fueled by dry ice) at a nitro bar garnished with a bright alcohol-laced popsicle.
Fewer fashion shows and black-tie parties. Instead, especially for the younger crowd, the party becomes the fashion show as people assemble their costumes or outfits to fulfill creative dress code themes.
OK, I’m now officially ready to dress up and dive into another party season. If you’d like to join in the fun, check out our listing of this season’s special events. And be sure to visit sarasotamagazine.com for event updates and to subscribe to our free “Limelight” newsletter, with the latest party pictures and our new “Who. What. Wear.” blog by Heather Dunhill.