Great Moments in Gala Goofs

By staff September 1, 2007

Sarasota’s social scene is alive and well, thanks to the Herculean efforts of chairwomen willing to embrace challenge. But it is inevitable that, sooner or later, even the most polished party planner will experience disaster—some magnificent miscue that reveals incredible reserves of creativity and courage. Here, six brave heroines share their fabulous faux pas.

A Word to the Wise

A soaring tent under the stars is probably the most glamorous of all venues—unless it is the most disastrous. Just ask Margaret Wise, member of the Florida Arts Council and president of the Asolo during its 50th anniversary year.

Wise has expertly chaired scores of successful events, but her exploits beneath the big top have occasionally turned into an absolute circus. Once, under a tent two hours before the New College Action Auction, she found herself on her hands and knees in a couture ball gown, shoulder to shoulder with caterer Phil Mancini, trying to secure gutters as rain whipped beneath the tent sides.

But her best tent flap involves a bash that nearly went up in smoke. “I did a party at the Ringling Museum beneath a tent, with special guest Tiny Tim and his new bride and a lavish fireworks show following dinner,” Wise says. “Following that grand flourish, guests were supposed to dance until the wee hours. Well, how was I to know the pyrotechnics expert who came so highly recommended had never done a show indoors? And who thought about hiring a fire marshal? Anyway, the fireworks soared up into the air and they were gorgeous, right up until the tent caught fire.”

Wise and her co-chair, Peggy Wood, dashed to the microphones and hastily thanked their guests for coming, bidding them good night. “It was only 9:30 but the party was over!” says Wise with a laugh. “And hardly anyone knew what had happened. People just followed our lead and headed for the exits, grateful for an early evening.” Most people, that is. “Peggy comes running, frantic because Tiny Tim is still standing there gazing up at the fireworks. He loved them. I took one look at him with those long locks and screamed to Peggy that he had sparks in his hair and needed to get out at once. What a night!”

Wise will host “A Star is Born” at the Ringling Museum on March 29 to celebrate the Asolo’s 50th anniversary.

Toss the Keys

Christina Pfahler is meticulous. She’s a fan of flow charts, spreadsheets and alphabetical order, and is never seen without her portable printer and extra cartridges of ink. So when chairing the 2005 Mistletoe Ball, Pfahler felt confident that everything had been double-checked to ensure success—until the zero hour arrived and her parking attendants did not.

“I am standing in the receiving line in my ball gown, and I notice people pulling up to the mansion on the New College campus, dropping passengers off and then driving away,” says Pfahler. “At first I attribute this to some early-comers being extremely particular about their cars, but as the moments tick off, I realize that everyone is self-parking. I leave the receiving line to investigate and discover that this is happening because there are no valets! People are parking every which way, creating strange traffic designs and congestion and parking in prohibited areas, and now I am in a panic.”

Pfahler sprang into action, rallying committee members to act as surrogate valets and pressing husbands to park cars. In genuine leadership style, she greeted the next car herself, opening the doors to welcome her guests and taking the keys with a smile. “I intended to hop in and park the car until I noticed two things,” laughs Pfahler. “First, it was a tiny sports car and I was not about to fit into the driver’s seat in my big old dress. And second, it has a manual transmission and I never learned how to drive a stick shift.”

Luckily, an observant committee member whisked the keys away, deftly maneuvering the fancy car into a safe spot. A scant 10 minutes later, the apologetic valet crew arrived. “All of this took place in less than 30 minutes, but it felt like a lifetime,” admits Pfahler. “I’ve learned that even the best plans sometimes go awry.”

This year, among her many fund-raising activities, Pfahler will chair the New College Mistletoe Ball, the Girls Inc. Celebration Luncheon and the Van Wezel Foundation “Reaching for the Stars” Gala.

Loaves and Fishes

What is a hostess to do when her luncheon is missing a key ingredient—lunch? Kathy Schersten has stared down a hungry mob and lived to tell the tale.

Schersten was president of the Women’s Resource Center when the board committed to a capital campaign to build a new facility. She agreed to host a fund-raising luncheon and fashion show at the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre and took a chance on a brand-new caterer.

The program began, the models strutted their stuff, and no food arrived. Speeches were made and introductions followed, and still no food. “We talked and dawdled and stretched out our thank-you’s and the caterer still did not materialize,” remembers Schersten. “And this was in the pre-cell phone era.”

Finally, the Golden Apple box office received a frantic telephone call from the distraught caterer. She had been involved in a car accident and all of the beautifully arranged lunches in neatly stacked boxes were thrown around or out of her van.

“I looked out across the audience and saw 100 hungry women with not even a bag of peanuts to share,” laughs Schersten. “So the committee ran in all directions, to every deli on Main Street, buying sandwiches, chips, cookies and soft drinks with their personal credit cards. As president, I remained on stage explaining the situation, and when the boxes of food arrived at last I started tossing sandwiches to the ladies, yelling, ‘Here’s a ham on whole wheat! One roast beef on rye coming up! Catch this turkey salad!’ Someone stopped me before I could throw the cans of soda.”

