The Ringling Museum's UnGala Gala is such a hot ticket that people line up months in advance just to snag an invitation.

Held outdoors in the museum courtyard each October and attended by more than 1,300 of the area's beautiful people, the UnGala Gala has evolved way beyond a dinner and a dance floor. It's an elaborate production whose theme is closely guarded until the big night. Last year, the futuristic Matrix theme featured professional dancers brought in from Miami, dressed in shiny black leather and sunglasses, who staged simulated martial arts fights to pulsing techno music.

The UnGala Gala, like the 150 other black-tie charitable events in a typical Sarasota season, is serious fun. It takes a team of event planners, caterers, florists, musicians, graphic designers, printers and volunteers who solicit corporate underwriting and in-kind donations. For the UnGala Gala alone, more than 60 businesses come onboard as either vendors or sponsors. And that's not counting the other businesses that revolve around the charity gala world: the clothiers who sell the thousand-dollar gowns, the makeup and hair stylists who groom the partygoers, the hotels that book rooms for the inevitable after-parties.

"It's big business, baby," says Phil Mancini of Michael's Gourmet Group, winner of the 2004 Small Business Supporter of the Arts award from the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. Mancini says out of "well over" 1,000 events his company catered in 2003, about 25 percent were luncheons, dinners and black-tie galas to benefit nonprofit organizations.

Mr. Florist's Ron Carter, who supplies elaborate blooms for dozens of charity events, gives the same estimate. "It gets my name out there, and it's an excellent time to let my staff be creative and do things they don't do on a daily basis," he says. "And I've made many, many new friends and customers from it."

Sally Schule, assistant manager of Saks Fifth Avenue, served on the UnGala Gala committee for several years. Saks is sponsoring this year's UnParty on Sept. 17. (Yes, the UnGala has gotten so big that it's generated a spinoff party.) Schule says the Sarasota Saks gears its merchandise to the social circuit. "Every Saks adapts to its market," she says. "We are very attuned to the season, what the events are and who's chairing them." Schule says the designer gowns Saks brings in for very special occasions start at $2,000. Then there are the shoes and the Judith Lieber handbags, which range from $1,000 to $5,000. "A Judith Lieber handbag says you've really arrived," says Schule.

A big charity gala is even a modest boost to tourism. "People come from Chicago, North Carolina, Georgia, Tallahassee," says Jennifer Carroll, the Ringling Museum's guest services coordinator, who oversees the big event. "Last year someone called from New York and said, 'I've heard I just have to get tickets to the UnGala Gala.' She wrote us a check for $1,000. That kind of thing happens all the time."

In 2003 the UnGala Gala received in-kind corporate support valued at $44,624, everything from printing to Powerade and even a real ice bar shipped from Canada on dry ice. Ketel One Vodka was the donor; Jeff Monday, food and beverage director at the Longboat Key Club, made the connection. "It's amazing how many people want to give and don't expect anything in return," says Carroll.

With an individual ticket price of $225 and sponsorships up to $15,000, the 2003 UnGala Gala grossed $373,000 and netted $170,000 for museum exhibits and educational programs, says Carroll. "It takes a lot of coordination and a lot of work, but it's fun and the night is so amazing," she says.

Does Sarasota run the risk of charity fatigue? "No way," says Phil Mancini. "This town thrives on it. And it's getting more year-round. We had a charity in the ballroom on a Saturday night this June and they had over 300 people-in the dog days of summer. That would have been unheard of a few years ago."

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