Life-sized taxidermy peacocks? Burlesque dancers dressed like swans? Bronze alligators? Tree chandeliers? Crawfish curry, Cajun caviar, baked oysters, a cellist AND a DJ? Check. Check. Check. And yes, check. There is no place like New Orleans when it comes to throwing a party. This being the city of hedonism, no vision is too crazy, no imagination too grand.
The New Orleans Film Society (NOFS) outdid itself with this year’s gala, though. Because above all, what looked like a million dollar-event, had to cost next to nothing given that NOFS is a nonprofit organization in one of the country’s poorest states with hardly any funding for arts & education. The work of its film society which also puts on the yearly film festival in October, is ambitious and commendable. Especially since all the proceeds from the fundraising done at the gala go towards said festival and their filmmaker development programs, first and foremost the minority filmmakers’ lab.
This time, the event found its perfect location when Stephanie and Joe Bruno (who also invited the priests from the neighboring church) opened the gate and the door to their historic Wilkinson-Bruno mansion in Uptown New Orleans -– called Nola by those in the know. The home was built in 1849 in a version of Queen Anne-style architecture. Set back from the street, it is surrounded by lush greenery which is why this gala was titled “Midnight in the Garden”.
Lacey Wood, event decorator extraordinaire, wanted to highlight the beautiful surroundings and she did it literally: by hanging large crystal chandeliers from the 400-year-old oak trees. She also found taxidermy peacocks, alligator statues and hired dancers from Trixie Minx, Nola’s queen of Burlesque, and dressed them as birds and other fable animals. That guy, serving intoxicating 18.21 Bitters craft cocktails? His headdress may have distracted the guests from the drinks he was serving for a second. A drink they needed once they spotted the girl dressed in leaves, carrying a snake. And yes, that boa was real. As were the flames the fire dancers spun around.
Drinks, of course, played a big role in the city of the to go-cups where people regularly go out on Friday night and wake up on Tuesday morning. Absolut Elyx sponsored the gala, as did Piper-Heidsieck champagne. It’s Ambassadeur, Monsieur Jonathan Boulangeat hosted a champagne tasting dinner at Gala co-chair Martine Marie Chaisson’s splendid townhouse the night before for a select group of patrons, where he introduced four different bubblies from the company’s RARE Champagne edition, served during a three-course meal that included Choupic caviar angel hair pasta over seared okra, porcini crusted lamb and Ponchatoula Meringue cup for dessert.
Actress Lynn Whitfield, Hollywood publicist Thomas Castañeda, make-up artist Nikoletta Skarlatos and the rest of us peeled off the champagne labels which turned into princess crowns. We tried to dress the part both nights wearing Michel Mayer Vienna, Brandon Maxwell, Cushnie et Ochs and World Armarium.
This wouldn’t be New Orleans without some of its greatest restaurants catering the main event. Sylvain, Chais Delachaise, Southern Hospitality Catering, Dickie Brennan and Co. and Sucre made sure no one left hungry. There was Cajun caviar (a spicy version of the usual) and large gulf oysters from ACME Oyster House, and chef Michael of Galatoire’s whipped up an amazing crawfish curry. Not to forget the huge charcuterie table from Marcello’s and an array of hot dogs from Dat Dog (they even served a vegan version which is a total anomaly in the city of cochon de lait, hogs heads and paté) to soak up all the champagne, vodka and tequila.
Musical accompaniment was provided courtesy of the wonderful cellist Helen Gillet during the dinner portion, and DJ Musa spun the dance tunes later on when the guests were hitting the dance floor after the auction.
As a co-chair, along with local documentary filmmaker Nicelle Herrington (A Tuba To Cuba) and gallerist Martine Marie Chaisson, it was our duty to get the audience fired up about the auction. Alexa Georges, honorary chairman and inventor of the event (the NOFS gala is her baby) bid up a storm, too, as did the lovely interior designer Christa Schwartz and the wonderful graphic artist and herself gifted party thrower Alexa Pulitzer (she is on Vanity Fair’s Top 100 hostess list).
Up for grabs were such fabulous items as vacation destinations, weekend stays, premiere tickets and the Hollywood after-party for the Jane Fonda & Diane Keaton starrer Book Club with a two-night stay at the Downtown L.A. Ace Hotel, VIP passes to the New Orleans Film Festival, a Nespresso-machine signed by George Clooney, a walk-on for 4 on the locally filmed set of hit-TV-series NCIS: New Orleans, an outdoor screening party for 25 of one’s best friends, private dinners hosted by famous chefs, a Luca Falcone Bespoke suit and artwork by David Harouni and a handcrafted caftan by Ellen Macomber. Including everything – auction, sponsorships, patron tickets and gala tables – $125,000 were raised in one night.
Said Fallon Young, executive director of NOFS: “This generosity means we will be able to mount a successful and well-funded Southern Producer’s lab this month, which brings together a diverse group of emerging producers from 7 Southern states to learn from respected industry advisors. I’m also proud that 8 of the 13 emerging producers benefiting from the lab are women, and over half of the 238 films in our most recent New Orleans Film Festival were directed by women. In addition to mounting the Southern Producer’s Lab, this month we’re also taking the entire cohort of our Emerging Voices program, a mentorship program for Louisiana filmmakers of color, to a creative conference in Atlanta.”
It was indeed a reason to dance the night away and celebrate. Everyone stayed just a tad longer than planned. Actresses Tina Lifford (Queen Sugar) and Lynn Whitfield (Greenleaf) were happy that the party took place on a Saturday. That meant no 5 am call times the next morning for the thespians. Some attendees were lucky not to end up in the beautiful swimming pool, and I briefly considered taking host Joe Bruno’s bright red Vespa for a spin around the property before remembering the ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’ rule that interestingly is a law, even in this town. Thankfully most female guests had gotten the shoe-memo: to wear only flats, sandals or wedges on the grounds.