Confessions of a Mad Chairwoman

By staff September 1, 2006

When your husband tells you, "Give the valet parking guy a few extra dollars and have him unzip your dress," you know it's going to be a night to remember—but maybe I should start at the beginning.

June 10, 2005. Dona Morgan, Selby Gardens COO, calls and asks me to chair the 25th anniversary Orchid Ball. I tell her I need to look at my schedule for the upcoming year. But I know I’m going to say yes. I love, love, love to do anniversary years—whether it’s agreeing to be president of a board or chairing an event, I can’t resist the glamour of an anniversary. It’s always bigger, better and more fun than the rest. It’s a great opportunity to gather the “old gals” together and show appreciation for all the hard work they’ve done in the past, along with reminding them to remember their affection for the organization by putting it in their estate plans. Plans for a luncheon for past Orchid Ball chairs are already spinning in my head.

For the New College Library Association, I've chaired anniversary events for Mistletoe Ball and Pique-nique sur la Baie; and I chaired the Town Hall anniversary for Ringling School of Art and Design Library Association. I was president of Junior League of Sarasota and Ringling School Library Association on big anniversary years. And that’s not even talking about the huge 50th anniversary of the Selby Foundation I coordinated last year. I like to think of myself as the anniversary queen!

But back to the most important thing of all when planning for what is frequently called the most beautiful party in Sarasota: What will I wear? Dress designing goes into overdrive.

June 29. I have my first meeting with Dona and Emily Chalker Lane, Selby’s membership person. We don’t know each other well and start the delicate dance between chair and staff. I tell them my vision of the event; they tell me theirs. Luckily, nothing is revealed that won’t fit into each other’s vision.

Dona tells me her one non-negotiable—she wants chandeliers in the tent. OK by me. I tell them my one non-negotiable—Phil Mancini. I don’t do an event without the Michael’s On East catering staff. I want to work with a staff who, when I walk in, immediately brings me a diet Coke with no ice without my asking. On top of that, Michael’s On East has the best food in town.

Dona wants to put the catering out to bid. I say fine. Get all the bids you want, just as long as Michael’s ends up the caterer.

Silent auctions—I hate them. They sometimes bring in lots of money, but not nearly enough for all the work involved. We decide to do away with the traditional silent auction and concentrate on what Selby does best—orchids. Those glorious blooming plants in an assortment of beguiling colors will be the only silent-auction items.

For the six years I've been on the Orchid Ball committee, each event has had a "location" theme inspired by some orchid-growing place. "Passage to India” was the theme for 2005. I want something new. When I chair things, I try to do something that’s meaningful to the organization and meaningful to me.

Last year, I was wholly immersed in the Selby Foundation’s 50th anniversary, and by now I know more about Marie Selby than probably anyone else in the world, with the exception of Debra Jacobs, head of the foundation. Marie was one fascinating woman. So I start thinking about the history of Selby Gardens with Marie as the centerpiece. Not literally, of course. I certainly am not planning on a bust of Marie as a table centerpiece…but come to think of it, maybe that’s not such a bad idea!

July 19. Send out letters asking former Orchid Ball chairs and committee members to join the committee, a stellar list of old Sarasota, along with new people to give it lots of energy. Get tons of yes replies—great opportunity to spread the work around. (I only wish that had turned out to be true—as it happened, about 10 percent of the committee did 90 percent of the work, along with a yeoman’s effort from Selby Gardens’ staff.)

I remember the old days when committee meetings were almost little parties in themselves and everyone looked forward to a morning or afternoon out. Not so anymore. Even in just the last three or four years, things have changed. People usually turn out pretty well for the first meeting or two, especially if there is some kind of food involved, and of course, most show up for the committee photo, but then they drop off dramatically. Who can blame them? When we have hundreds of charitable boards and committees in this town, not to mention ever-expanding work and personal obligations, it’s hard to stay on top of everything.

