Always read the entire invitation. I have a bad habit of just scanning these welcome little notices. Perhaps I focused on the timing: I was delighted to discover that I could attend a benefit for Wonders and Worries, a group that provides help for kids whose grownups are seriously ill.
Since a previous W&W party stressed a Western theme, I assumed that my nightlife uniform of black jeans, boots, black top and winter jacket would suffice. Arrived at the Lone Star Ballroom on the third floor of the spangly new JW Marriott Austin to discover folks attired in formal wear and disguised in masks.
This being Austin, it didn’t matter. Nobody snubbed my more casual threads.
It’s a good thing, too, since we mingled in that lobby for a long time. It was well past 8 p.m. when a few renegades pushed open the doors to the medium-sized ballroom, where tables were manned by masked servers standing at attention. Assigning particular pairs of servers to particular tables worked well here, since the rhythms of dining varied among the lively revelers.
Attention at our table turned, not to the charity, but to the venue still under nightly scrutiny. After all, some of us will be spending a lot of time in these digs. Everyone approved the setting and the “Phantom of the Opera” decor. A few guests wished that the lobby service stations were spaced to thin out the early stampedes.
The JW is trying to accomplish something tough: Quantity through three floors of sizable conference rooms and quality through attention to detail.
One thing they definitely got right — and this is no small matter on the social circuit — the roast chicken was moist, warm and well-spiced. Hard to get that right 500 times when you’ve also got simultaneous parties on other floors and three restaurants downstairs to maintain.
By now, Austin has learned how to stage a big, slick awards show jammed with glamour. The Austin Film Society has been doing it for ages with the Texas Film Awards. More recently, the Texas Cultural Trust has reliably matched its movie counterpart for camera-ready star power during the Texas Medal of Arts Awards ceremonies.
The group that promotes the arts, particularly before the state legislature, attracts a wide audience. This week’s ceremony at the Long Center leaned heavily toward Dallas, but fairly represented the entire state. The gala’s chairwomen, Gene Jones and Charlotte Jones Anderson — wife and daughter, respectively, of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones —made sure every detail sang.
The sports theme was amplified by the guest emcees, Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman and Fox Sports sportscaster Joe Buck. It continued through the dance awardees, the high-kicking Kilgore Rangerettes, who practically invented precision dance drilling during football half-times in the 1930s. When I asked for a photo, the entire team cocked their heads in the same direction and smiled. That’s discipline!
Global designer Charles Renfro, however, was the first to accept an award. In a timely manner, given the political leaders in attendance, he called for open-mindedness in his home state. “Project Row Houses” artist Rick Lowe up next, felt encouraged that his singular artistry resonated with those who chose the honors. Corporate laurels went to Dr. Pepper Snapple.
Broadway star Betty Buckley saluted the Rangerettes, then T Bone Burnett and the Booker T. Washington School for the Arts were singled out. Musician, songwriter and producer, Burnett, perhaps best known for “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, spoke about the power of the arts over the powerful, again leaning into the political leadership in attendance.
Author Lawrence Wright proposed a “Rabbit Enchilada Theory of Texas Culture” during his acceptance speech about the multi-stage evolution of our relationship to the state’s cultural identity. Playwright Robert Schenkkan, whose “All the Way” opens at Zach Theatre in April, was equally eloquent, if not quite so symbolic. Emilio Nicolas, founder of the Spanish-language network that became Univision, gave a brief, gracious speech.
Austin-born Dallas patron Margaret McDermott, however, stole the whole show. At 103, she whipped out lines such as: “I wasn’t the smartest kid on the block, but I married the smartest kid on the block.” She later confessed that she “had so much fun, she wanted to do it all over again.” First lady Laura Bush handed the Standing Ovation Award to another Dallas patron, Ruth Altshuler, whose softer-edged humor seemed to have two very different audiences. But after McDermott …
After the Steve Miller Band played “Livin’ in the USA,” Miller introduced the Lifetime Achievement honorees, the Gatlin Brothers. The best part of their set was a series of incredible images of the brothers as really little boys. Man, they started out in show biz — via the church — way early.
But wait! We’re not through. They saved three of the biggest names for last — TV star Chandra Wilson, TV news legend Dan Rather and Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, who said he never turned his back on Texas. (I didn’t know he went to college on a classical music scholarship.) He begged the assembled politicos to support arts training in public schools before leading a call-and-response closing number that turned chaotic, but fun. (McDermott played a key role.)
If all that were not enough, the dinner, catered by the Four Seasons Hotel, awaited guests in a tent on the Long Center Terrace. A few grumbled about their rumbling tummies at 9:30 p.m., but once the grub was served, they chatted and exchanged stories into the late hours.
