This may be the only one you’ll ever get

The year was 1972. Mary Wells Lawrence, advertising maven and wife of former Braniff chief Harding Lawrence, had attained the coveted post of chairman of the Crystal Charity Ball. Her plan was to re-create-literally-the Crystal Ice Palace originally built by Queen Victoria for London’s Hyde Park. Famed set designer Sir Cecil Beaton was called upon to mastermind the ballroom decor. Several of the Lawrences’ internationally prominent friends had promised to attend. It was to be the grand fete of the season. Then all hell broke loose.

It seems the out-of-towners, among them a smattering of low-level European royalty, were nudging out hometown regulars-including ball sponsors and committee members. Those who were desperate to attend offered cash in excess of the ticket price. Those who were angry fired off a protest telegram. The scramble for an entree to the ball spread tremors of fury through Dallas’ social elite. But it was, in fact, no detriment to the cause. Since then, tickets to the event (which is held annually for the benefit of local children’s charities) have been hotter than hot cakes.

The Crystal Charity Ball is the grande dame of a myriad of spectacular galas held in Dallas every year. Balls raise millions of dollars annually for local charities and incorporate a virtual regiment of socially prominent volunteers. Chanty-ball critics claim that the parties are elitist, excessive and an anachronism in these recession-troubled times. But the truth, at least in Dallas, is that charity balls are an extremely popular means of raising hard-to-get funds. A sizable contingent of well-to-do women organize their lives around organizing benefit balls. And an equally devoted group patronizes the events. Ball advocates say that money raised by way of a gala is money that would otherwise never be donated to a worthwhile cause.

To be at the helm of one of the major fund-raising events is to rise to the top of Dallas’ social crème de la crème. But the ascension to the chair of a charity ball is one that takes connections, talent and years of hard work. The prime orchestrators of the big balls are drawn from an exclusive circle of women who have impeccable upbringings, expensive educations and capabilities comparable to women in paid leadership positions. They choose to work as volunteers for a number of reasons. Some of them have been groomed for the role almost from birth.

“Despite what people will tell you on the record; off the record, this charity ball stuff is serious business,” says one well-heeled volunteer. “It’s organized, it’s prestigious and it’s competitive. The progression through the ranks of committees is every bit as tough as a businessman’s climb up the corporate ladder.”

There are several dozen major fundraisers held here each year, and the organi-zations that run them fall into two cate-gories: open and closed. Clubs like the Crystal Charity, the Junior League and the Women’s Guild for United Cerebral Palsy have elected memberships of from 40 to more than 1,000 women. When an opening occurs, new members are proposed and voted upon much the way a sorority chooses its pledges.

A newcomer to Dallas would have difficulty penetrating the more established of these groups -unless, of course, her best friend happened to be a member of the old guard. Although it helps, having money is not really as important as having a mate with business clout or knowing someone who can talk you up. And even that won’t do the trick if you can’t prove that you’re able and willing to pound the pavement for your cause.

In general, charitable organizations are in the business of raising money either to benefit the arts or some aspect of the medical community. In Dallas, the arts are more democratic and accessible than “the diseases.” Any member of the Museum of Fine Arts can elect to work on the Beaux Arts Ball. TACA, which raises money for local performing arts groups, is open to anyone who is willing to work. But you can’t just call up and offer to string crepe paper at the Crystal Charity Ball.

There are some established proving grounds that can help you move up the ladder of the elite. By some accounts, your volunteer resume should begin as early as high school. Many a local ball chairman got her start as a teen-ager working on the Junior Symphony Ball.

From there it takes time, money for expenses and a willingness to take on even the grubbiest of chores. Addressing envelopes, licking stamps and selling chance tickets are typical first jobs. Reliability is the key attribute to cultivate if you expect to move up. In some organizations, if you can’t produce, you’re asked to get out.

If your sights are set on the top job, be forewarned: “People tend to get typecast into their specialty,” says Carla Francis, who has chaired at least a dozen major fund-raising events. “Lyda Hill is one of the best treasurers in town, and there are other girls who are just super at invitations or decorations. Margot Perot, for another, can work wonders with patrons [benefit-goers who opt for the higher-priced tickets and often buy a tableful].”

