The Best Non-Profit Parties of the Year

Out of the 900 or so non-profit organizations that call Santa Barbara county a base of operations, a corresponding number of fundraisers are held each year (that’s almost three a day, if you’re counting at home). Santa Barbara rules the nation in number of non-profit organizations per capita and amount of money given to charities each year per capita. Which is to say that the good people of Santa Barbara give a lot and they give to a lot of people.

Recent forecasts tell us the numbers will only increase. To celebrate this community-wide effort, we’ve created an honor roll for the galas, ceremonies and celebrations that in the last year have done the best job in entertaining guests and in raising money (that is, after all, the objective). Our panel of judges spread the winners throughout 10 categories. The judges include MJ publisher emeritus James Buckley, MJ columnists Lynda Millner and Erin Graffy and Santa Barbara News-Press society writer Lorraine Wilson, who covered a staggering 228 events in 2006.

Best Party

United Way Red Feather Ball

A party, whether it’s for a good cause or not, should by definition be fun. So when James Buckley wrote that the October 14 Red Feather Ball concluded with “ear-to-ear grins, loud guffaws and deafening applause,” there should be little debate about the evening’s fun factor. Everything from the food and wine to the décor and entertainment at Bacara Resort was “top-notch, first-rate,” Buckley said. Performers from Le Cirque displayed impressive acrobatics while Erin Graffy showcased her talents as a parodist in “Philanthropy, The Musical,” a play she wrote, directed, produced and choreographed as a way to celebrate Santa Barbara’s favorite pastime. Graffy’s musical ensemble consisted of herself and a troupe of local icons who carried the show through a series of American standards morphed into spirited spoofs – “As Dimes Roll By” was sung to the tune of “As Time Goes By” and “That’s Entertainment” became “That’s Philanthropic.” Mr. Santa Barbara Larry Crandell said the performance was “the best segment of entertainment in the forty-six years” he’s been attending such events.

Best Staged

Zoofari Ball; Marilyn Horne Tribute; Dream Foundation Luncheon

In her account of the Marilyn Horne Tribute at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort Rotunda, Lynda Millner describes a “stellar evening” with “cabaret chic” guests sipping on wine and sampling hors d’oeuvres as 24 of the “brightest stars” from the Music Academy of the West’s study program performed Irving Berlin classics. The Zoofari Ball was a raucous affair, “the biggest Baby Boomer bash around,” Erin Graffy wrote. The funky music and safari-appropriate attire welcomed praise and timely double entendres. The Dream Foundation Luncheon raised a record $250,000, and with good reason, wrote Lorraine Wilson. The event was by all accounts a dream. Jennifer Holliday, who starred as Effie in the Broadway musical “Dreamgirls,” filled the cavernous spaces of the Bacara ballroom with a rousing rendition of “And I am Telling You I’m Not Going,” leaving a packed audience stirred and awed, or if you prefer, dreaming for more.

Best Themes

Mad Hatters Luncheon; Arabian Nights; Night for Sight

In “An Evening With the Rat Pack in Las Vegas: The Best is Yet To Come,” SEE International sought to recreate Las Vegas circa late 1950s or early ‘60s and appeared to do this convincingly. Women wobbled in stiletto heels and shook their hips in “va-va-voom Vegas glamour,” not unlike the sheiks and sheikas of “Arabian Nights, Welcome to the Casbah,” who frolicked in support of Marymount School, carrying out, infusing and reinterpreting the Arabian theme throughout the night. Meanwhile the “Hooray for Hollywood” theme for the Transition House Auxiliary Mad Hatter Luncheon was its usual, well-attended self. Just as in Dr. Seuss’s story, “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins,” the hats came filing in, growing bigger and better.

