ALL RITA, EVERY YEAR. That's the theme scheme behind the annual Alzheimer's Association's Chicago Rita Hayworth Gala, which has been nominated for a Special Events Magazine Gala Award. The event honors the legendary movie star, who succumbed to the disease in 1987.
With the mandate to key each year's decor concept on one of Hayworth's films, one might think that coordinator Ann Marie Arzt would face serious design constraints. But the president of Barrington, Ill.-based EventScape says that this year's “Carmen” theme — based on Hayworth's 1948 film “The Loves of Carmen” — is a great example of how the strict design mandate actually liberates her decor team's creativity. As for implementing that creativity in the event's selected site — well, that's a different story.
While it was the Alzheimer's Association's gala chairperson who picked this year's movie, it was up to Arzt to transform film into fête in 10 months' time.
She started out by logging on. “Once we know what the movie is, it really helps with our collateral material,” she says. “You would not believe how much stuff you can find [online].” Among items she was able to snatch up through auction site eBay and others were film stills, which she incorporated into the cover of the event's seating book. Arzt also found vintage film ads from popular magazines — one of which she had reproduced, with the help of Los Angeles-based AAA Flag & Banner, into a 10-by-3-foot banner to use as decor. With an eye on the event's fund-raising focus, Arzt added movie scripts and other Hayworth memorabilia to her online shopping list. These, she reserved for the gala's silent auction.
Of course, surfing the Web was only part of Arzt's efforts. In the months leading up to the May 10 event, she also put out RFPs to three catering and three decor companies — a process she repeats annually rather than using the same vendors year after year. “If we didn't go with the bidding process, it wouldn't give us a competitive edge with vendors,” she says — a benefit she deems critical to the nonprofit clients that make up the bulk of her business.
With preparations humming along steadily, this year's gala was right on track — until Chicago's notorious February nightclub fire, in which 21 people died.
Planning “just turned into a gigantic nightmare for us,” she says. Because the event was taking place in Chicago's historic Civic Opera House, it was subject to far more stringent regulation than events in the city's hotels. Besides demanding that all decor materials be submitted for review, the city fire inspector arrived on location one week before the event to announce that all flames — even votives in glasses — were prohibited. Arzt credits Tom Kehoe of Chicago-based Kehoe Designs, the event's decor mastermind, with immediately taking steps to switch the 12 tall pillar candles in each of the 800-guest event's centerpieces to battery-operated units.
Despite fire regulations, Arzt says she plans to stick with off-premise sites for future galas. While there are “many fine hotels” in Chicago, she notes, few are capable of handling such a large sit-down crowd. But mainly, she says, a non-hotel venue “just adds a uniqueness to the event, and enables us to bring in our whole team of partners and vendors.”
The advantages of the unconventional venue were evident on event night, when guests entered “The Loves of Carmen” gala through black iron gates to find a Mediterranean town square scene. Decor elements included poplar trees, fountains and food carts, while pre-dinner entertainment included a performance by a Carmen-costumed singer perched on an overhead balcony.
After cocktails, the crowd moved into the main theater space where Roselle, Ill.-based Custom Design had constructed a 14,000-square-foot stage directly over the theater's main floor seats, to accommodate dining tables and performance space. There, guests dined on asparagus salad and roasted veal rib chop from Wolfgang Puck Catering's Chicago operation, while enjoying awards presentations, a video montage of images taken during the reception, and a live auction hosted by Puck himself, giving $1 million for the cause.
Along with sticking to her instincts and sourcing creatively, Arzt says that savvy collaborating helps the Rita Hayworth gala succeed. In recent years, that has meant generating excitement for the gala through kickoff events that are regularly hosted and underwritten by upscale retail establishments. Luxury retailers such as Chanel and Tiffany often are “delighted for me to bring them almost 100 people who can easily afford to shop there,” Arzt says, adding that the stores will sometimes donate proceeds from purchases back to the charity.
Like the annual RFP process she oversees, setting up gala kickoff events is a lot of work. But, Arzt says, the return on investment — a clientele of satisfied nonprofits that have her scheduled to run their galas for years into the future — is well worth the toil. In today's tough market, she is grateful for the security. “I've been getting busier and busier each year,” she says. “It's very nice.”
EventScape 21880 N. Harbor Road, Barrington, IL 60010; 847/304-9004
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CARMEN GET IT
Asparagus Salad with Serrano Ham, Shaved Manchego Cheese, Field Greens, Angel Hair Beets and Orange Hazelnut Vinaigrette
Roasted Veal Rib Chop served with Spring Vegetables, Souffled Potato and Butternut Squash Coulis
Caramelized Apple Tarte Tatin Tower