Anatomy of a Gala: What Goes on Behind the Scenes of Big Benefits

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Bay Street Theater's Marketing Associate Francesca Mancinelli and Executive Director Tracy Mitchell use a large floorplan of the interior of the big tent as they plan their annual fundraiser on Long Wharf in their theater office on Thursday, 6/28/18. Michael Heller photo

It will take Tracy Mitchell a couple of days to get ready for Bay Street Theater’s summer gala, prepping with a fresh haircut and manicure, finding the perfect dress and other tasks while putting the finishing touches on the party itself. But behind the scenes, Ms. Mitchell, the theater’s executive director, said it took almost a full year — starting basically the day after last year’s gala was over — to get ready for “Some Enchanted Evening,” this year’s party on Long Wharf.

“I used to be in TV and film. It’s like producing a show,” Ms. Mitchell said. “The only difference is it’s live, so it’s more like producing theater. You get one shot at it.”

That sentiment is echoed by other area nonprofits, such as the Sag Harbor Partnership and the Parrish Art Museum, and even national organizations with a local presence, like the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. There’s an enormous amount of work that goes on behind the big benefits, described by their organizers in words like “insane” and “a blur” and “controlled chaos.”

When Bay Street draws up the curtain on its theatrical gala under the big tent this Saturday, it will be the work of almost a full year of planning by the theater’s skeleton crew of staff plus design consultants, a few interns and many volunteers.

“Everything is fast and furious at the moment,” Ms. Mitchell said. “We’ve been having weekly meetings to push each aspect of the gala forward and to ensure it will be done in a way that will make all our constituents happy. It’s all hands on deck from the week before.”

Every detail is micromanaged, right down to ordering enough liquor in advance and creating a minute-by-minute timeline of the event.

“Our schedule is so honed now after years of doing this,” Ms. Mitchell said, noting this is Bay Street’s 27th year doing galas, almost all of them on Long Wharf. “It does not get easier per se. It gets easier only in the sense that we all know what to expect.”

The day after Bay Street’s gala, the Sag Harbor Partnership takes over the tent with its own separate set of logistics. Bay Street puts the tent up, and the Partnership takes it down. Ms. Mitchell said the two organizations have a carefully balanced but positive relationship when it comes to the back-to-back benefits.

When it comes to the Partnership, five board members — vice president April Gornik, treasurer Susan Mead, secretary Hilary Loomis and board members Jayne Young and Diana Howard — have been working as a team for several years, coordinating a team of more than 60 other volunteers.

“It’s teamwork and it all just works,” Ms. Young said. “Everybody pitches in and when they can’t, it’s understood and someone else fills in.”

The Sag Harbor Partnership held smaller benefits at local restaurants and private locations for many years, but Ms. Mead said they always wanted to put together a big, annual fundraiser. Then three years ago, Ms. Loomis had the idea of asking to borrow Bay Street’s tent after the theater was done with its gala.

“It was one of those moments when everyone’s jaw dropped,” Ms. Young recalled.

A major part of putting together a benefit is soliciting donations from merchants — whether in the form of food or drink, a prize to auction off or in-kind services such as décor, sound or lighting.

“Everybody helps in the village,” Ms. Gornik said.

“I’m always astounded,” Ms. Loomis added.

On the day of the partnership’s “Big Tent” party, Ms. Young loves watching the food arrive. “There’s this great procession where all the restaurants show up with their platters and we show them where to go,” she said. “It’s this great red carpet of food trickling in. It’s completely inspirational.”

Both Bay Street and the Sag Harbor Partnership will go back to the drawing board next year, when Long Wharf will be under renovation and Sag Harbor Village will cease allowing big, private parties to be held there. Both organizations say they are already thinking ahead to the day they’ll have to decide where to hold their fundraisers. But the village itself may actually benefit when the benefits go elsewhere.