Once you are a member of one of the “in” clubs, it’s still an arduous ascent to the prestigious post of ball chairman. You begin by chairing one of the lesser committees, such as favors or invitations. “Then, once you achieve even a modicum of success, you’re virtually besieged by other committees,” Francis says. “If you continue to be successful, you’ll be earmarked for an eventual shot at the ball chair. It’s inevitable that after you’ve served in a number of under-chairmanships you’ll be asked to put that hard-won expertise to work in the top slot.”

The logistics of running a benefit ball would stagger even a seasoned corporate man. Most of the big balls cater to more than 1,000 people. And that’s 1,000 people who have to be invited, wined, dined, seated, entertained and dazzled by the decor. Not only is there competition to work on the balls, there’s also competition to win the ball-goer’s support. Fortunately, Dallas is a town with more than its share of people willing to shell out $100-plus for a ticket to a charity event. But with that kind of money at stake, they expect more than balloons and banquet fare.

Virtually every past ball chairman agrees that assembling the right people – people who produce -is the key to pulling off a successful event. Obviously, a chair-man must have good leadership skills; the best chairmen are masters at what one vol-unteer terms “cracking the velvet whip.”

Every ball chairman wants her year to be remembered as the most beautiful, the most fun, the most financially successful year so far. But not at any expense. The point is, after all, to turn over as much money as possible to the beneficiary. “People expect to be entertained right,” says Sue Clark, chairman of last year’s Crystal Charity Ball. “But I don’t think you need to fly in Belgian-chocolate-cov-ered ants.”

Invitations are sent to a carefully culti-vated card file of potential donors. Al-though the women emphasize that anyone can be included on the lists, most balls are so popular they don’t really need to broaden their bases. Many of these events are immediate sellouts. The Crystal Charity Ball even has a waiting list every year of 250 people hoping someone will cancel.

One reason the balls sell out so quickly is the pre-mailing maneuvering done to sell patron tickets in bulk. Many contributors give in the thousands by buying tickets by the table. Says former Dallas Times Herald Society Editor Julia Sweeney, “A truly successful ball will be sold-out before the invitations ever go in the mail.”

The larger hotels -the Fairmont, the Hyatt and, this year, the new Registry – are favored for hosting charity balls because they have the room, the staff and the experience to handle large crowds. Big-name hotel chefs are also sufficiently inspired to work with ball chairmen on an elegant, memorable meal. “But you can’t get too fancy,” says Clark. “I wanted the men at my ball to be able to recognize everything on their plates.”

One ball dinner is forever etched in the memory of its chairman, Carla Francis. She had wanted to serve a sorbet as a palate cleanser between two courses of the meal. The hotel kitchen staff didn’t know how to make a sorbet (a fruit ice) so lime sherbet was served instead. Everyone thought it was dessert, ate it, then got up and left!

In addition to cocktails and dinner, charity balls serve up games of chance, door prizes, stage shows, music tor dancing and favors to tote home. In some cases, big-name talent will be imported for the evening. In others, such as the Junior League Follies, the entertainment is strictly home-grown. This popular annual fund-raiser features a musical revue starring League members, their husbands and their children.

There are, alas -even in the most well-run events – disasters of such magnitude that they still send shivers down the spines of those involved. Such a horror occurred at a benefit the Saturday night of the opening of D/FW airport. The valet parking service totally bungled the job of retrieving the thousands of cars spread throughout the airport parking lots. At the end of the evening, hundreds of people in formal attire were still sitting on curbs waiting for their cars to appear. Some never did. The last of the cars were delivered Sunday afternoon.

“The worst logistic problems are with seating,” Francis says. “It’s always a real diplomatic feat. Nobody wants to be put near the swinging kitchen door.” Francis remembers one ball where two men named John Lawrence had bought tables at $2,000 each. The seating committee thought there had been a misprint and set up only one. When both John Lawrences snowed up, 20 people fought for 10 seats.