Next year, the frontrunners for the Bettie Naylor Visibility Awards, given out by the Human Rights Campaign, will likely be Sarah Goodfriend and her wife, Suzanne Bryant. Last week, Texas granted its first and — so far — only gay marriage license to the Austin couple.
Three days later, there they were, certificate in hand, at the Human Rights Campaign Gala on the third floor of the sparkling new JW Marriott Hotel, still grinning like the luckiest women in the world. Both are longtime activists for marriage equality and other human rights. Personally, attorney Bryant has helped many couples, including Kip and I, navigate the legal shoals of partnership and marriage.
(I failed to ask if the certificate was a copy. The original — already an historical document — should be kept in a very safe place.)
Bryant and Goodfriend were the surprise stars of the gala, but hardly the only ones. Winning the Naylor this year were dear friends Steven Tomlinson and Eugene Sepulveda, who each made compelling speeches about how much family and community have influenced their civic, business, educational, political, philanthropic and spiritual leadership.
Honored as straight allies were relative newcomers Sandra and Walter Wilkie, transplants from New York, who have already made a big impact locally. Dressed in an “inventor’s jacket,” Walter Wilkie related that wearing his HRC button all over the country has sparked beneficial conversations with gay and straight strangers.
Actress and writer Maria Bello, the evening’s Equality Award winner, spoke about her upcoming book, her rejection of traditional labels and her fondness for the word “whatever” instead. Fred Sainz, part of the HRC’s national leadership, gave a rousing speech about building on recent political wins. Always self-deprecating State Senator Kirk Watson nailed the emcee assignment for the evening. Among the other political notables present: U.S. Congressmen Joaquin Castro and Lloyd Doggett, State Rep. CeliaIsrael, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Mayor Steve Adler, who issued the most extravagant municipal proclamation I’ve ever heard in order to applaud his friends Tomlinson and Sepulveda.
The evening ran a bit long, but guests didn’t seem to mind. There was much to celebrate. How did the JW do? Freshman service glitches were inevitable, but the Lone Star Ballroom served this 600-seat party quite well. I peeked into the other facilities, including the Grand Ballroom upstairs, which will give Hilton Austin and Hyatt Regency Austin a run for their money in the 1,000-seat range.
The spring social season in the arts tracks those in sports, schools, charities and festivals. In other words, it cranks up at the end of February, gathers strength in March and April, then sputters out by the end of May. That’s one reason why our reports about socializing around the arts bunch up during these spring weeks.
We recently reported on the open social feel of the assembled Austin Opera masses during “Romeo and Juliet,” which attracted a man in overalls. The crowd for Austin Symphony Orchestra‘s evening of Sibelius did not go so far, fashion-wise. Although the violin concerto and the symphony from the Finnish composer could be called Romantic with a big “R,” they aren’t precisely romantic in the way that “Romeo and Juliet” can be. So fewer young couples on dates, more quiet adorers of symphonic music.
The ones we queried during intermission definitely don’t take Austin’s big ensemble for granted. They considered themselves lucky to hear and watch conductor Peter Bay lead violinist Karen Gomyo and the resident musicians in such a relaxed yet restrained setting.
The matinee gang for Zach Theatre‘s “Peter and the Starcatcher” — a thumping take on the Peter Pan stories — seemed more animated, ready to guffaw at some of the show’s outrageous humor. I expected more children, but, truthfully, this complicated romp is not for the youngest set.
One interesting story I heard at intermission: A man from Fort Hood who didn’t want me to use his last name was looking for a way to entertain his mother and stepfather, in from out of state. They brunched at Iron Cactus downtown, then — what does a grown man do with his mother? — he took her to the theater. He was delighted that Zach could deliver a performance that would be welcome in any regional theater.
The Blanton Museum Gala is among the city’s few statewide charity shindigs, in part because University of Texas graduates spread out all over the state and, indeed, the nation. Also, the art place’s late namesake, Jack Blanton, was based in Houston and remains as revered there as in Austin. Among the glitterati on hand was Houston volunteer fundraiser Carolyn Farb, who says she’s raised more than $35 million for charitable causes.
Also attending were former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Blanton family as well as the Kleins and Booths, all donors to the Ellsworth Kelly house they hope to build on the museum grounds. Museum director Simone Wicha lavishly praised outgoing UT President Bill Powers, unequivocally a friend of the museum. The take for the night, which included dinner across the street at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, proved $850,000.
CHARITY: In the past, charity luncheons provided a safe option for Austin nonprofit leaders. Maybe a dozen such events were spread out over the fall and spring social seasons, so not much competition. Lunches are less expensive to stage than evening galas and are less likely to get out of hand, since ice tea is the drink of choice. True, lunches don’t gross $1.5 million like the recent Dell Children’s Gala. Yet the right kind of luncheon has long been an efficient, effective way to raise a few thousand bucks while allowing folks to bond with a nonprofit and, incidentally, to wear slightly dressy attire in the middle of they day.
