A few weeks back I opened the mailbox to discover a startling amount of invitations. There were “Galas,” “Inspirational Evenings,” “Mid-Summer Nights,” “Tributes,” “Unforgettables” and even one “Hoedown.” Eighty percent took place on a Saturday night.
With the exception of one “Unforgettable,” every single event cost more than $1,000 a ticket. Quarter pages in the tribute books started higher. Yikes!
Their presentations ranged from confusing to abusive. Three invites were so cluttered with eye-catching graphics I had to search online to divine the mission of the soliciting charities. One envelope conveniently touted a pledge card on which the level of donation one was expected to pony up was already circled. Another contained no less than seven cards that spilled out without warning — all of which had to be filled out completely in order to respond. One pointy edge got stuck in my shoe.
None of it exactly made me want to give up a night with TiVo …
Besides, given the mortgage crisis, the impending elections, damage from the writers strike and the current de facto strike climate, anyone who has that kind of disposable income is currently out of the country or enjoying their Malibu beach house and not about to drive back into town. The gas will cost more than their dress.
Since all of these invites amounted to a big fat pile of tragedy, without warning I began channeling Lyndy, one of the six socialites embroiled in fund-raising turf wars and other assorted crises in my recently published novel “Trophies” (William Morrow).
Aside from being the second wife of Max Wallert — creator of two long-dead-yet-still-syndicated series, producer of numerous action films that were domestic duds but overseas hits, and the undisputed Dry Cleaning King of West Covina — Lyndy is a Stage III Trophy and veteran fund-raiser offering little suffrage for those she deems fools.
I thought I had exorcised this character after finishing my book, but here she was, grinding her Ferragamo heel into my parquet and jangling her Jar bracelet in dismay. I told her that as long as she was weighing in, she might as well make herself useful and offer a few helpful tips on mounting large-scale events for which people might actually go out of their way, not to mention open their wallets.
Her advice might sound callous, cynical, even downright cruel. But remember: Lyndy’s tips, not mine:
Selecting a dinner committee
Choose only people who have legions of beholden, wealthy friends; represent comedians, pop stars or movie icons; are comedians, pop stars or movie icons; own wineries; run valet services; manufacture cameras, sunglasses, MP3 players, jewelry and other desirable swag bag tchotchkies; oversee studios, independent production companies and/or talent agencies; head transnational corporations and/or advertising agencies; or are employed as florists or tastemakers. They’ll never show up for planning meetings, but that’s not why you chose them.
Event theme and dress
It is at this moment that most first-time fund-raisers gush forth their wildest fantasies and virtually tremble at the chance to “get creative.” My advice? Cut the crap.
There isn’t an orphan or disease on Earth that will compel a studio head to don a grass skirt.
You’re throwing a Black Tie Gala. If you consider this a predictable, uninspired, “old school” formula, you’re right. Because it works.
Since you’re designing a public fund-raiser, not a private school’s mandatory parent party, much less your prom, the only question you need ask: Whose booties do you want in the seats?
The answer is always the same: Rich people over 40.
Now, skim over everyone’s lists and pick 10 Dream Guests. Which fund-raisers do these people loyally attend every year? What do they have in common? Compile your data into an event profile.
Dollars to doughnuts, it’ll be a theme-free tribute to one of the Dream Guests’ friends with a comedian host and an over-40-mega-pop-singer-who-thrilled-them-in-their-youth filling the entertainment slot. Or an under-40-mega-pop-star-with-no-edges-whatsoever.
Remember: The only reason to honor somebody is to sell seats. Choose famous and popular. If you want to honor someone who’s actually worthy of laurels, like the secretary who stays after hours without pay, plaque her.
Your Dream Guests will furiously socialize during cocktails, dance one or two numbers between the barely touched main course and the dessert, and haul ass the second the host says, “That’s the end of the program, but please stay and enjoy the band …” (Only charity staff and assistants-attending-as-proxy stay and dance at this time.)
One year ahead of your event, book two hosts. You have a backup in case one flakes or gets arrested. It’s happened before.
