With its ever-growing, energetic leisure class, Southwest Florida is building a reputation for creative and lavish social gatherings, particularly in wealthy, pleasure-seeking Naples. The jewel in that city's party crown is the five-year-old Naples Winter Wine Festival, which draws jet-setting guests from all over for a weekend of extravagant vintner dinners, parties and the highest-grossing charity wine auction in the world, earning close to $12 million this year alone.
But there are plenty of other glittering events up and down the Gulfshore. Charity balls auction off polo ponies and Mercedes-Benz convertibles, and guests receive bottles of Chanel No. 5 and French champagne as table favors. Yachts and airplane hangars vie with private gardens, world-class resorts and opulent beachfront estates as exclusive venues. Celebrity guests (Tracey Ullman and Meryl Streep have emceed Fort Myers' Arts for ACT; Leslie Nielsen and Rudy Giuliani have shown up at other events) are a favorite draw; and though most event planners guard their clients' privacy fiercely, they confide it's not unusual for hosts to order thousands of dollars worth of custom-made table linens for a single dinner party. They've even been known to drape their dogs in Dior and diamonds or hire an opera singer to wait tables and surprise guests mid-meal with an impromptu aria.
Naples alone throws some 700 charity events each year, and party planners say the sheer number forces them to come up with bigger, bolder ideas every year; last season's brilliant theme and decorations won't impress guests the second time around. The ensuing revelry rivalry has resulted in parties that are way, way over the top.
"Naples is very wealthy and cultured, and people attend so many parties that they've come to expect fabulous," says Kathy Wheeler of dbr marketing. "We've had a Day in the Country party under a tent in the paddock at an Arabian horse farm, a Barefoot on the Boat party aboard someone's 85-foot yacht and an Up on the Roof party on the top level of the Naples Community Hospital parking garage." Another party, dubbed Butterfly Bash in the Garden, featured workers posing as human stilt-walking vines and a man camouflaged as a rock formation that actually moved around the room.
"We also had a performer called Our Lady of the Lake who stood in the middle of a contained water pool with cascades pouring from her fingertips," says Wheeler. "Naples wants wonderful."
The Ritz-Carlton Resort and the Registry Resort are popular venues, hosting everything from the recent Bosom Buddies luncheon for 750 women who donned breast cancer awareness scarves, held hands and sang That's Amore, to a private dinner for sports celebrities featuring $200 bottles of wine and imported cigars at $250 per box.
"We did a 50th birthday party for 350 guests one day before the Academy Awards," says Suzanne Willis, director of public relations for the Ritz-Carlton. "There were klieg lights out in front of the hotel, a Hollywood sign on the roof and eight live male models painted gold and standing perfectly still as Oscar statues."
In addition, she says, guests were filmed as they arrived on the red carpet and a Joan Rivers-look-alike interviewed them; the footage was shown inside the pavilion on huge screens. Grauman's Chinese Theatre was replicated in the courtyard, complete with the birthday girl's handprints, and four food stations became famous Hollywood eateries such as The Ivy and Spago. Each table was decorated as one of the Best Films of the Year over the last 50 years. The bill for this bash came in somewhere around $250,000, reports Willis.
The Registry played host to a 60th surprise birthday party that still has guests talking. "A gentleman requested the use of our four-star dining room, Lafite, which was closed at the time," explains Robert Fesik, director of social catering. "He wanted to surprise his wife and create an exact replica of Maxim's in Paris for her birthday. He completely changed out the décor, created menus identical to the ones used in Paris, built the sign and invited 70 guests for dinner." The host flew in his wife's favorite chef from Aspen, Colo., who designed a menu featuring foods from all over the world and personally served the foie gras to the birthday girl. "She just went nuts," says Fesik, "laughing and crying and hugging and telling her husband 'I love you' again and again.' "
Local pastry chef Norman Love, a Food Network regular, created a three-level chocolate cake and custom truffles for each guest. "He had glazed her cake so it looked like an ice skating rink, slick as glass," recalls Fesik. "I have never seen anything like it."
After dessert, a saxophone player led the party inside the Luna Lounge, where a fog machine created romantic swirling mists and a seven-piece band played dance music all night.
