Sarasota is famous for its creativity, philanthropy and glittering social life, and together those forces have made this one of the greatest party towns on earth. Retired Fortune 500 CEOs, tech entrepreneurs, design stars, artists, young professionals and grande dames come together to produce dazzling events for the causes they care about, pouring an outrageous amount of energy and talent into each and every one.
Their creativity was especially evident this year, as party organizers invented a number of new events, added some high-tech twists and topped it all off with imaginative themes and décor. Perhaps because of the challenging economic times, the mission was the message at many events, conveyed by inspiring speakers or auction items connected to the cause. Guests knew they were partying for a purpose, and that helped to open hearts—and wallets.
But parties also felt younger and more fun than ever, from the increasing use of social media to the whole new generation of chairs and supporters whose fresh ideas (and striking good looks) added to the excitement of the evening.
Our annual “Gala Gold” awards single out the people, parties and innovations that made this such an exciting year. Congratulations to all of our winners, and to the many other supporters and professionals whose creativity and commitment raised so much for so many deserving causes. And welcome to Heather Dunhill, whose “Fashion Statements” in this story are a preview of her new “Who, What, Wear” column and weekly blog, which will kick off next month.
If Coco Chanel were still around, she’d choose this exact look for Victoria Leopold’s Pique-nique appearance. It’s an ultra chic Ralph Lauren shorts suit of white linen with a kicky straw hat, vintage brooch and pearls, of course. It all harkens back to Coco’s early boutique days in Biarritz.
Never intimidated by combining textile color or patterns, Chris Malkin is one of those guys who gets his style—it’s smart but casual and definitely uncomplicated.
Best Late-Night Party
For two nights, the Vinyl Fest packed the ballroom and wine cellar at Michael’s with close to 1,000 Red-Bulled young people grooving to the music of a dozen or so different DJ’s until after 2 a.m. The festival has folded, but we’re betting all that cool and creative energy will somehow surface again this season.
Best Proud Moment
The crowd at the gala celebrating the Cancer Support Community’s (formerly the Wellness Community) state-of-the-art new $6 million Building Hope practically levitated with excitement. This instant landmark, with its soaring arch, was the perfect backdrop for heartfelt speeches, congratulations and dancing under a gorgeous tent.
Best New Luncheon
Make-A-Wish’s Cooking for Wishes kept 150 guests entertained for two nonstop hours, with a four-course interactive dinner along with auction items and fun tips on cooking and wine sandwiched between courses. Genius touch: The centerpieces holding spatulas priced from $10 to $250 allowed everybody to contribute to the cause. The take? Twice what they expected, an impressive $70,000.
Best Thrilling Event
The two-year-old Ringling International Arts Festival captures everything great about our town. It celebrates the arts, takes place at the iconic Ringling Museum and attracts a crowd that appreciates the cutting-edge performances. This year, it gave us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the great Baryshnikov dance. He was brave, funny, touching and totally unforgettable.
The coolest thing about New College’s 50th anniversary gala at the Ritz-Carlton was the crowd, which ranged from profs to politicians and bigwigs, all bursting with pride at the little school that’s become a national giant. Only one band could have pleased them all, and did they ever get it: The original Broadway and London cast of Get Back! Beatlemania had everyone twisting and shouting.
Best Keynote Speaker
Everyone was riveted by Oskar Eustis (artistic director of the New York Public Theater) at the Greenfield Prize Banquet for the . Witty, wise and inspiring, he talked about why art is essential, and how important it is for places like the Hermitage to nurture artists and their work. People were starry-eyed as they left.
Best Swag Bags
It’s nice to send guests home with something more tangible than memories, and this year party planners got more generous and creative than ever. Among the goodies we loved most: a bamboo plant, a symbol of life and health (ours is still flourishing almost a year later), from the opening of the Cancer Support Community’s new building; a genuine Lilly Pulitzer scarf from Ringling in Bloom; a just-baked loaf of banana bread and bag of coffee, the perfect homey morning-after counterpoint to the YMCA’s high-glam Element Au; and, most jaw-dropping of all, those $100 bottles of Jimmy Choo perfume the gorgeous male models at Pique-nique presented to every single female guest.