Settling on a date
On any given night, scores of charities stage simultaneous fetes competing for philanthropic affections around town. Assuming that you want attendance to surpass 300 people (don’t bother if you don’t), book your fund-raiser at least one year in advance — two years is better. Appearing first on the event calendar websites will accrue notoriety and lend it a fighting chance.
Aside from Oscar night and religious and national holidays, the main conflicts to be avoided are the NBA playoffs, March Madness and any nighttime musical program at Harvard-Westlake School.
No one wants to give up their Saturday night, and if they do they’ll always resent you. Pick a weeknight other than Monday or Friday. Only book a Sunday night if you wish to hum “They Call the Wind Mariah” while watching mournful tumbleweeds blow across your empty ballroom.
Choosing a venue
Ironclad rule: All large black-tie events belong in hotels. I do not care if you are best friends with Ron Burkle, the Sabans or anyone else with expansive lawns. The thought of mounting a shuttle bus only causes shudders. No one wants to wait curbside while their gown soaks up runoff. No one wants to wear black tie to a mall or airport hangar. No one wants to rip out the hem of their Valentino pant leg on a port-a-potty stair tread. They’ll spend the rest of the evening hating you and your charity.
That said, most hotels have notoriously slow valet service, so demand extra valet crew and two extra ticket processors. People in this town dream of light-speed valet. If you offer it, you’ll experience lifelong charity loyalty and a mention in their wills.
Select a ballroom that can be compressed or expanded through movable wall panels so neither unbelievably terrific nor shamefully tragic attendance will affect the evening’s ambiance. Mirrored wall panels might appear to work best as the crowd always appears larger, but they pose a hazard for the elderly and the drunk, so avoid them if possible.
Fact of life: No matter how yummy the hotel’s sample meals taste, on the night of your event they will be bland, over-warmed, unsatisfying crap. The appetizers will also be crap. Hotels will not allow for off-site catering, either.
On the bright side, unless this is their first hotel ballroom experience, your guests expect crap food and won’t hold it against you, so don’t lose sleep. Fortify them with hard liquor at cocktail time and a generous amount of table wine.
Note about cocktail bars: If someone has paid $10,000 for a table, don’t charge $10 for a watered-down vodka soda. No-host bars, please.
Do retain the services of an outside florist. Hotel flowers smell like feet. All centerpieces should be at least 3 feet tall so ladies don’t have to bend to read the table numbers stuck in the bouquet crown and risk a breast popping out of their decolletage. If this sounds appealing to some of you male readers, imagine the woman is 70, with tattoos.
Don’t go crazy on the flowers, table crystal, wine or party favors like silver picture frames. Otherwise your guests will be wishing you put the money toward better food.
Keep event titles vague and generic like “Under the Stars” or “Winter Solstice Ball.” Avoid anything that includes exclamation marks or the name of a disease. Overly enthusiastic titles frighten prospective guests.
Unless your envelope is stuffed with gift certificates or emblazoned with the words “Free Porn,” you will have to make a follow-up phone call. Don’t take it personally. Times are tough.
Use post-consumer recycled paper with BIG, SIMPLE PRINT.
Secure anything you can get your hands on. It all goes toward bribing the nannies. People need that.
Start before salad is served. Everyone will thank you.
Laughter and lauding the honoree will take up most of the evening as opposed to underlining the workings of the charity, which should whiz by in a slickly produced, upbeat, two-minute video without a mention of anything unhappy. End film with one personal story that culminates in stupendous success.
Note about auctions: Silent or live, we’ve all been “auctioned” to death. Enough!
No speeches over one minute. One!
Thank only one staff member of the charity that everyone knows. Do not let anyone besides the director speak. No one wants to spend $30,000 to hear a communications director crack in-jokes.
Same goes for board members. Some people get intoxicated with power holding a mike and don’t know when to stop.
Point out celebs in attendance and thank them for their help even though they are comped.
And most important: Every single aspect of the evening should be underwritten.
Heather Thomas is an actress and screenwriter whose recently published “Trophies” is her first novel.