But despite the glitter and the glory, the bottom line of any charity event is the money raised. There’s an intense desire among club and committee members to wrangle a record amount of money out of the community for the chosen cause. And we’re not talking piddling amounts; both the Junior League and the Crystal Charity raised more than a half a million dollars at their balls last year.

The competition for patrons and underwriters is so stiff that some of the less established charity events are moving away from the glitzy formal balls to themes that are novel, more casual and easy to tout. The Arthritis Foundation, which has been staging a gala only since 1979, has had two smashing successes back-to-back by diverting from the formal affair. At this year’s benefit (held in late January at the opening of the Dallas Market Center’s new Wyndham Hotel), guests wore cruise wear, enjoyed foods from several popular ports of call and had three levels of “decks” to wander across.

There’s seemingly no end to the creative means for filling charity coffers: raffles, auctions, mystery gifts, faux gambling, underwriters’ parades. The most substantial chunk of funds comes from local merchants and corporations that are asked to underwrite a portion of the event. Once a business is put under contract to donate a certain amount, it is designated as a patron (or an “angel” or some other term denoting special status) on all the literature about the event. Typically, at the ball itself, underwriters get better parking, tables with the best views, special pre-ball celebrations and sometimes extra favors to carry home. “As a rule, you just can’t thank your underwriters enough,” says Barry Wells, public-relations chairman for the Mayor’s International Ball. “If they know you’re appreciative, hopefully they’ll be around for you the next year, too.”

“There’s a real art to getting big bucks from people,” says Anne Lile, ball chairman for this year’s benefit for cerebral palsy. “These local merchants are absolutely besieged by requests for funds, primarily because the same ones are called on year after year.” Many committees have a policy of not asking any business for a donation unless the solicitor has personally patronized the firm. “Let’s face it,” says one veteran fund-raiser, “these ladies all live in Highland Park, and they all shop the same places. If you’re only going to call on the firms where you do business, then the same firms are going to be hit time after time.”

“Charity balls are not in danger of extinction, but they may be in danger of saturation,” says Patsy Donosky, head of last year’s Opera Ball. “When it comes to the arts, you have to come up with every gimmick you can. No one can resist a crippled child. But the arts are a harder sell. Luckily, businessmen in Dallas realize we need a strong opera as a drawing card.”

Frequent corporate targets confirm that they are sometimes overburdened with solicitation requests. One local businessman, Adrian Alter of the accounting firm Ernst & Whinney, counted nine requests for a total of $50,000 that had come across his desk in a mere four days.

Despite the deluge, veteran fund-raisers portray the Dallas giver as unusually generous, even in the recent lean years. But local donors share one quirk: They like to see their money spent right here at home. That may be why events sponsored by national organizations have never enjoyed the clout of the more autonomous community groups.

Those who classify the charity ball system as elitist are not far from the truth. Who else but society’s upper crust would have a Rolodex full of contacts willing to (a) underwrite, (b) buy tables or (c) purchase tickets at $500 a pair? Although it may chagrin some people, the truth is that when it comes to donations, it’s the wealthy who produce.

A perfect case in point is the Mayor’s International Ball, which originated several years ago to provide a city trust for the entertaining of international dignitaries who come to town. During the first two years, the ball was undertaken by the already-harried international division of the Chamber of Commerce staff. “We were a success in the sense that we got the ball established as a local tradition,” recalls Marshall Doke, the group’s chairman. “But we fell way behind our financial goals.”

The third year, the Chamber gave the ball to two pros: Doris Dixon and Nancy Brinker. Not only was the evening a sellout and a spectacular success, but it also upped the trust’s intake to $150,000.

It should be noted that Dallas has an ordinance that governs the percentage of gross receipts that must be turned over to the stated beneficiary. The magic number is 50 percent. Though some smaller endeavors have had trouble achieving that goal, the larger groups all donate more than 70 percent of the proceeds to their causes. Says Kathy McAlister, who as a city consumer-affairs staffer administers that ordinance, “The larger groups like Cattle Baron’s and Crystal Charity are so experienced they know how to cut costs. They also know to charge enough for the tickets that those funds alone pay for the events. The underwriting, then, is gravy.”

