Madam Chairwoman

By staff September 1, 2005

From sassy big-hat luncheons, sumptuous fashions shows and the ubiquitous live auctions to chic cocktail parties, haute black-tie galas and now the new breed of romping, stomping after-party celebrations, our charity circuit is a nonstop roller coaster ride from October until May. But some moments on the ride are more memorable than others; and more often than not, that's because an indefatigable woman had her hand on the controls.

The right chair can make or break a charity event; it takes a rare and peculiar mixture of charm, determination, organizational genius and social skill to conceive and execute a theme, pull together a world of details, attract and satisfy the right people-and make sure there's a generous check to hand over to the cause when the fun is over. Our town has more than its share of these fabulous femmes: Beth Cannata, Eileen Curd, Elisabeth Gonye, Anita Holec, Sandy Loevner, Cornelia Matson, Graci McGillicuddy, Helene Noble, Lee Peterson, Mary Ann Robinson, Tana Sandefur, Emily Walsh, Jean Weidner, Margaret Wise... the honor roll could go on to include at least a dozen more.

We chose six such chairwomen of distinction, from the highly experienced to the up-and-coming, and asked them to share the secrets of their success.

As a young mother, Myrna Band helped organize Out-of-Door Academy's first dinner auction. In 1992, Sandy Loevner asked her to co-chair the Florida Winefest & Auction black-tie gala and she's been doing it ever since. She's also added Wellness Community, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Memorial Hospital and Season of Sculpture to her projects. "Sarasota is magnificent in generosity of time, talent and money," Myrna says.

What do you love about chairing? The bottom line. I love raising those charity dollars. I care most about helping disadvantaged children and families, which is why Winefest has my heart. What element can make or break an event? If I knew, I'd bottle it, but it's a combination of the guests, food, music and ambiance. When everything works in sync, the evening is usually a success. Your worst job? Freshening up the portable bathrooms during Winefest when it was under a tent on Longboat Key. And actually, it wasn't so horrible. What's in your handbag on event night? I carry a huge tote bag and hide it under the table. In it are pins, tape, a list of guests in alphabetical order and another by table numbers, my timeline for the night which I hand out to the committee, band, caterer and chef. I also pack bedroom slippers that no one can see under my gown. It's easier to smile and visit all the tables if your feet don't hurt.

Reneé Sheade is currently a board member at the Sarasota County Arts Council, Jewish Federation and Community AIDS Network (CAN). "Have a passion for the cause," she advises. "Take time to assemble the right committee. Always have a wrap-up meeting; it makes the event stronger next season."

What do you enjoy most? Seeing how the event evolves, how ideas and people come together. I don't like doing the seating. When guests complain, it's usually about their table. What makes a great menu? A great caterer. What was the first event you chaired? A Jewish Federation event in Chicago, a concert with Sammy Davis Jr. I was 25. Our event was the day after Passover, but some of the food had been prepared the day before. Big error. The rabbis wouldn't let us serve anything except the vegetables and potato chips. Stand-out events? The reopening of the renovated Van Wezel; it was a sure thing because people were so curious to see the building. I loved the opening night opera party for Girl of the Golden West. We seated dinner guests in different rooms, each decorated like a scene from the opera. One was an Old West saloon. And the CAN parties are always full of enthusiasm and fun. How do you entertain at home? Dinner for 12 to 14. I do the cooking myself. Often, I'll hire a piano player and hand out sheet music and we'll all sing along.

Coordinator for the recent Selby Foundation 50th anniversary celebration, Debbi Benedict has chaired Pique-nique sur la Baie, Mistletoe Ball, Town Hall, Legacy Luncheon and many other events. "We do spectacular, world-class events in a comfortable setting in Sarasota," she says.

