Parties of The Year

Photography by Rebecca Baxter September 1, 2010

You’ve got to hand it to Sarasota party-givers. Undaunted by the biggest financial crisis in recent memory, they started out the season with a dazzling new international arts festival and never looked back. Yes, a few events were canceled and some made their last stand—including the Ringling Museum’s UnGala Gala, which won’t be back in 2011—but mainly this was a year of guts and glory, with one great party after another.

What impressed him most, says Phil Mancini, head of Michael’s On East catering and Sarasota’s party guru, was “the wonderful spirit of fun” at so many events, from elegant galas like the Orchid Ball to casual affairs like New College’s Clambake. Overall, attendance was “amazing,” he says, with a number of events selling out. Mancini credits the determination and creativity of chairs and committees, along with Sarasota’s philanthropic spirit.

We salute that spirit with these

“Gala Gold” awards, which single out the people and parties that stood out most this year. Special thanks to our “Deep Throat” panel of judges, which in addition to our editors included some serial chairpeople, not-for-profit insiders and dedicated gala-goers.

Best Grace Under Pressure

Setting the Asolo’s South Beach Soiree on the downtown bayfront was a brilliant way to recreate Miami’s tropical vibe. But this season’s Big Chill forced chairs Margaret Wise and Lee Peterson to move guests—and those cool modern cabanas—inside. Amazingly, the party didn’t lose a drop of spirit, with a hot Latin band and hotter female impersonator turning the Hyatt ballroom into a steamy SoBe nightspot.

Best New Event

Right from the opening-night fireworks, the Ringling International Arts Festival dazzled with excitement. Audiences thrilled to the majestic museum setting, the around-the-clock schedule (sipping martinis in Treviso before a 10 p.m. performance!) and new work from around the world, including an outrageous Australian cabaret artist and the presence of patron saint “Misha” Baryshnikov himself.

Most Creative Use of Space

Artists’ collective sARTq’s Process show turned the second floor of G.WIZ into a loft-like artists’ studio space, where party-goers caught a glimpse of how the members actually work, as scraps of lumber, splattered paint rags and in-progress pieces brought guests inside the creative process.

Best Marketing for an Event

For The Wellness Community’s Night of Hope, Grapevine Communication created an imaginary Mafia family, the Linguinis, and did a running story about them on Facebook. The party followed the storyline, with every guest getting a Mafia identity (and reveling in it all night long). Phil Mancini even served soup, family-style.




Best New Venue

From the moment partiers drove up to the porte-cochère at the Sarasota Yacht Club, they knew this was the place to be. The big, clean-lined new building with its sleek bars and poolside terrace (architect Mark Sultana calls the design “coastal contemporary”) is the perfect expression of modern Sarasota—relaxed, sophisticated and gorgeous, with water views wherever you look.

Best Fashion Show

The Saks fashion show at Pique-nique offered a parade of Craig Signer styles capped by the appearance of the hot Miami Beach designer himself. Even the sumptuous seafood salad couldn’t keep eyes off the runway—until word spread that tucked into those gift bags was a $100 bottle of Chanel perfume from Saks. Another triumph for the Dream Team: co-chairs Veronica Brady, Chris Pfahler and Sally Schule.

Best Sex & the City Revival

No, not that silly movie—for girlfriend power and fashion porn, nothing topped the scene in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom for Wine, Women & Shoes, as the young, the beautiful, and the well-heeled (as in Manolo Blahnik shoes) sipped, socialized and snapped up designer footwear.


They’re everywhere, they’re everywhere! What party would be complete without these irrepressible presences?


1          Rebecca Baxter. Sarasota Magazine’s intrepid photographer. Her presence can make or break a party. Hostesses have been known to weep if she doesn’t show up.


2          Anne Chauvet. The glamorous French-born veterinarian neurosurgeon. Noted for her

sexy accent and fabulous clothes. We’d love to play doctor with her.


3          Scott Anderson. Affable foundation officer adds a touch of fun to any event. A great conversationalist, he knows everybody in town. The perfect person to chat with at the party buffet table.


4          Ulla Searing. She may be nearing 100, but it’s not slowing her down a bit. Blonde, still beautiful and dripping in jewels, she confirms by being there that a party is a Very Important Event.


