Palace Gala.. A Sparkling Success

     The Palace Theater opening night gala on November 12, 2004 was a party that Jay Gatsby might have hosted. F. Scott Fitzgeralds fictional character, the Great Gatsby, created in the 1920s around the same time that Sylvester Poli built his palace in Waterbury, was known for discreetly hosting lavish soirees with hundreds of well-dressed guests who partied and danced late into the Long Island night.

    The Brass Citys red-carpet party, too, was grand but the hostess did not fade into the background. Carolyn Cicchetti, Palace Theater board member and chairwoman of the gala committee, mingled with the crowd and even spoke onstage before Tony Bennett performed. People were glowing that evening, she said. Its not that hard to throw a party for 800 people when they all want to be there.

    Throngs of construction workers and restoration and renovation experts worked diligently for a few years guiding the edifice through its $30 million facelift, but just a handful of staff members and volunteers made the opening night a success.

    Luckily for the board, volunteer Cicchetti happens to have thrown two weddings and taught theater to middle school students for over twenty years. Shes used to being organized. She is used to directing. She thought of the opening night gala as just another performance.
She and Rorie Rueckert, the theaters director of institutional advancement, made a blueprint of what a guest would do from the moment he or she pulled into the 800-space parking garage behind the theater. They detailed everything from signs near the cars all the way through the post-performance dances onstage. The committee has been meeting since last spring.

     It was a once in a lifetime affair, said Evan Roeger, executive chef of the Mattatuck Museums Exhibition Caf©. Roeger and 27 staff members catered the event. He said that in a few hours, the fancy crowd went through 75 pounds of curry chicken, 50 lbs of fresh jumbo lump crab cakes and 15 gallons of regular coffee. People drank plenty of good wine and Martinis and Cosmopolitans as if they were enjoying ambrosia and nectar with Zeus at Olympus.

    Though it was a cold, wet night, limousines still pulled up to 100 East Main Street in front of the theater and gala guests walked on a red carpet to the box office doors, just a few yards down. Garrett Casey, Mayor Michael Jarjuras chief of staff, waited in the rain until the mayors car pulled up. Welcome to the Palace Theater, he said proudly.

    Volunteers like Ken Killer of Main Street Waterbury stood outside dressed in top hats and tails, welcoming the tribes of be-decked and be-diamonded, while holding large umbrellas. Students from the ACE or Academic Choice for Excellence program at Crosby High School helped in this capacity. Rorie Rueckert was very happy with the response from the community. People were calling and asking what they could do.

    Coats were checked in the hallway leading from the box office area to the Grand Foyer, where the gala began. Some jaws dropped at this portal as guests took in the extravagance of the bright lobby with its twin white marble staircases, seemingly awaiting the arrival of Scarlett OHara in her finery. There is a visceral response that Waterburians have to this theater, said Carolyn Cicchetti. . Its indescribable, she said as she placed her hand over her heart. She also noticed that there was a homecoming aspect to the night. People were seeing people they hadnt seen in years,
she said.

    Tom Chute, Barbara Davitt and Trish Torello of WATR radio, 1320 AM, interviewed guests during their live broadcast. Engineer Johnnie Kropsic set up and took down the operation, as he usually does. The media was all over the place. Local cable access television personality, Nick Coscia, summed up the sentiment of the room when he stated innocently, This is the greatest night of my life.

    Andrea Homewood of Wolcott attended with her husband, Bill. She said that the entire process was spectacular from receiving the invitation to getting a dress to walking down the red carpet and then entering the lobby.

    The grandeur of the place made my mouth drop, she said. They did the most wonderful job. They couldn’t have done it any other way. You would never expect that thats what you are going to see, from the street. She said the whole party was over the top. It was perfect, she said.

    Barry Hughson, former executive director of the Warner Theater in Torrington and current executive director of the Princeton Ballet in New Jersey, attended with Donna Bonasera, artistic director of Connecticut Dance Theatre in Watertown. She wore a cream-colored floor-length coat dress from the Woody Allen Collection housed in Torrington with the Warner Theater.
Jen Zembruski of the Palace Theater walks fast, usually with a walkie-talkie in her hand or pocket. She is in charge of the front of the house, including volunteers. On the night of the gala, she wore a flowing periwinkle dress, giving the sense that she was floating as she flitted about checking on details. There was something ethereal about her and Vanessa Logan, who wore a stunning green dress, as they moved around the Grand Foyer, the Mezzanine lobby space and the Poli Club VIP room, making sure guests were happy.

    Logan is the director of education and community initiatives, who just arrived at the Palace in the summer and jumped right into a hectic schedule. As luck would have it, she is a trained dancer, used to learning quickly. Guests ate heartily from choices of fruit, cheeses, antipasta, shrimp cocktail, assorted crackers, vegetables, lobster and vanilla tartlets, sesame encrusted pork wontons and artichoke hearts. The gala committee did a preliminary food tasting in August and a wine-tasting in October to make sure they knew exactly what the guests would be served.
The gala was both a fundraiser and an event which expressed gratitude. We wanted to make sure they felt thanked, said Rorie Rueckert.

    The gala was attended by about 800 people but almost two thousand more lined up outside of the theater a little after 7:00 p.m. Rueckert had the doors opened about 15 minutes early when she saw throngs of people lining up in inclement weather.

    Former Republican alderman, Joe Pisani, walked in at that time. This is fantastic, isnt it? he said.
    Frank Tavera, executive director of the Palace Theater, and pretty much the only public face of the theater for two years, told the gala folks that he wanted them to have enough desserts for after the performance. Its his Italian background, he said. So, Evan Roeger had 1400-1600 desserts on hand and that proved to be perfect. The desserts and coffee were wheeled out into the lobby areas as soon as guests entered the theater to hear Tony Bennett sing. Everybody stayed, said Rueckert, of the post-performance festivities.

    Volunteer ushers like Mary Beth Ruby, who teaches at the Waterbury Arts Magnet School, and had been on her feet since dawn, filled the 1700 champagne glasses for a collective toast. Then, patrons danced on the stage for a few more hours. The energy never dissipated. There was a hot time in the old town that night. Bars and restaurants in Waterbury and Greater Waterbury reported a surge in business from people who had been at the Palace.

    I was thrilled, said Carolyn Cicchetti of the whole event. Various floral businesses decorated different areas of the Palace. The Window Box of Cheshire, Orchid Florist, Derouins and ORourke&Birch forgot that they were competitors for this project and decorated beautifully.
Cicchetti and Rueckert said that all of the florists did more than they said they would. And, as was true with most details of this party, floral responsibilities were set up last spring.

    So, one of the biggest events on Waterbury’s social calendar, went off without a hitch. A seamless party does not happen by accident. Its hard work and a lot of thought on the part of people like Carolyn Cicchetti, Rorie Rueckert, Jen Zembruski and Vanessa Logan.
(And, of course, Frank Tavera!)