What do you worry about? If the event's outdoors, you must have plan B ready. I watch a lot of Weather Channel when I get close to an event. Any motto for when things get tough? If it is to be, it is up to me. How do you choose what you'll chair? My focus is arts and humanities, especially libraries. When I'm not working on a project, I'm reading. Do you have a favorite gown? A black velvet off-the-shoulder one I wore to Mistletoe Ball. The lining of the wrap was plaid, in keeping with our Scottish theme. How do you relax before an event? I don't relax. And when I get to the event, I rarely eat. I use the dinner hour to visit all the tables and thank guests for coming. Tips for chairs? Trust your gut; you're responsible anyway. Always use Phil Mancini. Pick reliable committee members. Choose a theme and key every element to it. Start early. How do you entertain at home? One year when I was taking voice lessons, I gave a cabaret party with entertainment by me. My two daughters were in high school and were so mortified they hid in the kitchen all night.

Interior designer Anne Folsom Smith brings confident flair to any event. From the Florida West Coast Symphony opening night gala to events for the Sarasota Film Festival, Florida Studio Theatre and New College of Florida, her signature is beautiful originality. Sarasota's charity circuit can be "competitive and exhausting," she says. Her advice to new chairs: "Maintain a sense of humor."

What element can make or break an event? The table configuration. I favor square tables for eight because they're best for conversation. Keep the centerpieces out of guests' sightlines. And have someone experienced do the seating. It's very sensitive in this town. What makes a great menu? Fork-tender food and a gorgeous presentation. What do you love about chairing? The planning and implementing. I don't like to beg for underwriting. What's the first event you had a leadership role in? I grew up in a small Southern town, and by 15 was working in a card shop where the owner was the local event planner. As a teen-ager I knew how to put on a great party, wedding, you name it. How do you choose the charities you work for? I love the arts, especially music, education and children. What kind of shoes do you wear to a gala? High heels, the higher the better. What kind of people do you want on your committee? Fun, spirited people, and not too many of them.

Amie Shay, 26, joined the Junior League the year her mother, Beth Cannata, a legendary local chair, was president. Since then, they've frequently served on each other's committees. Last year, Amie co-chaired UnGala Gala and either chaired or co-chaired Arts Night, Holiday Tour of Homes, Mistletoe Ball, New College Clambake, Salvation Army and Leadership Sarasota.

How do you choose your causes? I've studied dance, so I support causes that benefit the arts. And I treasure the Ringling Museum. Worst job so far? For Arts Night, we thought it would be cool to ring Five Points Park with bamboo shades attached to the trees. At 2 a.m. of the morning of the event, we admitted we couldn't do it and I called a contractor. What's the first event you were involved in? My high school prom. Working with my friends made it all the more special. I still like to pull my friends onto committees. How do you relax before a big event? I don't. When I know we came in on budget and raised more money than last year, then I relax. Can you eat at a gala? For a served meal, I stay with my guests for most of the dinner. If it's a buffet, I never eat. I thank sponsors and socialize. The chair should be the first to arrive and the last to leave.

Banker Veronica Brady has been a leader since she was student body president at Venice High School. A past Junior League president, she's chaired or co-chaired Going for the Gold, Sarasota/Manatee/Moffitt Breast Cancer Luncheon, Gator Club, USF Brunch on the Bay and Holiday Tour of Homes. "I care about causes that strengthen our community in a business, social service or civic way," she says. "I love that a group of caring people can make a difference."

How do you choose your causes? I'm devoted to the YMCA because of their work on behalf of families and children. And we're all touched in one way or another by cancer. Worst task? My mom and I stood for hours at my kitchen counter making up 60 vases of fresh flower arrangements. Never again. Tip for a new chair? Have chocolate at your meetings. Engage all opinions but stay on task. What element can make or break an event? Timing. Stick to a printed schedule. Keep things moving. Do you have a favorite gala gown? I don't have many gowns, and I recycle them. My favorite is a two-piece iridescent green and gold ensemble that makes me feel elegant. How do you entertain at home? My husband Jay and I belong to a supper group, and when it's our turn to host, I'll take a theme dinner from Bon Appetit and do it from start to finish.

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