5          Yara Michaels. The town’s latest It Girl. Gets double takes for her stunning good looks—and cleavage. Currently dating Dr. David Shoemaker, Sarasota’s version of “The Bachelor.”


6          Stephen Sieg.  A wild man on the dance floor, this champion ballroom dancer has combined party going with fund raising. His CAN Dance to benefit Community AIDS Network is one of the hottest parties in town.


Best-Dressed Crowd

When they heard about the Palm Ball’s silver and white color scheme, guests wondered how to wear these sometimes difficult colors. The brilliant answer? “Embellishments,” says Saks’ Sally Schule. The power couples mingling on the bayfront and dining in the white tent sparkled like starlight in white dinner jackets and shimmery gowns set off with dazzling jewels.


Best Live Auction Items

The Sarasota Family YMCA’s “Element Au” brought in nearly half a million even in these tough times. No wonder, with an auction featuring fabulous jewelry (like a necklace and earrings from the late Janet Kane valued at $45,000) and your own dream celebrity experience arranged by a top Hollywood agent. (Winner Cornelia Matson hopes to go to the Oscars and party with Elton John.)


Best Sea of People

At Chillounge, the thousand-plus who crowd Palm Avenue, closed for the night and filled with big white sofas and martini bars, make up the mellowest and most diverse party crowd of the year. From girls in full club wear to seniors in jeans and athletic shoes, everybody’s smiling, socializing—and well, just chill.


Social Saints

This heavenly group of women makes Sarasota’s charity and social world go ’round. They’ve given—and raised—millions and made it look fun and easy.


1          Mary Ann Robinson. Dressed in her trademark purple, the effervescent redhead has soldiered on since the recent death of her beloved husband, Robbie. Her efforts, often behind the scenes, have frequently meant the difference between success and failure.


2          Kim Githler. A hyper-successful businesswoman with a super-soft heart, she never says no when children need help. Publicity-shy, she gets emotionally involved with all her projects and inspires other big donors to join her.


3          Lee Peterson. Trained as an opera singer, she turned a family member’s mental health problems into a crusade to fight schizophrenia. Also noted for her clothes, jewels and energy.


4          Betty Schoenbaum. Widow of Alex Schoenbaum, founder of Shoney’s, she’s given back many times over. Attends lots of events and lights them all up with her warmth and interest. Her heart is in the social services, especially The Glasser/ Schoenbaum Center.


5          Margaret Wise. This super-smart Southern belle has chaired every event you can imagine and presided over big boards, too. A great connector, from singles in search of a mate to donors looking for the right cause.


Best Reinvented Event

The Sarasota Film Festival’s former World Cinema morphed into a sensational Latin celebration, Cinema Tropicale, at the new Sarasota Yacht Club, with salsa dancing by the pool, a fabulous Caribbean buffet on the terrace, neon hula-hoop dancers and a sensational view of the night-lit downtown skyline.


Best Superstar Event

Prime Time Player Dick Vitale is also a Prime Time Party-Giver. His annual gala to raise funds to fight cancer, in memory of North Carolina’s legendary basketball coach Jim Valvano, this year honored Tom Izzo and Tony Dungy, attracting a galaxy of stars from Magic Johnson to Kenny Chesney—and raised an awesome, baby, $1 million.


Best Auction Gimmick

Those wacky, wonderful bras at Key to the Cure at Saks Fifth Avenue raised the creative auction bar, from Charlie Ann Syprett’s cleavage-with-cherries-on-top to the Longboat Observer’s newsprint-covered creation (which publisher Matt Walsh bought for a cool $25,000). Great fun for a great cause: the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation.


Best Theme

The Orchid Ball topped even last year’s spectacular Out of Africa party with Bollywood, an Indian-inspired extravaganza of color (orange, saffron, green) and costumes (who knew our grande dames could look so stunning in turbans, saris and henna tattoos?) From the pedicabs taking guests to the tent to the (mild-for-American-palates) Indian dinner, a total hit.


Best Once-in-a-100-Years Party

Wow! From the pioneers waving at the guests traveling by trolley to the Duchene lawn at Historic Spanish Point to that magic moment of coming upon the palm-lined site, with a transparent tent, aglow with lights and elegant men and women drinking champagne, the Centennial celebration of Mrs. Bertha Palmer’s Sarasota arrival really was “An Affair to Remember.”