Happily, the caterer was not injured and went on to become one of Sarasota’s most sought-after party chefs. Schersten’s luncheon was also a success. “Nobody left hungry,” she recounts, “we had lots of laughs and quite a few of the guests handed us checks on the way out and thanked us for the fun time.”

Schersten is co-chairing “Casino Royale” to benefit the Hispanic American Center at St. Jude Church Oct. 26.

Last Dance

Kim Livengood is known for marrying her savvy sense of style to a good cause. For three years she chaired the School Daze fund raiser to benefit Every Child Inc., the beloved mission of her mother, Judy Alexander. Fashion shows were the centerpiece, with clothes provided by Livengood’s chic boutique, Willow 506.

So Livengood eagerly stepped up to the plate when asked to create a daring party to follow the Billy Idol concert at the Van Wezel on Halloween 2005. She envisioned a high-fashion after-party—hot band, cool lighting, beautiful faces—where svelte models paraded the season’s trendiest looks in front of an ultra-hip crowd.

“The evening was already proving a bit glitchy because my band was late and the lights were not right,” remembers Livengood. “But we worked that out and concentrated on the models. I staged four numbers with 30 girls and 90 outfits, which is quite ambitious, and we killed ourselves backstage on hair and makeup so guests would really enjoy the show.”

The dance floor doubled as the runway, and the start of the show was spectacular, says Livengood. But suddenly, “A small cluster of women walked out into the middle of the dance floor and started to bump and grind in the middle of my show!” she exclaims. “Two are quite well-known but had obviously enjoyed a number of cocktails. The show came to a screeching halt because my models could not walk. I was in tears and vowed to never do another fashion show without complete control and an elevated runway.”

Butterflies Are Free

Timing is everything. Just ask Nikki Taylor,co-chair of last year’s Butterfly Ball for the G.WIZ Hands-On Science Museum. “One of our guests was very intent on winning the diamond in our champagne diamond raffle,” explains Taylor. “To participate, guests buy a glass of champagne and keep the number on the bottom of their glass. One number is selected at random toward the end of the evening, and the lucky winner wins a diamond.” This particular guest deliberately enhanced her chances and bought numerous glasses of champagne, then downed each one.

As the evening wore on, her stunning azure-blue gown lost its battle with gravity and began to shift ever so slightly. Taylor sensed disaster. She gently steered the woman toward the ladies’ room for readjustment and then headed for center stage to announce the co-chairs for next year’s ball. “As the drum roll began and I started to speak, I saw the woman plop down in a chair at the exact table where the new co-chairs were seated,” says Taylor. “And the moment when the last strand on that blue gown broke precisely coincided with my announcement and a full spotlight on exactly where she was seated.” Taylor says the entire audience gasped until someone had the presence of mind to whisk the topless reveler behind a potted plant dotted with silk butterflies. “There’s a lesson right there,” laughs Taylor. “Never skimp on decorations.”

The fifth annual Butterfly Ball is slated for March 8 and themed “Butterflies from Egypt” to coincide with the museum’s King Tut exhibition. The ball will be chaired by Dr. Kenneth and Christina Pfahler and Brian and Carole Marshall.

Pandora’s Box

Amie Swan has an impressive volunteer resume: co-chair of UnGala Gala in 2004 and 2005, co-chair of the Sarasota County Arts Council’s Arts Night in 2005, 2006 and 2007, and chair of the Junior League’s Holiday Tour of Homes in 2004. But nothing could prepare her for the havoc wreaked by one curious cat.

The event was a glamorous fund raiser, with professional performers on stage along with high-profile local personalities attired in fabulous costumes. “Everyone was backstage an hour before the start time to dress,” explains Swan. “We opened the box of costumes to steam them, and there was this horrifying odor, the kind of stench that makes you walk away and cover your face.”

All too evidently, a cat had wormed its way into the storage box and marked its territory. “Can you imagine anything more awful than wearing a costume surrounded by that smell?” laments Swan.

“We didn’t have any options. The guests were due to arrive in an hour, our people had to be dressed, and there were no other costume shops open,” she says. “So we decided to get busy and do a load of laundry right there in the restrooms.” Swan found facial cleanser in her car and mixed it with the hand soap in the bathrooms. She then formed a kind of bucket brigade. One group wetted the garments while a second group scrubbed the spots and a third held the clean-but-damp costumes up to the bathroom’s hand-dryers until they were reasonably dry.

“Once a costume was clean and able to pass the sniff test, the final group of workers waved it through a spray of perfume and passed it on to a performer,” she says. Swan has a new respect for that old show business adage: Never work with animals.

Swan will preside over “Rock the Roof” Nov. 17 to benefit Sarasota Memorial Hospital Foundation. She is also board advisor for the Sarasota Arts Council Arts Day and Arts Night Jan. 11-13 and co-chair of the Wellness Community’s “Flight of Hope” March 15.

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