Secrets of Party Givers

By staff April 1, 2002

Why do some parties glitter and others cast only a pale and sickly light? We asked some of Sarasota's most accomplished hosts and hostesses to share their secrets.

Real estate magnate Michael Saunders believes the essential ingredient in any successful party is interesting people. But mouth-watering food doesn't hurt. "I make a killer veal stew," she admits, "and a really good gumbo. Simple, delicious dishes make guests happy and relaxed. My friends would rather sit around the fireplace and eat homemade vegetable soup or warm cassoulet than dine in the fanciest restaurant. I remember cooking for Bill Blass when he came down to visit Murf Klauber at The Colony. I asked him what he wanted for dinner and he requested meatloaf, mashed potatoes and black-eyed peas. Genuine comfort food. I made that for him and he cleaned his plate."

A beautiful table is a large part of any party, says Mary Fehily, owner of Mary's On Main gift shop. She believes that table decor can actually set the tone for your party. "Guests feel wonderfully welcomed when they walk into the room and see a lovely table," says Fehily. "The host has made a fuss." Fehily mixes and matches her china, crystal and sterling, integrates pieces from antique shops and comes up with creative centerpieces that surprise and delight. One of her best ideas was covering the dining table in thick green grass-actual sod-for Easter brunch. She popped out little holes in the grass, using a shot glass as a cookie cutter, and planted bright annuals all around the dishes and glassware. Painted eggs provided the finishing touch.

Young professionals Holly and Jay Logan-she's a designer and he's a stockbroker-have chaired the Ringling Museum's UnGala Gala for the past two years and been on the committee practically forever. The experience has taught them to think big. "Everything needs to be overdone," Holly says. When candles are the thing, she lights hundreds. Fresh flowers? She fills every room. If her decorating theme is festive fruits, she creates enormous fruit pyramids on the table, hangs some from the chandelier and piles even more on the piano.

The Logans' last holiday party featured cases of wine, more than 20 pounds of stone crabs and a huge tenderloin. "The guests stayed until after 2 a.m. and there was this gigantic mess in the kitchen, which is always a good sign," says Holly. "I'm still finding crab claws behind the furniture."

Mix it up, says Sarasota Herald-Tribune gossip guru Marjorie North. As soon as guests walk through her door, North has them draw names of famous romantic couples out of a hat. Then they're instructed to seek out their partners and sit next to them for dinner. Romeo and Juliet may have never met and have vastly different political philosophies, but at North's parties they will find a common thread. "For dessert, I permit everyone to return to the one who brung 'em," she says. "That is, the guys get up and move while the ladies stay seated." Then everyone sits back and listens to music-often a hired barbershop quartet.

Martinis and music keep things hopping until the wee hours at Lynn and Bill Elstein's home in The Oaks. She plays piano, he plays the drums and the guests sing karaoke and dance. Host and hostess work together in creating a festive mood, but the trick is guests don't realize they are working at all. "Bill put himself through medical school as a bartender and then built his dream bar in the house, so he is happy to make his famous Cosmopolitan all night long," Lynn says. "My job is to get the connections going, to find that something between people that clicks."

At one Elstein party, hosts-and guests-prepared a Chinese feast. "Each person had a task and we cooked the meal together and then sat down and ate with chopsticks," Lynn says. "The food was delicious and everyone had fun."

Caterer Phil Mancini and Kim Brown love parties and the couple hosts them frequently. The great parties, Mancini says, possess a distinct and clearly defined energy. "A party proves itself in the first 30 minutes," Phil explains. "The host needs to ask, 'What kind of energy do I want?' For an elegant dinner party where you want people to relax and talk, guests must walk into a romantic, beautiful setting with a certain glow and ambience. For a Film Festival party, you want guests to be bombarded with music when they open the door, see a big spread on the table, have drinks poured and ready to serve. People need to feel an immediate jolt."

Parties built around nature can be memorable, says Cooper Abbott, a native son and recent business school grad who's now working at Raymond James. Natural phenomena like full moons, night-blooming cereus flowerings or even hurricanes provide good backdrops. "Given Sarasota's tropical wonders," he says, "outside parties are the way to go. They allow us to tap into the less domesticated depths of human kind. Fire is good, too. Perhaps nudity would be a good thing.