By most accounts, Crystal Charity holds the top slot in the swank ranking of the balls. It is the last big bash of the year – a pre-holiday warmup the first Saturday in December. Last year, Crystal Charity hosted some 1,400 people by annexing a small ballroom in the Fairmont Hotel in addition to its traditional Regency Room. People are still atwitter over the crystal-snowflake ceiling designed by Winn Morton and the electricity at party “B” in the smaller Gold Room. This ball earned its status by wowing its guests. The year Annette Strauss chaired the event, she installed a carousel with live horses. Another year, every pink gladiola in the country was flown in for the ball. But somehow, the committee continues to increase each year’s net intake of funds -and 1982 was no exception. As the counting continues, the figure may top $650,000.

Next in line as far as prestige goes is the chic un-ball thrown by the “Cattle Baron’s” (whoever they are) for the benefit of the American Cancer Society. Begun several years ago by prominent socialites Jacque Wynne and Laura Hunt, Cattle Baron’s is an outdoor Texas-style event where people don their most resplendent Western togs and let it all hang loose. Always held at a prominent local’s nearby ranch, the 1983 event will be June 11 in Frisco, 40 miles away. Cattle barons who pay $500 to $1,000 a couple will be treated to a real “Deep in the Heart of Texas” event, replete with a replica of the Alamo, the lyrical melodies of Crystal Gayle, a miniature Wild West show and a chance to bid on real livestock. One insider says Cattle Baron’s owes its popularity to the fact that Dallasites love to dress up and act like Hollywood thinks a good Texan should.

Another society favorite is the Junior League Follies, a two-night extravaganza with a showy costumed cast performing a musical revue and a promotional parade for the underwriters. The 1983 Follies with the theme “All That Glitters,” was as dazzling as any Vegas show -kudos going to this year’s chairman, Kathy Burnett. The more than half a million dollars raised by the Follies goes to support the 49 different community projects with which the League is involved.

Although it hasn’t always been so, the TACA Custom Auction and Ball is another event high on the “in” list. Auctions have become an increasingly popular means of upping a fund-raiser’s intake, and when combined with an exclusive ball, the results can be staggering. TACA was founded in 1966 as the fund-raising arm of the Dallas Theater Center, but its energy had waned by the mid-Seventies when the vibrant Annette Strauss was signed on to inject new blood into the organization. TACA has since evolved to include the major performing arts groups in its benefit package -the opera, the symphony, the ballet, Summer Musicals, the Shakespeare Festival, the Theater Center and Theatre Three. For the first time, smaller arts companies will also be given a variety of smaller grants this year. With almost no overhead and a reputation for putting everyone and anyone to work, TACA is one of the most efficient of the charitable organizations. Says Strauss, “In terms of cash flow, we totally self-destruct every year.”

These are but a few of the galas that fill the datebooks of Dallas’ charity patrons. There’s also the Opera Ball, the Symphony Ball, the Neiman-Marcus Fortnight Ball and the ever-popular ball for United Cerebral Palsy. Some newcomers on the scene are the Sweetheart Ball (a small, exclusive gathering for the heart fund that’s held at Brook Hollow Golf Club); and this year’s first Gourmet Gala for the March of Dimes, in which 20 cooking stations will feature local talented and notable chefs. Guests in formal dress will wander among the cooking kiosks sampling the fare.

Then there’s the aptly titled Eye Ball for the Texas Society to Prevent Blindness and the Assistance League’s HeaddressBall, where guests arrive bedecked withelaborate millinery and compete for aprize. But perhaps the best gimmick of allis one that went straight to the party circuit’s heart: The Multiple Sclerosis Societyonce staged a “Stay At Home Ball.” Forthe price of a donation, participants couldforego the tux and the ball gown -and sitcozily by the fire.


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