Best Organized

CASA Golf Tournament; CALM Celebrity Authors’ Luncheon; News-Press Lifetime Achievement Awards

The CASA Golf Tournament gave players plenty of pleasurable options to donate money in an event that went without a hitch, a feat that was aided no doubt by the immaculate weather and the “long-legged, short-skirted, smiling volunteers” tending each hole. The CALM Celebrity Authors’ Luncheon derives a lot of its success from its guest authors (in 2006 it was Chris Kennedy Lawford, Gregg Hurwitz, Denise Nicholas, Tab Hunter and Teri Garr), who are each interviewed consecutively in proceedings that seem to always unfold seamlessly. Meanwhile, the News-Press Lifetime Achievement Awards put a dinner at the Biltmore, tributes to three individuals and a stand-up routine by surprise guest Jay Leno all into one memorable gala that Lorraine Wilson says is a credit to News-Press co-publisher Arthur Von Wiesenberger’s organizational talents.

Best New Event

Opera in Blue Jeans

This brainchild of former Opera Santa Barbara Board President Fred Sidon should be repeated every year until the Day of Judgment, and maybe even after that. Some 300 people came to Brooks Firestone’s Crossroads Barn, “duded-out in formal cowboy finery” and feasting on Santa Maria-style barbecue between acts. The opera hoedown featured flashes of Puccini’s opera “La Fanciulla del West” (Girl of the Golden West), the cast of cowboys belting out high C’s to an encouraging audience wildly applauding, cheering and whistling.

Best Dressed

Opera Venetian Carnival; Amethyst Ball; Tiara Ball

On sale outside the “dining room” at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse were leather, made-in-Venice carnival masks that Buckley says “were as authentic as some of the costumes, decorations and the opera singers themselves.” At the 2006 Tiara Ball, a benefit for Cottage Hospital, men were dapper in black-tie attire and women radiated in flourishes of formal fabric and requisite tiaras sur tête. Ditto for the 20-year-old Amethyst Ball, where guests came finely dressed for an evening that sparkled with generosity.

Most Interesting Speaker

Girls Inc. 21st Scholarship Luncheon

This benefit for Girls Incorporated of Greater Santa Barbara has carved its place as one of the area’s elite fundraisers through its impressive heritage of power women keynote speakers – Barbara Bush, Oprah Winfrey, Maria Shriver and the list goes on. Last year, it was Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental activist who in 2004 became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. Maathai, known affectionately as “The Tree Lady,” founded the Green Belt Movement, a non-profit grassroots organization that promotes ecologically visible social, economic and cultural development in Kenya. Maathai’s message for the “Seeds of Hope” luncheon? That girls need someone to speak for them when they’re small, just as Maathai’s mother did for her.

Best Service

Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel

When it comes to service, the hotel operates in a class of its own, whether it’s a table of two or a ballroom of 200. Last year, the Hats Off Luncheon, Teddy Bear Luncheon and even the Andy Granatelli Brunch gave guests exposure to the resort’s attentive and meticulous wait staff and superior cuisine that never lacks in consistency. Hotel owner Ty Warner just dropped $240 million for a facelift on the facilities, and the results show, deserving of the AAA Five Diamond Award the resort has won each of the last two years.

Best Tribute

The Kirk Douglas Bash

At 90 years old and with an equivalent number of films to his name, Kirk Douglas can claim both a long life and excellence in cinema, exemplary says Millner of Roman philosopher Seneca’s quote, “Life’s like a play; it’s not the length but the excellence of the acting that matters.” At Bacara Resort last year, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival honored the Montecito actor with the Excellence in Film award, a tribute that will wisely be given to other deserving actors annually in Douglas’s name.

Best Tea Party

Lobero Associates Holiday Tea; Closets for a Cause Tea Party

The annual Lobero Theatre Associates Holiday Tea billed itself as a “proper ladies’ tea” and deftly lived up to the advertisement. For Closets for a Cause, a party in honor of LifeChronicles, guests were treated to complimentary gloves and retro hats from the local consignment store Renaissance in La Arcada Court. The centerpieces on the tables at the Montecito Country Club were 18-inch paper dolls decked out with jeweled bracelets, fringe and necklaces while waiters poured tea from fancy China pots and guests indulged in finger sandwiches and pastries. What more could a woman ask for?