You’ve got to have a gimmick, and we can’t think of a better one than those bodacious bras at Key to the Cure for breast cancer at Saks Fifth Avenue. The smash-hit bash (close to 1,000 guests) featured models parading in the 10 top bras and female boxers in shorts and bras mixing it up.
Renée Hamad (shown here at the Community Video Archives luncheon) multi-layers her fabulous collection of jewelry; then integrates it with an outfit of vivid colors or varied patterns, just like women on the streets of Paris. If most of us did this, we’d look silly; but on Renée? Sensational!
Brenda + Geoffrey Michel
At any hour of the day, Brenda and Geoffrey Michel look as though they’ve stepped out of an ad in Times Square. Or maybe it’s a weekend in the Hamptons. Their casual up-market look is a bit Ralph Lauren meets Valentino with a splash of Etro for good measure. Just look at them at the Met’s 10th anniversary “Unplugged.”
Best Holiday Party
A great holiday party should be festive, intimate and filled with sensual treats, and that’s what Sonata a Due for La Musica delivers every December. Guests start with cocktails in the Charles Ringling Mansion, then enjoy a concert and a delicious dinner with fellow supporters who feel just like family.
No contest here—the BlackBerry-like “BidPal,” which keeps track of the bidding on silent auction items. We saw it first at Planned Parenthood’s annual dinner, then again at Firefly. The plus: no more hopping up to check on bidding during dinner. The minus: no more dinner-table conversation from the obsessed guests who keep staring down at the hand-held device.
Best Hometown Celebration
That’s easy—it was our first-ever “Best of Sarasota” party, celebrating the winners of our Best of 2011 competition. Held at Selby Gardens on a spring evening, it featured great food, music and giveaways from our winners. Some 550 guests mingled, mellowed and soaked in the natural beauty. Best of all, it benefited Selby Gardens and Season of Sharing.
Best Inspiring Moment
The Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County’s Arts Awards night featured a tribute to a giant of philanthropy, the late Virginia Toulmin. Sarasota Orchestra’s Leif Bjaland and the Artist Series’ John Fischer described what her personality and patronage had meant to them, and Abe Feder played a cello solo. The Who’s Who audience reacted with thunderous applause and more than a few tears.
Good-bye to Our Party Goddess
UCP’s long-running exec director, Wendy Resnick, raised millions for her cause through special events, from TV telethons to fresh, fun parties like the Chocolate Festival, a pajama party (with guests lounging on beds) and the Gathering of the Goddesses, where gal pals in tiaras were gloriously feted, including by fan-waving gladiators. A demon at all the details that make an event succeed, the former Playboy bunny infused her events with her own sexy spirit and down-to-earth warmth. When she retired this spring, the philanthropic and social scene lost one of its biggest personalities and most beloved friends.
Best Reinvented Event
Florida Winefest’s gala dinner moved from a glitzy hotel ballroom to the beach this year, and what a smart move that was. Barefoot guests in linen pants and filmy sundresses enjoyed food and wine that were as exceptional as always, but the pastel sunset and turquoise waves made for the best-ever setting.
Best Twice the Fun
The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is on such a roll that one fund raiser wasn’t enough. Instead, they held back-to-back parties, packing Michael’s On East twice in one week. The high-energy crowds, egged on by exec director Christine Jennings and board prez Howard Millman, danced along with Nate Jacobs and crew, and most bought season tickets, too.
In these days of social media, not every party requires a printed invitation. But when you’re the Ringling College of Art and Design, you need to strut your design stuff. This year’s theme for an Evening at the Avant-Garde, “Once Upon a Time,” inspired fairytale images of frog princes, flying carpets and pirate ships. Then the school’s animators created an online version with Tinker Bell and her wand bringing all the images to life.
Once again, the Dick Vitale Gala scored huge, raising $1.6 million for research into pediatric cancer from the sports-star-studded crowd at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. Many of the athletes took the stage, sharing their cancer stories and cheering the crowd on to ever more competitive auction bidding. In six years, this Sarasota winner has raised an astounding $10 million.