Aug. 22. Meet with the printer to design the look of the ball, starting with the invitation. Since this is the 25th anniversary, I want to concentrate on the history of Bill and Marie Selby and reflect what the ball might have been like if they had hosted it.

Even though Marie was not at all about being fancy, she was a woman of her class and quite refined. She liked to wear housedresses and tennis shoes downtown and was known to be an excellent car mechanic, but she was also an accomplished pianist and artist. She was a friend of Bertha Palmer and Mable Ringling, so she could have put together a glamorous party if she put her mind to it.

Sept. 15. First committee meeting. I share with the committee what is already in place, including the colors—black, white and turquoise with splashes of lime. They’re secretly based on what colors will look best on the chairwoman, since I always like to match my dress to the theme.

Trying to think of the actual title of the ball has been agony, and I end up with “Age of Elegance.” It’s meant to reflect the time in Hollywood when movies had a Great Gatsby look and feel. That’s what I hope we can create. Sara Bagley suggests top hats, long white gloves, strings of pearls and a huge martini glass with orchids for the centerpieces—perfection!

Looking around the room, I’m excited about the great age mix and the number of both old and new committee members. It’s decided to start the ball with cocktails at the mansion. The committee brainstorms great ideas, such as having antique cars and silver candelabras along the promenade. We start praying right then and there for no rain the night of the ball.

Oct. 6. Drive to Orlando to select fabric for my gown. I have all my ball gowns custom made. I make a yearly trek to a little hole-in-the-wall store in Orlando that has the most exquisite fabrics. The trip up I-4 is a pain, but not only do I end up with one-of-a-kind gowns (no easy feat in this town), but I also get to meet up with old friend and now Orlando-ite Betty Sandhagen, wife of former local SunTrust president Ray Sandhagen. By the time she arrives at the fabric store for our gossipy, fun lunch, it’s pouring rain and reminds us both of the year she and Margarete van Antwerpen chaired the Mud Ball—I mean the Orchid Ball—and we were all up to our knees in slimy, gooey muck.

Back at the store, I have to choose among the multitudes of shimmering silk taffetas and intricate laces. I spot the perfect one—a turquoise-teal taffeta and a lace that dances with sparkling turquoise, lime and lavender iridescent beads. I’m trying out a new pattern for this special dress, which I think will be perfect. I find most of my patterns in the wedding-gown section of the Vogue pattern book and just have my seamstress take off trains and extraneous bows and doodads.

Nov. 10. “Save the Date” cards go out. They don’t really reflect what the final invitation will look like, which to me is a cardinal sin. Well, one side does, the other does not. One side is perfect (the side I designed!), looking like a note from Marie Selby. It’s crisp and clean and even has her actual monogram—a replica of a design used above the shower in the Selby house.

The other side is a line drawing of a woman holding an orchid. I’m not particularly fond of the drawing, but Dona loves it. I originally liked the concept of the design, but the execution didn’t capture what I had imagined. The card is a compromise, though a bit schizophrenic. The line drawing will go on the sponsor packet and on the sign listing the sponsors the night of the ball, and my side will be used on the actual invitation and program.

December. Holidays are in full swing and no thoughts about Orchid Ball for a few weeks, thank goodness.

Jan. 16. It is the day that will live in infamy. The patron letter, which asks people to become patrons of the event, arrives in my mailbox. I actually feel faint when I see it. It contains a multitude of mistakes, has a P.S. tacked on the bottom, and even misspells my own name. I want to die.

Several days earlier, at our committee meeting, the staff had been chastised for not being on top of this, so it was hurriedly done and sent out the next day. They faxed me a copy of the letter the morning they had written it. I was walking out the door for a day of meetings when it arrived, so I gave it a cursory glance instead of my usual thorough going-over. I was just happy it was finally being sent out. No. 1 lesson learned: Never, ever do things in a hurry, no matter what. You will always regret it. Holding it back one more day wouldn’t have hurt anything.

