Sunday, April 26, 2015

Lensic Gala: On the Orient Express

I have been to a lot of gala benefits for all kinds of causes but mostly in the arts.  Some are very boring, others are rather off putting in the crass manner in which they try to raise funds.  Some are entertaining but you are not sure what you are benefiting by sitting there!   Every once in a while, however, there is one that works.  It is interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile.

Let me start here with the disclosure that I have just been asked to join the board of the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe.  The Lensic started out as a great old-fashioned movie palace, which had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 20th century.  Nancy and Bill Zeckendorf, the well known real estate developer, saw its potential and with 8 other performing arts groups in Santa Fe raised the 9 million dollars to re-open it as a state of the art theater for the 21st century.  Bill died last year, and Nancy carries on working at the Lensic and volunteering her time and considerable energy.

As I have mentioned before the Lensic under the leadership of its impresario Bob Martin has brought to Santa Fe live theater, concerts, ballet, modern dance, lecture series, as well as simulcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and the National Theater in London.

While New York has to be called a Mecca for the performing Arts, the Lensic offers much of what we miss from there.  Every year there is a committee that sets up a gala event to help raise much needed funds. Like all endeavors some are more successful that others.  This year’s was a grand success and I found this one to actually be lots of fun.

The evening began with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the lobby of the theater and moved into the theater transformed with a rendering of the train heading out of the station adding the appropriate toots and smoke and videos of Paris where the Orient Express departed from.

The dinner was on the stage of the theater, with the 3 rows of tables listed as track numbers and the dining cars (tables) listed by number.  As usual the guests wore many different garbs from costume to black tie to suit and tie.  The ladies, of course, took advantage of the opportunity to dress to the nines.

What makes a successful dinner?  Of course, part of the answer is who you are lucky enough to sit with.  Therefore, most people sat with their significant other.  Penelope and I have a different philosophy.  We always try to separate.  That way we have double the opportunity to meet interesting people.  I had an additional incentive in having just joined the board of the Lensic I need to meet as many in that crowd as possible.  Every constituency has a different group of interested and interesting people and often they don’t cross paths.

The evening was kicked off by Nancy Zeckendorf who welcomed one and all and thanked her Co-chair, Lisa Barker, who acted as Master of Ceremonies.

Nancy Zeckendorf

We were promised some surprises that were not indicated in the program.  The first was Tonia Bern-Campbell accompanied by her pianist, John Randall – both out of Los Angeles.  She sang a number of songs that Edith Piaf had made famous which tied into the departure of the Orient Express from Paris.  Later in the evening she told me that she had met Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and that Jacques Brel was her mentor, three singers that I have always loved.

Near the end of the evening a group of belly dancers from the Mosaic Dance Company from Pomegranate Studios in Santa Fe came on the floor and danced to the appropriate music indicating we had arrived at the train’s destination of Istanbul.   This was enjoyed by all who did not care as much for the singer.  I personally preferred the latter but if there is something for everyone that adds to a successful evening.

For me the biggest surprise was the auctioneer, David Goodman.  He has a not-for-profit company that specializes in charity auctions.  Many charity galas these days include an auction sometimes silent, sometimes live and once in a while both.  This year the Lensic’s auction was live.  I have heard auctioneers that were so bad that the gala chair had to take their places until the hammer fell. Then I have heard others that were quite good on their own but never before had I seen and heard one who was actually fun!

Part of that enjoyment was that it did not go on forever.  There were 7 lots plus one.  As expected at this type of auction there was a trip on a yacht and a stay at a villa in Tuscany.  A more unusual offering was a wine cellar of 100  bottles donated by a number of people with some of the wines from major vineyards and vintages.  During the bidding the auctioneer would come off the platform to walk through the audience and cajole the bidders. When he was auctioning a Private Night at the Movies where you could bring 100 of your nearest and dearest to the Lensic for a movie of your choice he had a bidder at $3,000 and another at $4,000.  He turned to the latter and said I am going to save you $1,000.  He got the $3,000 bidder to reconfirm his bid and announced that he had sold 2 instead of 1 Private Night at the Movies.  Do you know a hundred friends to invite?

The final lot was introduced with a video of youngsters extolling the importance of the performing arts and what it meant to them to be able to attend the free performances for school children that are part of the Lensic education program.  To raise money for the program the auctioneer did not exaggerate and started at $2,500 going in increments down to $100 in order to gather the greatest participation.   The entire auction was done so no one could be offended.  One auction I attended some years ago was so offensive in its style that I have never gone again.

In between the auctioneer did a few magic tricks, which were so out of left field that they were twice as funny and magical.  When it was all over he took what seemed to be an empty glass box and suddenly it was filled with dollar bills demonstrating the success of the auction.

The objective of any charity gala night is to raise funds and if it can be done so people don’t leave saying, “I hate going to those things”, you know you have a success.  I believe the Lensic’s “On the Orient Express” qualified.

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