Well, word is out. Two giant luncheons, Power of the Purse and Philanthropy Day, competed back to back with two other midday fundraisers this week. The first filled the Four Seasons Hotel banquet room and, so I hear, the garage, which turned away guests. The next day, the second event packed the much larger Hyatt Regency Austin Zilker Banquet Room and also produced a spillover parking situation. (Since I walked to both, my report on parking is hearsay.)
Power of the Purse toasts the Women’s Fund of Central Texas, a giving group assembled by the Austin Community Foundation. Philanthropy Day is an international event sponsored by the Association of Fundraising Professionals‘s Greater Austin chapter. The first gives out grants to area charities in denominations of $10,000 or $15,000. The second recognizes leaders in the philanthropic community. Both programs are entertaining and enlightening. Ace lawyer Mindy Montford emceed the Power of the Purse event and giving-group powerhouse Rebecca Powers did the honors for Philanthropy Day.
At the first, I sat with the folks from St. Louise House, about which, before the lunch, I knew nothing. It provides affordable housing and services for homeless women and children. At the second, I had the privilege of sitting between David Smith, interim chief at the Thinkery, and Andrew Watt, president and CEO of the AFP’s international umbrella group. He told me that each local chapter does P-Day differently, but some of the most moving are to be found in Central America. Watt also announced from the dais that AFP members shepherd something like $100 billion in donations a year.
If you follow me on Twitter (@outandabout), you already know that the Women’s Fund picked for their generosity this year St. Louise House, Breakthrough Austin, Girls Scouts, Peoples Community Clinic, Wonder and Worries, Hope Alliance, CASA of Travis County andKids Vision for Life. All these charities focus on the needs of women and children.
Meanwhile, Philanthropy Day recognized Erika Herndon, Whole Foods Market, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Austin American-Statesman’s Season for Caring campaign, Pediatric Dental Professionals, Arlene Miller, Emily Moreland and the dynamic young trio of Claire Labry, Karlie Franke and Bridget Black.
HISTORY: Older than Austin, Montopolis opens up its history. Taken from my story in the Statesman: “Established in 1830, Montopolis predates Austin by nine years. For a short time, it competed vigorously with Austin’s predecessor, Waterloo, for predominance on this stretch of the Colorado River. One might not guess at this past glory, zooming past the Southeast Austin rustic enclave on the way to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport or beyond. Yet a systematic tour of the old neighborhood — bigger than downtown Austin — confirms why its founder, Jesse Cornelius Tannehill, thought Montopolis could compete with other Central Texas upstarts.” http://shar.es/1ocUkM
FOOD 1: History of Bob Armstrong dip at Matt’s El Rancho. Taken from a story Meghan McCarron in the Eater: “Whenever Bob Armstrong dines at classic Tex Mex restaurant Matt’s El Rancho, he gets up from his table and circles the room. If he spots a group gathered around a bowl of queso heaped with taco meat and guacamole, the former Texas Land Commissioner leans in and asks, “Are you enjoying that?” They usually are. The appetizer is the restaurant’s most popular dish; Matt’s chef estimates they sell at least four hundred a week. Most patrons order it by asking for “a small Bob” or “a large Bob.” Its full name is Bob Armstrong Dip.” http://bit.ly/1zMqN60
FOOD 2: History of newspaper food sections. Taken from Addie Broyle‘s extremely well researched story in the Statesman: “Kimberly Wilmot Voss admits that her 2014 book “The Food Section” was motivated in part by spite. The University of Central Florida associate professor had long studied journalism history with a focus on women’s pages, whose coverage of the four F’s — family, food, fashion and finishing, called “soft news” — has long been dismissed among most journalism historians as unimportant or irrelevant. Voss saw the lavish praise heaped upon food writers James Beard and Craig Clairborne while the legacy of the journalists who laid the foundation of the foodie movement of today, including founding New York Times food editor Jane Nickerson and Associated Press food editor Clementine Paddleford, languished like a forgotten can of beans in the back of the pantry. She set out to rewrite history.” http://shar.es/1ocQHs
NIGHTLIFE: Investigative report into Austin nightclub bouncers. Taken from Tony Plohetski‘s story in the Statesman: “Nearly three months ago, 24-year-old Joey O’Hare was at Kung Fu Saloon on Rio Grande Street on a relatively slow Sunday night when police say bouncer Robert Giovanni Camillone grabbed the back of the San Antonio resident’s neck, choking him into unconsciousness before dropping him face-first at the front door. In just an instant, everything changed dramatically,” said O’Hare, whose injuries required emergency brain surgery that night. The case against Camillone, charged with assault, is pending. Yet the incident highlights a legally gray area of Austin’s entertainment district that raises public safety questions as the city’s entertainment district has become ever-busier.” http://shar.es/1ocQYc