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Spectacular Charity Ball is steeped in the South

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2001


Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I like people who can do things."

So do I, which explains my fondness for the can-do women of the Evening Branch of All Children's Hospital Guild, who every year organize the production known as the Charity Ball. And a production it is.

Many galas are as fun and as successful, but none can match the decorative spectacle of the Charity Ball, held in the Coliseum and a big party tent pitched next door.

This year's theme was Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler, which sounds like a Mardi Gras theme but was not. Instead, the committee invoked more generalized images of the Deep South with specific references to New Orleans and the bayous from which it rises.

Many volunteers devoted weeks to making decorations and three days installing them, but the creative force behind it was, and has been for years, Vickii Block, who owns Spellbound, a special events production company. Most of her work is corporate, but this is a labor of love. What would be an $80,000 job -- which a not-for-profit could never afford -- is far less because she donates her time and many materials.

A core group of the Evening Branch has volunteered to create the parties for about seven years. Lucie Campbell is the glue that has held them together, serving in various capacities. This year Mrs. Campbell was the general chairwoman, which meant she did a little bit of everything, including the highly charged job of deciding who will sit where during dinner.

Some people, you see, care deeply about their placement, believing it reflects on their social status. In fact, it is based on money and timing.

"If you want a table in front, you have to buy a sponsorship," said Mrs. Campbell. "And we stamp every reservation with the date and time of receipt, honoring the requests as they come in."

At around noon, as a small army of volunteers scrambled up ladders or under tables, Sue Hands worked under the Napoleonic premise that an army marches on its stomach, serving sandwiches, chips, soft drinks, brownies and about 40 pounds of Greek salad.

I met up with Alice Eachus in the women's restroom, which she decorated as a brothel in Storyville, the old Red Light District, draping mirrors and stalls with garter belts and silk lingerie.

"We didn't decorate the men's room," she said, "because we were afraid the guys would come out wearing the stuff."

A gazebo materialized at one end of the cavernous ballroom, and a French Quarter facade was set up at the other end. A three-tiered working fountain dominated the middle of the dance floor, which was ringed by tables covered with brocade loaded with greenery, flowers and candles.

Hours later, when the lights were dimmed, the effect was beautiful.

Block's business partner, Russell Brumfield, supervised the creation of a swamp in the tent, with hundreds of trees and shrubs and 60 cases of treated Spanish moss (no chiggers to work their way into our ball gowns, thank you).

Midafternoon, another small army of servers and chefs arrived from Michael's on East in Sarasota with cutlery, glassware, china and several hundred pounds of food, which they set up in a second tent, creating what what was, in effect, a field kitchen.

At 7 p.m., when the first guests arrived, what had been chaos was now a party and waiters stood bearing trays of Planters Punches.

Early arrivals were committee members Diane Keane, whose white evening gloves shimmered with a dusting of gold from the little patron boxes that she carried, still wet with paint applied that afternoon; Mary Ann Renfrow; Staci Goodrich, in a two-piece copper leather outfit so supple it looked like satin; Carole McGurk; Lee Given; Marjie Ruth; Karen Seidler; Julie Volpe; and Jerrie Cunningham, who looked imposing in a feathered mask and velvet cape that resembled a Venetian domino.

I met up with All Children's Hospital president Dennis Sexton and wife Ginny at the hors d'oeuvres table, loaded with crabcakes and Oysters Bienville, which I passed on since I couldn't figure out how to eat them gracefully with my hands.

In the cluster of executives and guests at the table of Grand Sponsor Merrill Lynch were Jody and Jill Bicking, Bill and Kathy Stover and Hadley Heindel and Elsa Sloss. The Tech Data folks -- also major sponsors -- included Jeff and Mary Ellen Howells and Ben and Phyllis Godwin.

Kelly Morean and Donna Tyler arrived solo, "because the valet parking line was long, so we left Tim (Main, Ms. Tyler's date) and Bill (Morean, Mrs. Morean's husband)," said Ms. Tyler. They reunited in the alcove reserved for Jabil Circuits, a Platinum Sponsor, which was swathed in yards of purple crushed velvet. Across the room in another alcove, decorated like a tarot card reading room, were Ed and Sylvia Ameen and their guests.

Almost 800 people attended this party. Because I probably knew two-thirds of them, I could not possibly give you a representative list of attendees, so here are a few names, plucked arbitrarily from memory: Mark Mahaffey, with an unexpected beard that wife Marianne said will come off after the next ski trip; Joel Momberg; Bill and Ria McQueen; John McQueen; Don and Iris Mastry; Louie Adcock (wife Mary was at home nursing a broken bone in her foot); Mike and Janet Carroll; Dr. Jerry and Joyce Sewell; Clark and Monica Mason; Dav and Glenn Mosby; Larry and Emily Fasan; Ward and Barbara Curtis; Terry and Kim Brett; Tim and Ann Gross; Jim and Leslie Hart; Janis Albritton; Dr. Gabe and Jean Breland; Ed and Marlene Camejo; Jean Anne Reed; Stephanie Goforth; Darryl and Melissa LeClair; and Phil and Doreen McLeod.

Let's face it: Serving that many people under any circumstances is a challenge. I do not expect a great meal at a gala. At best, I get a good one, and this was good. I enjoyed the seafood cocktail in a martini glass. The 2-inch-thick filet of beef was fine but missing the advertised Bordelaise sauce. The dessert buffet in the party tent was varied though late in coming out, so I left before much of it, including the bananas Foster, appeared.

My only quibble was with the band, a terrific ensemble that had a vast and varied repertoire. I wish, though, they had toned it down during dinner; my throat is still sore from shouting over it to my tablemates. Many will disagree, since a steady stream of couples crowded the dance floor through the evening.

But once again, these gala gals did a great job. I can think of only one creature who had any excuse for claiming a so-so time. Choppy the alligator, a living prop, stretched morosely in the "swamp," his eyes taped shut to avoid over-stimulation, his movements hampered by his handler, Jungle Bob, who sat on him. "Can the little guy have some leftovers?" I asked Bob. "He's a reptile," said Bob. "He hasn't eaten since September." Which reminded me of another quote by another poet: "They also serve who only stand and wait."

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