“Bay Street is a very important part of the cultural and normal life of Sag Harbor; but that said, I just have a very difficult time on a holiday weekend giving up 88 parking spots on the Long Wharf when there are people on Main Street who end up losing because of it,” said Sag Harbor Village Trustee Ken O’Donnell, who voted against giving Bay Street approval to hold its gala on the Saturday after the Fourth of July. “I feel as though throughout the village we have a very good mutual relationship with a lot of these groups. Almost to a fault, the village tries to be accommodating.”

The village required both Bay Street and the Partnership to secure off-site parking to make up for the spaces taken up by the tent at Long Wharf. Both complied, and will have signs pointing people in the direction of the off-site parking.

Sag Harbor Village has suggested to both organizations the use of Havens Beach as an alternative. That’s where the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) is holding its annual “Paddle and Party for Pink” on August 4.

The biggest challenge for the BCRF isn’t the logistics, according to the event’s organizer, local resident Maria Baum. It’s the fundraising piece.

“We want to get as much money as we can for research,” said Ms. Baum, who noted 91 cents of every dollar given to the BCRF funds actual research. “I always start with the hardest thing in the world for me to do, which is so uncomfortable — asking your friends for money. I can’t stand it, but I ask a million people for favors. It’s not an easy thing, but you do it. Reach out to see if they can attend, and if they can’t attend see if they can contribute in another way, whether it’s though the race page, offering an auction item, suggesting someone who can attend or through sponsorships.”

Since little exists in the way of infrastructure at the beach, she has to bring in everything herself, unlike past fundraisers at the Waldorf or the Armory in New York City.

“There’s really no venue in the Hamptons where you can walk in and give a head count for 600,” Ms. Baum said. “There might be someplace in Westhampton or Montauk, but in between there’s really no place that can take care of that many people, so you have to start from scratch. You have to find the venue. Can you handle this many cars? Do you need permits? Can you have liquor? Can you have music? There’s got to be backup. You have to have everything from valets to restrooms to garbage removal, and it all has to be coordinated so well with the town. You don’t want your footprint to be so that they don’t want you back.”

Location isn’t such a problem when you have your own venue at which you can throw your own gala for hundreds. The Parrish Art Museum executive director Terrie Sultan said she shares many of the same logistical challenges that the other organizations do, but since its July 14 Midsummer Party is on site at the museum, one less box has to be checked off. There are other issues, though.

“Putting together a big summer benefit takes an enormous amount of work on the part of the staff and the volunteer host committee,” Ms. Sultan said. “…The biggest challenge is ensuring that the Midsummer Party continues its success in light of the ever-increasing number of fundraising efforts taking place throughout the Hamptons, all vying for attention and participation during a short two-month window.”

Bay Street’s “Some Enchanted Evening” gala is on Saturday, July 7, on Long Wharf. For more information, call (631) 725-0818 or visit baystreet.org/tickets/27th-annual-summer-gala/#tickets.

The Sag Harbor Partnership’s “Big Tent: Party for the Cinema” is on Sunday, July 8, on Long Wharf. For more information, visit sagharborpartnership.org/big-tent-for-the-cinema.

The Parrish Art Museum’s 2018 “Midsummer Party” is on Saturday, July 14, on the grounds of the museum. For more information, call (631) 283-2118 or visit parrishart.org/midsummerparty2018.

The Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s “Paddle and Party for Pink” is Saturday, August 4, at Havens Beach. For more information, visit hamptonspaddleforpink.org.

By the Numbers: The Sag Harbor Partnership’s 2017 Big Tent Party

Attendance: Over 1,000

Bottles of wine donated: 600

Musical set length the Hoodoo Loungers played: 2 hours, 40 minutes during the 3-hour party

Volunteers pitching in: Over 60

Money raised for the Cinema Arts Center: More than $200,000

Selfies taken with the “Sag Harbor” sign: “Countless!” says April Gornik

Posing in front of the old Sag Harbor Cinema sign during the 2017 Big Tent Party to Save the Sag Harbor Cinema, hosted by the Sag Harbor Partnership on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor on Sunday, July 16th, 2017

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