Alexandra Jupin + John Bean
Polished and refined is the very definition of Alexandra Jupin and John Bean’s style. In this shot at the Orchid Ball, John is debonair in his Burberry dinner jacket with Turnbull & Asser silk bow tie, while Alexandra donned a vintage silk Lillie Rubin dress ornamented with two Millicent Kennedy rope necklaces, gold shawl and shimmer clutch.
Jacqueline Morton + Bea Elden
Of course Bea Elden and Jacqueline Morton are friends; the fashionable ones always are. These ladies exemplify society elegance, and they put their signature touch on every ensemble, including at this year’s Sarasota Opera opening night gala. Notice the brooch on Bea’s right shoulder and Jacqueline’s vintage accessories.
Liebe + Billy Gamble
They’re so L.A. with a dash or three of NYC—Liebe and Billy Gamble possess the natural and enviable knack of intermixing haute couture and street chic. Their downtown-luxe look—shown here at the Orchid Ball—is an inherent talent, something that cannot be taught. Darn.
Sarasota Ballet’s 20th anniversary gala honoring its founder and former prima ballerina, Jean Weidner, included a performance billed as a secret, “once-in-a-lifetime” event. True that. When the curtains parted, out stepped Weidner herself, who proved in that brief and stirring appearance she could still command the stage with regal beauty and grace.
Best Taste of New Orleans
Every year, for Goodwill’s Fat Tuesday party, Phil Mancini and crew serve up a ragin’ Cajun feast featuring everything from jambalaya and crab cakes to fried oysters. Just when you think you can’t eat any more, heavenly scents come wafting out of the courtyard, where his crew is turning out fresh beignets.
The Sarasota Y’s Element Au is famous for its gold-plated crowd, live auction and dazzling décor. To celebrate its 20th, the party returned to the gym where it started, and it didn’t lose a drop of glamour. Guests gasped at the magical transformation of the workout space, and more than half a million dollars were raised for needy families.
Best New Fund-Raising Incentive
At several parties, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation distributed “Give Cards” worth $25 that guests could use (and hopefully supplement with their own funds) to support one of the charitable projects on its “Gulfcoast Gives” website. To encourage giving, several donors promised to match the total if the project got fully funded in the next day. What a great way to tap into the growing power of online philanthropy.
A down-to-earth-sophisticate, Elisabeth Waters can expertly finesse an outfit of new and vintage and high and low end. Check out this look at Wine, Women and Shoes, with the modish Bill Blass cape, studded moto gloves, Hervé Léger dress and Louboutin spiked pumps finished off with eggplant-colored Ray Bans. C’mon, that’s just too cool.
At the Orchid Ball, Michael Saunders outdid herself with this little number—a simple yet perfect combination of solid tangerine and turquoise sherbet colors. A seemingly artless but totally impressive statement.
Best Dress Code
At ALSO Youth’s Bowling in Boxers at Gulf Gate Lanes, you could spot everyone from gay and lesbian supporters to ultra-straight socialites clad in every imaginable hue and style of boxer shorts, all hurling the ball at those colored pins and wildly celebrating every strike. Amazing fun for just $15.
For Safe Sex’s “Cirque Sinister” Halloween bash, 450 guests entered the Van Wezel and became immersed in a scary world. The decor included funhouse mirrors, unearthly lighting, nightmarish clowns, a wheel-of-death candy “bar” and a bathroom filled with towering zombie rubber duckies. Brilliant concept and awesome execution by co-chairs Liebe Gamble and Kyla Weiner.
In addition to its exclusive 50th anniversary gala, New College invited the public to celebrate at a big bayfront bash with a performance by Sarasota Orchestra. The orchestra came up with a crowd-pleasing program that ranged from Mozart to Jaws, and just when you thought things couldn’t get any better, fireworks started bursting over the bay.
Best Flower Power
Talk about perfect pairings! The Ringling Museum’s Ringling in Bloom combined internationally famous floral designers, who created arrangements inspired by paintings from the collection, with a luncheon in the courtyard featuring a fashion show by Lilly Pulitzer. Fresh, fun and lovely.