Jan. 17. After hours of lying in bed obsessing about the letter, I get up in the middle of the night and write the staff what my old Southern friend would call a “come-to-Jesus” e-mail. It is not pretty. I take partial blame but find there’s plenty of blame to spread around, and spread it I do. The patron letter is the final straw in several challenges I’ve had with the staff, and it all comes tumbling out.

As any chair can tell you, it’s hard not to overstep your bounds when you’re a volunteer, and I was trying—probably too hard—to be nice, because there had been so much staff turnover and a big learning curve. There were some fund-raising basics I assumed the newer staff members knew, which they did not. I also try not to be a control freak and to give people enough latitude to do their job, but when I’ve had enough, I have really had enough.

The end result is positive—much better understanding and communication between the staff and me. Roger Birkel, Selby Gardens CEO, is instrumental in negotiating a peace agreement, after which things improve greatly. My one demand is that we redo the letter correctly—I will write it myself—and mail it again, which we do.

Jan. 30. The past-chair luncheon—great turnout and great opportunity to hear the oral history of the ball. I always enjoy hearing about the days when committees got together and actually hand-made all the decorations and centerpieces. Now that an entire industry has grown up around event planning in Sarasota, it’s hard to imagine that women used to do it all themselves. The whole set-up of the evening was a little different then, too. You went to your table hostess’s home for cocktails and all arrived at the ball together. Think what we could save on our event budget if we could cut out cocktail costs!

Feb. 16. Invitations are mailed. Seeing the completed invitation was a little heart stopping, as it was never given to me or anyone else on the committee or at the gardens for a final proofing. It ends up looking great, but I later find out that one of the past chairs, Laura Peters, was left off the past-chair listing, for which I feel terrible. (Does naming her in this article make up for it? I hope so!)

In the old days, invitation addressing was loads of fun and a great learning experience. Everyone gathered at someone’s home. The people with the best handwriting did the actual addressing and the others sealed and stamped, while gossip and fact were passed back and forth about many of the names on the envelopes. If you were new to the community, you learned more in that one day than in a normal year’s entire experience!

Now it’s all so mechanical, with labels and such, but it still can be fun if you put your mind to it. At least doing it in Selby’s Activity Center affords us the opportunity of enjoying the radiant bay view all day.

March 24. The ball is just nine days away. We do a dry run of putting the centerpieces together. The original concept was to have a huge martini glass overflowing with orchids. It doesn’t work at all. Someone suggests we rim the glass with orchid corsages. That idea is quickly discarded as we realize we won’t be able to obtain sufficient numbers of the appropriate orchid for corsages. Plan C? Call Beneva Flowers for a quick meeting. They come through with an exceptional, visually stunning idea.

March 26. The Sunday morning before the Saturday-night ball. My husband, Jan, receives a call from his brother. Their mother, who has been ill for some time, has gotten worse. I silently hope she can hang on for another week, since she’s in Michigan and we’re here. Sadly, she passes away by 3 p.m. that day, and we make plans to head up North. It’s not the most opportune time for me to leave, but I have no choice.

March 31. Flew to Michigan on the 29th and have spent two days with my four sisters-in-law preparing food for the funeral luncheon: hams, turkeys, potato salad, baked beans, Jell-O salads, pies and cakes. No Michael’s On East catering here, but in the lovely tradition of the rural Midwest, casseroles galore have been coming to the farm for our meals.

It is a strange dichotomy—a funeral in a small town and a charity ball in a sophisticated city. My mind has been spinning in both directions, along with trying to keep my husband and daughters comforted and on an even keel. Whenever I have a spare moment, I call home to get phone messages and check my e-mail to deal with any building crises.

I feel guilty to have the Orchid Ball on my mind during this family time, but if I weren’t keeping tabs on what was going on in Sarasota, I would feel guilty about that, too. By the time I get back on the plane tonight, I’m glad to have this distressing week almost behind me.