"I hate those parties that are scripted," Abbott laments. "Guests think they could have just phoned this one in and saved time. You need that unexpected element, some kind of suspension of disbelief for a few hours. Create the circus scene but don't play ringmaster. Let the action take over. Get out of the way."

Interior designer extraordinaire Matt Overstreet entertains efficiently. He invites friends in on Friday night for dinner, with sterling and fresh flowers and his signature dishes of baked asparagus, roast tenderloin and melt-in-your mouth potatoes. A pianist livens the atmosphere and everyone has a wonderful time. The following evening he does it all over again. "Back-to-back dinner parties make sense," says Overstreet. "I already have the dishes and glassware out, the table is ready, the floral arrangements are completed. I use the same menu so I already have everything I need. Just clean up after the first night and away you go. With different guests, of course."

When downtown real estate investor Jay Foley entertains, he starts with top-drawer champagne and caviar and then cooks royal filet, shrimp and lobster. Guests sip Crown Royal from hand-cut crystal and dine on dishes made in 1875. Foley found the heirloom china at Tiffany's and purchased 24 place settings. "If I invite guests into my home," he says, "then obviously they are people that I like and want to treat, to take care of. My philosophy is give them the best of everything. This way, you never have to make excuses."

When Bob and Lee Peterson, supporters of worthy causes of all kinds, decided to move to the Ritz-Carlton, they bought two apartments and combined the space, primarily so Lee could have her oversized dream kitchen and room to entertain. Lee grew up in a New York restaurant family with a rich-voiced father who loved to sing opera while he washed dishes with his daughter. No surprise that Lee's idea of a good time involves cooking 30 pizzas from scratch and then singing Cole Porter and Gershwin into the wee hours with her guests. "I love to cook and I love to sing," Lee explains. "As Bob and I fundraise for the Opera Guild, the Asolo and the National Alliance for Research of Schizophrenia and Depression, I get to plan really wonderful, lavish parties for hundreds of people. But my best times are when friends gather in the kitchen for a meal and music."

"I like parties where people get thrown into the pool in their clothes," confides Charlie Ann Syprett. Whether it's for a good cause or a few close friends, she says entertaining is all about fun. "Forget that Emily Post stuff on parties being about other people, given as a gift to please your guests," she stresses. "No way. A great party happens because I want to have fun with my friends."

Of late, Syprett has given a formal sit-down dinner for 52 in a wine cellar where she hand-painted champagne glasses for every guest and toasted her stepson's marriage. She threw a 60th birthday bash for husband Jim, during which her girlfriends wore grass skirts and she popped out of a cardboard cake wearing a two-foot-high Carmen Miranda hat. Hired lookalikes, impersonating Elvis, Sinatra and the Blues Brothers, often wander through her parties and sometimes entertain. She mixes age groups and political affiliations and backgrounds to enliven discussions. But everyone must adhere to one belief-it is vital to have fun.

Attorney Saralyn Abel has a reputation as a wonderful party planner, hosting 100 guests for fondue one weekend and cooking Chinese in oversized woks the following Saturday. In true legal fashion, Abel came up with a 10-point list for success in entertaining. Her advice includes making much more food than you think you'll need and selecting Saturday night, since the working crowd is dragging by Friday and tends to go home early if your party falls on Sunday. But her cooking advice is the most entertaining. "Buy excellent ingredients, the best you can afford," Abel urges, "so the food tastes really delicious. And whenever possible, prepare something you have caught or killed. Guests will feel special, and you will have something to talk about."

Best party ever for interior designer Kurt Lucas? Last New Year's Eve, when his 500-plus guest list meshed millionaires with bricklayers on the rooftop of his downtown office and everyone just came to have a good time. "There was a complete absence of attitude, and that's why the whole party worked," says Lucas. "I had a gospel choir in the courtyard, a jazz band on the roof and three drag queens performing at the party. Everybody was there, and I had something for everybody." 

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