Best New Event
As pretty and sparkling as the creature it was named for, Firefly for 40 Carrots was set in the country-club elegance of The Concession on a lovely spring evening, with a fashionable young crowd lighting up the grounds. Dinner was followed by a performance by the legendary KC and the Sunshine Band, then guests took to the dance floor.
We don’t like ties, but we challenge anyone to choose between the build-your-own bananas Foster bar at the 10th-year anniversary party for The Met and Sarasota Ballet and the high-tech creation (to go with the science and technology theme) for Girls Inc.’s Celebration Luncheon. Imagine ice cream served with test tubes filled with toppings and syrups, all in sparkling beakers fueled with dry ice.
Best New Venue
Half of Sarasota seemed to turn out to tour the art galleries aboard the $30 million megayacht Seafair when it docked at Marina Jack last spring. But guests of Sarasota Magazine, all supporters of the planned Sarasota Museum of Art, got to walk right past the crowds and head to the top deck for an exclusive soiree on its first evening here. Talk about a privileged perch!
Anne Folsom Smith, the designing mind behind Sarasota Orchestra’s events, outdid herself at the “Behind the Mask” gala. When the doors to the Ritz ballroom were flung open, guests beheld a sea of ornate masks with golden, glowing eyes and illuminated headdresses, each one set atop a tall, gold-sequined vase.
Best Sleeper Event
We thought we’d see a few folks who hadn’t left for summer and sample a mystery casserole or two at Men Who Cook, a new, post-season, Sunday-night event at the Longboat Key Club. Instead, the place was packed with beautiful people, and the array of gourmet man-made fare delighted even the most finicky foodies.
Best (Make that Only) Hip-Hop Performer
True, we thrilled to Baryshnikov at the Ringing International Arts Festival, but for sheer comic audacity, nothing could top our own Bob Plunket’s “Big Butt” hip-hop number at the “Dancing with Our Stars” gala for Community AIDS Network.
Best Party for Your Inner Child
Sometimes even the most dedicated party-goers sigh at the prospect of climbing into black-tie gear, but everybody looks forward to the Circus Gala. As soon as you’re under the Big Top, being welcomed by beaming clowns and circus legends Pedro and Dolly, you turn into a carefree kid, looking forward to the greatest after-dinner entertainment on earth.
Best Dazzling Event
The auction of Janet Kane’s exquisite jewelry and gowns honored her spirit in every way, from the stunning catalogue, which included fond remembrances from her daughters, to the setting in a private bayfront mansion. More than $300,000 was raised to benefit two of Kane’s favorite causes, 40 Carrots and the Sarasota Y.
Best Time Travel
Guests knew they had arrived at Selby Gardens for the 2011 Orchid Ball, but they felt like they’d walked into a Jay Gatsby garden party back in the 1920s, complete with vintage cars parked on the lawn. The Great Gatsby theme inspired some of the prettiest costumes of the year, from men in white suits and fedoras to ladies in period gowns and flapper fashions.
Best Disco Party
Go-go boots, sequins, muscular models wearing little besides bronze and gold body paint, white John Travolta-style suits and pillars of society wildly dancing atop big white pillars—Asolo Rep turned the Hyatt ballroom into a frenzied disco palace for its Studio 54 gala. Saturday night fever indeed!
Erik + Sandra Lindqvist
Without fail, the dashingly European couple that is Erik and Sandra Lindqvist can be found in smartly edited stylings at all of their social engagements. They make a handsome statement in a room, under a tent or here, at Pique-nique.
From his on-trend specs to his custom-made suit (one of his own from Cravats, that is) to his pocket square folded and tucked just so to his spot-shined kicks, Hank Battie is one Dapper Dan. This is a man who is always well turned out.
Not only is Talia Famiglio beautiful and stylish, she’s a talented artisan as well. At the Wine, Women and Shoes luncheon, she accessorized her modern look and sleek hairstyle with a very hip pinched raw leather collar, one of her own handcrafted Green Apple Designs.
Best Fashion Show
Saks presented a stunning parade of perfect-for-Sarasota fashions (many fresh to our market) on the runway at Pique-nique. The ladies went wild—including their reactions to a male model who kept eliciting screams from one particularly rowdy table. Among the favorite fashion segments: the all-white scene and the Craig Signer collection that closed the show.