April 1. The day of the ball. Bright and early in the morning I go to the gardens to set up. I see tons of black chair cushions hanging from makeshift clotheslines. Lawn sprinklers were not turned off, and everything got drenched. Luckily we have a sunny and breezy, perfect-for-drying day, and everything is shipshape in a few hours.

A large group of volunteers and staff buzzes around the tent, attending to each facet of the decorations plan. Thank goodness they all showed up! The gardens are alive with activity. Visitors to the gardens stop to inspect what we’re doing, and more than one woman voices to her husband, “I wish we were attending tonight.”

The tent could not look more beautiful. It has a clear ceiling, which will show off the shadows of the huge tree branches that hang over the tent. The three regal chandeliers will look like they’re suspended from the stars. The black-and-white checkerboard dance floor is being noisily installed. Steve Patmagrian of New Atmosphere Productions is pin-spotting the centerpieces and installing his pièce de résistance, an arch over the entryway of the tent. It has the Selby monogram carved into it, the same one from the invitation and the program. It’s the details that count.

Phil Mancini comes to check on the tables, chairs and tent—all the nuts and bolts. His crew is in place and running on schedule.

Beneva Flowers’ trucks start to arrive. Delicate lime-green orchids explode from the toppers as they’re gently carried one by one to the tall glass pedestals in the center of each brilliant turquoise tablecloth. It looks lush beyond words. The black top hats, strands of white pearls and long white gloves are languidly arranged around the pedestals, making a tablescape that is at once fun and elegant. I am starting to get very excited. I love it when a plan comes together!

When I turn around to give the scene the final once-over before leaving to have my hair done, it almost takes my breath away. And it’s still daylight! At night it will be magical.

Driving home after the set-up, I call my husband, who’s still in Michigan. I realize I won’t be able to zip or unzip my gown for the evening. I know I can probably have a neighbor zip me up, but who can I ask at midnight to unzip my dress, so I won’t have to sleep in it?

“Give the valet parking guy a few extra dollars and have him unzip your dress,” he says. I can just hear the valet guys standing around telling their most outrageous stories with me as a central figure in them, so I tell him he’s insane and try to think of other options.

After phoning neighbors I barely know to see if they’ll be home this evening to zip me up, I find one who’s available. She kindly arrives at the appointed time, and I innocently ask what time she goes to bed. Fortunately for me, tonight it’s after midnight, since she’s calling bingo down at the Legion Hall. I ask if I can stop by on my way home so she can unzip me. She graciously says yes, thus saving my reputation and my pride.

After almost a year of hard work, the ball is fabulous. The weather is perfection, and the setting glorious. The soft light of dusk filters through the huge oak in front of the mansion, where Roger, Dona and I form the receiving line (a must in my book). A 1920s-style jazz trio sets the mood on the front porch. Partygoers sip champagne as they pass through to the veranda on the bayfront and then stroll down the promenade, where they take turns posing by the gleaming antique cars. Friend after friend arrives in gorgeous, brightly colored spring gowns, and each one innocently asks, “Where’s Jan?” I retell the sad events of the past week over and over and over.

As the cocktail hour ends and everyone makes their way to the tent, I feel a wave of sadness break over me. It’s almost more than I can bear. I wish my husband were here. I let grief wash over me for a minute or two and then tell myself to buck up and be the hostess I’m supposed to be. The crowd of almost 500 didn’t come to see me burst into tears. I put on my party face and move from table to table, talking to everyone and making sure they’re having a great time.

And a great time it is. The centerpieces become costumes, with many people donning the top hats and gloves, even out on the dance floor—something fun that we had not anticipated. A wonderful party always has a bit of serendipity involved. At the close of the evening, people leave with lots of hugs, kisses, and congratulations on another outstanding evening that raised a lot of money and made new friends for the gardens—which is what this was all about.

After climbing into bed (unzipped and ungowned), I close my eyes as the evening plays over and over in my head. I always have an afterglow at the completion of a successful event, and I feel warm and wonderful as I drift off. One thought does cross my mind before I finally fall asleep: Who has the next anniversary coming up, and am I available?

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