Transforming Brick City into Emerald City
For a real barometer of how things are going at NJPAC’s Spotlight Gala, take a look at Gail P. Stone’s arm. A ripple of goosebumps is her cue that something amazing is being set into motion.
As Managing Director of the Women’s Association of NJPAC, Stone has witnessed quite a few of what she describes as “magical moments” at the WA’s annual fund-raiser, the largest for NJPAC. Often these take the form of surprises for the 1,000-plus guests and undoubtedly there will be some in store for the 18th celebration on Saturday, Oct. 5: “The Enchanted Oz.”
Although Stone is privy to every detail that goes into the planning and staging of the galas – for instance, there was the colossal platform built over Prudential Hall’s orchestra section (see a time-lapse video here) and indoor fireworks in 2009 – occasionally she’s astonished, too. Consider the 2010 festivities, when singer Jennifer Hudson randomly picked Newark resident Rhenotha Whitaker from the audience to accompany her in a Chaka Khan number and Whitaker wowed the crowd. That same year, the WA defied the weather gods by not erecting an outdoor tent on Theater Square for cocktail hour – and they responded with soft breezes, starry skies and a harvest moon.
“You saw 1,000 people out front, looking beautiful and celebrating NJPAC,” Stone recalls. “It was a sublime moment.”
NJPAC opened its doors in October 1997, so the gala chronology is a bit askew. The WA held its first formal fund-raiser the year before the Arts Center even made its debut by transforming a hangar at Newark International Airport and booking Ray Charles. Bowed by grief over the World Trade Center disaster, organizers canceled the gala in 2001.
Months in the making, and programmed down to the minute, the Spotlight Gala is a black-tie behemoth with a serious philanthropic mission: To date, the gala and other activities of the WA have generated more than $40 million for NJPAC and its Arts Education programs.
Author and international image-building consultant Mikki Taylor, the Chair of this year’s event, draws on her 30 years as ESSENCE magazine’s Beauty & Cover Director (she is currently Editor-at-Large) to conjure the whimsical land of Oz and all its “greenery.” The Newark-born tastemaker looked to Hollywood, specifically The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz, for inspirations.
“It’s not unlike a photo session or storytelling, where every detail serves to communicate a message to compel, to stir, to enchant,” Taylor says. “The gala is an expression upon a theme, and when you think of ‘Imagine the Possibilities,’ the question becomes, ‘How big can you dream?’ My goal was to dream a world.”
The Spotlight Gala experience, whether you’re attending as a benefactor or a single-ticket holder for only the performance in Prudential Hall, is, in a word, theatrical. Practically every corner of NJPAC will be employed, from the cocktail tent on Theater Square to NICO Kitchen + Bar, the Chase Room, the intimate “shadowboxes” and the Victoria Theater. The Wizard of Oz’s cinematic transition from black and white into color will be mimicked by a masquerade (fashioned after Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball) that melds into the technicolor splendor of Prudential Hall.
Magical Voices is the title of the evening’s performance, featuring dynamic R&B singer and multiple-Grammy® nominee Ledisi (pictured at top); Tony-nominated Broadway star and songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway; Latin music diva INDIA, the Princess of Salsa (pictured at right); The Four Freshmen, masters of harmony for 65 years; and the smooth “vocal play” group Naturally 7, all under the musical direction of Ray Chew (American Idol). The awards portion of the program will pay tribute to NJPAC friends Cephas Bowles, president and CEO of WBGO Jazz 88.3 FM/WBGO.org in Newark; Veronica M. (“Ronnie”) Goldberg, a founding member, past President and current Trustee of the WA, and the law firm Gibbons P.C. and its Chairman and Managing Director, Patrick C. Dunican, Jr. New York deejay DJ Kiss will spin tunes for dancing after dinner.
When Stone joined NJPAC in 2008, fireworks bursting over the Passaic River and a stadium-size tent in Parking Lot A were hallmarks of the gala, but with the faltering economy, board members’ and donors’ expectations of grandeur changed and cost-cutting became inevitable. The producer’s dilemma now is finding ways to spend conservatively and raise more funds, without turning the wattage too low on the dazzle that guests have come to expect.
“As ambassadors for change, we must work hard to increase revenue and make sure the event is a huge success,” Taylor remarks. “Even the smallest detail, if not strategically managed, can have a big impact. You must also anticipate what’s going to make the difference to those who continue to support the gala, as well as those you’re asking to come on board for the first time.”
And that entertainment has to suit a wide demographic, from supporters in their late 20s all the way to 85. Party-goers of all ages, however, should love two of this season’s raffle prizes: tickets to the Big Game at the Meadowlands on Feb. 2 and United Airlines tickets to Tokyo with a stay at the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo.
In 2009, after the Spotlight Gala concluded, Stone and her lighting designer estimated that 500 people, ranging from volunteers to vendors, had a part to play.
“The consistently great thing to me is that collaborative spirit, where once staff and Trustees of the Board start getting into it, they care about it and they treat it like it’s the best show of the year at NJPAC. It’s our show,” she says. “People know now that everyone works on the gala.”