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Palace ball needs fairy godmother

Published May 26, 2004

TAMPA - It had been billed as a fairy tale party, a gala in the magnificent rooms of Kensington Palace and thrown by Tampa entrepreneur and philanthropist Maureen Rorech Dunkel.

Tickets were auctioned off for charity, and little girls were offered a chance to win a trip to the event.

But the party at the palace, scheduled to take place last month, never happened. Rorech Dunkel said world events prompted her to reschedule it for fall.

She won't say how many tickets she sold or for how much.

What she will say is she now has a new date - Oct. 2 - and a lot of deals to seal. She needs a new title sponsor to replace the one that backed out. Tickets still need to be sold. But Rorech Dunkel said she is confident that the party will go on.

"It was gut-wrenching for me," she said of the decision to postpone the fundraiser. "But it was too elegant to firesale."

Rorech Dunkel plans to give up business ventures to focus on commitments to her family and the party, she said.

Last week, she sent out letters to members of her women's club and spa, Marcelina, informing them that she would be winding down club operations by June 30 if interested buyers do not come forward.

She listed family, her charitable works and her book project as reasons for extricating herself.

Rorech Dunkel bought a collection of gowns once owned by Diana, Princess of Wales. The gowns are on loan to Kensington Palace in London, where Diana lived from 1981 to 1997. The royal family granted Rorech Dunkel the right to host one party a year for five years at the palace in appreciation for her use of the gowns to sustain Diana's charity work.

She wanted to charge $35,000 a couple for the gala, which included entertainment in the Red Saloon and a stroll to the Rotunda where the Diana gowns, along with a collection of other court dresses dating to the 1700s, are displayed.

Rorech Dunkel said she had "a lot" of verbal commitments but did not know how many tickets had been sold for the original April date. She referred inquiries to her assistant, Teresa Dunn.

Dunn was asked several questions, including how many tickets had been sold. She said she needed to research the files but had not called back by Tuesday evening.

Lisa Brock, listed on tax statements as a director on the board of Rorech Dunkel's charity, the People's Princess Charitable Foundation Inc., was surprised she was listed as a director.

"I've never served on the board. I've always been a professional, paid consultant, primarily in the area of public relations. I am no longer under contract with Maureen or the foundation," Brock said. "I remain friendly and have a cordial relationship with her and try to advise her pro bono when time permits. I don't have answers to any of these financial questions because it is way outside of my arena."

Nor would officials with one of the event's intended beneficiaries say how many tickets had been sold.

Richard Bondroff, executive director of the Neil Bogart Foundation, said his organization sent invitations through its donor database and "there was interest." However, he would not disclose numbers.

His group is the West Coast division of the T.J. Martell Foundation, which funds research into leukemia, cancer and AIDS.

Bondroff referred questions to Judy Levy, one of Hollywood's top event planners, who is assisting Rorech Dunkel. Levy declined to comment, citing client confidentiality.

Rorech Dunkel donated 10 tickets to the United Way of Tampa Bay, which pumped up the event for about four months. But no one bought any tickets, said Scott Meyers, vice president of strategic marketing for the United Way. Several people expressed interest when the deadline approached, he said, but by then, the event had been postponed.

Rorech Dunkel said about $35,000 needs to be returned to people who bought tickets.

It was unclear how many tickets that figure represented.

For instance, St. Joseph's Hospital auctioned a pair for $5,000, hospital officials said.

The sponsor that backed out, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, did so because the new date was not acceptable, Rorech Dunkel said. The Thai government had paid Rorech Dunkel's foundation $300,000 to underwrite the gala.

She said she has repaid about half the amount. Some expenses had already been incurred, she said. She plans to pay the balance by the end of June, even if it means using personal funds, she said. She stressed that she will see to it that the event goes off as planned, so the charities benefit and Princess Diana's memory is honored.

"It will go through," she said. "I'm in a spot where I have to fulfill my responsibility. That's it."

[Last modified May 26, 2004, 01:00:46]

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