Sweetest Event

A record 700 chocoholics filled the MOE Ballroom for UCP’s ninth annual Chocolate Sundae. Wendy Resnick’s delicious strategy: keeping the price low ($20 in advance) and the payoff high, with 35 restaurants and vendors doing decadent things with chocolate and a gift bag stuffed with $100 worth of loot.


Best Dressed


1          Susan Jones. This busy biz executive brings her heart and soul to every party she chairs, along with a bold sense of color and penchant for fashion surprises. Great shoes, too, from strappy stilettos to over-the-knee designer boots.


2          Billy and Liebe Gamble. Sarasota’s answer to Victoria and David Beckham, this couple loves to push the fashion envelope with celeb designer creations and spotlight-seizing style statements.


3          Victoria Leopold. Sweet and unassuming, this classic beauty knows how to look quietly elegant (and perfectly fitted) at every event.


 4         David and Lisa Grain. The telecommunications mogul and his beautiful wife are stunning dressers, whether hanging out with sports stars at the Dick Vitale Gala or hosting candidate Obama at a fund raiser at their bayfront Sarasota home.


5          Bea Elden. The tall, Norwegian-born blonde defines classic European elegance; we challenge you to find anyone who looks better in a couture evening gown.


Most High-Brow Event

Sarasota’s intelligentsia turned out in full force to celebrate the newest Hermitage Artist Retreat Greenfield Prize recipient, New York-based visual-art phenom Sanford Biggers, and to hear keynote speaker James Rosenquist, one of the great American Pop artists, amuse and inspire.


Comfiest Party

The creative types at Ringling College always come up with fabulous costumes for Evening at the Avant Garde. This year’s “pajama party” theme encouraged everybody to slip into something comfortable, from filmy lingerie for the young and bold to flannel prints for the older set. Best moment: when Ringling prez Larry Thompson and his wife, Pat, were carried in as Doris Day and Rock Hudson lying in bed, next to a dial-up ’50s phone, à la that classic flick, Pillow Talk.


Best Inspirational Moment

Lynn McDonald’s Recipe 4 Happiness this year raised funds for Sandy Loevner’s, which helps those who suffer from kidney disease, as did Sandy’s late husband, Jerry. When Sandy introduced the Pennsylvania woman who is now raising a family and living a normal life after Sandy gave her a kidney in 2006, the all-female crowd broke down and sobbed.


Best Tried-and-True Event

For three decades, not one thing has changed about New College’s Clambake, and thank God for that. From the bayfront setting and casual dress code to the menu of lobster, New England clam chowder, corn on the cob and all the trimmings, served on red-checked tablecloths, this is party perfection.


Best Surprise Hit

Who knew that the Senior Friendship Center would host one of the freshest and most fun events of the season? Inspired by the Marx Brothers movie, A Night at the Opera, the evening featured film clips intercut with numbers by Asolo Rep and Sarasota Opera performers. Even the food was fun (and delicious)—beef brisket and potato pancakes made from Groucho’s own recipe. Take a bow, emcee and chair Harold Ronson!


Best Competition

Six New College students premiered their new music compositions at New Music Idol, an American Idol-like event at The HuB’s space in the Rosemary District. New York’s hip chamber group Sybarite 5, which was founded by Sarasota native Louis Levitt, played each one for the crowd, the judges, and the text messagers who determined the winner. Does Sarasota have talent or what?


Best Trend

This was the year of the costume party, and boy, did people get creative, from the ’80s punk garb at Rock the Roof to that Speakeasy party at The HuB, where you began to worry you were going to be mugged by one of the gangsters. Best of all? Those gory/glamorous Halloween get-ups at Safe Sex for Planned Parenthood.

Best-Kept-Secret Fund Raiser

Sarasota’s Amish and Mennonite community always puts on an annual charity auction, but this year’s event—for Haitian relief—broke all records, raising more than $400,000. All of Pinecraft showed up, and the down-home crowd spent the day socializing, bidding on handmade furniture, singing hymns and yes, eating the best pies in town.


Best After Party

Props to the Sarasota Film Festival for snagging legendary rocker Patti Smith, hot on the heels of her much-talked-about new autobiography. Giving out the warmest, nicest vibe imaginable, she treated the deliriously happy crowd upstairs at Ceviche to a rocking performance—even quiet festival programmer Tom Hall was waving his cell phone to the beat.

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