No detail is too small when you're staging a celebration for someone you love. Last year, Neapolitan Penny Love threw a surprise birthday party for her daughter, Courtney Ott. (No slouch at party-giving herself, Ott had just co-chaired the Community School's Angel Ball the day before, and her sister, in from Boston for the ball, stayed over to celebrate, which Love says was the ultimate birthday gift.) Although Love threw the party with her son-in-law, Chad Ott, she had one surprise she didn't tell him about: She'd asked the marching band from Naples High School to play Happy Birthday. To the guests' amazed delight, they marched from the front to the back of Love's Port Royal home, 20-strong.
Against a backdrop of pink and green, Naples' Flower Gallery filled boutique shopping bags with blossoms, and Love's favorite Naples' caterers, You've Got It Coming, created individual birthday cakes for the 80-plus guests.
Sometimes the food alone can elevate an event to the stuff of legend. Who can forget a menu featuring quail's eggs, frog's legs or Dungeness crab flown in fresh for dinner? Anne Matthews and partner Fred Gardner of Naples' Matthews & Gardner have served all of the above as they cater to each client's whim. Sometimes the requests are easy, like the hams they shipped in from Louisville for a Kentucky Derby Party or crates of claw-clacking lobsters rushed from Maine for a beachfront lobster bake. Other times, Matthews spends hours on the telephone, searching for fruits and vegetables that are out of season and off the price charts but demanded by a host with very particular tastes.
"We will get whatever anyone wants, out of state, out of the country, out of this world," says Matthews. "Some clients are harder to please than others, but typically Naples is very open to new ideas so long as the food is very, very good."
Parties are all about the food, agrees Bryan Sutton, who with his wife, Cynthia, caters to Naples under the name The Tasting Spoon and also operates The Tropical Reef restaurant and Naples Cheesecake Company. He especially enjoys creating custom menus for those with discerning tastes. "We did a New Year's Eve party for 12 guests for a client who owned the most amazing collection of wines I have ever seen," says Sutton. "The new year was 2001, so he made sure that every wine's year ended in a '1'; and these wines included a '61 Bordeaux, a '71 champagne, a '91 pinot noir and even a bottle from 1921."
Sutton's eight-course meal featured beluga caviar, pan-seared sea scallops served with micro-greens, foie gras with herbed risotto, and braised sea bass with Belgian endive.
"My client wanted gamecocks, because that was his favorite, but I could not get birds of any quality, so I found fresh partridges and had them shipped from Ireland," explains Sutton. "We stuffed them with white truffles and roasted them, and he loved it."
Herb-crusted baby lamp chops, a cheese course served precisely at midnight and flourless chocolate cake served with cherries and champagne completed a menu that delighted dinner guests. "Our aim is to make dreams and visions come true," says Sutton.
He's served banana-wrapped fish for a Caribbean-themed party, hand-rolled sushi in swishy penthouse suites, even roasted a whole pig for a client who misses the flavor of down-home country cooking. "This guy lives in a $15-million house in Port Royal, but he likes roast pork," says Sutton with a laugh. "So every now and then he calls me up and I roast a whole pig for him and his friends. I love my job."
Flowers and décor can push a party over the top, particularly when budgets are bodacious or underwriters are feeling especially generous. Last year's luncheon benefit for the Naples Botanical Garden featured 40 breathtaking birdcage centerpieces filled with colored lilies, orchid blossoms, bird's nest mosses and green spilling everywhere. "Thank goodness I have small hands," says designer Mia McKee, "The Flower Lady," who worked in conjunction with Effie's Floral Gallery. "It was wild having to create the arrangements inside the cage when the opening was a mere four inches wide."
McKee also helped transform the Port Royal Club into the Hundred Acre Wood for a Winnie the Pooh birthday bash that still has guests shaking their heads in wonder. "Painted chairs were trucked in from Miami in colors of raspberry and aqua and peach, and there was real grass underfoot and a giant tree and heaps of mountain laurel branches to create the woods," explains McKee. "Table centerpieces featured beehives that twirled all night on battery-powered revolving disks covered in autumn leaves and bumble bees circling on wires. An outer ring featured a Winnie the Pooh bear and Mason jars filled with colorful flowers. Moss covered the mechanics."
McKee has been laughed at by suppliers when she requested out-of-season lily-of-the-valley for a December bride who would brook no substitutions. "I finally found some in Holland for an outrageous amount of money and flew it in from Amsterdam to New York to Naples and held my breath when I opened the containers. But it was beautiful," she says.
For one Naples bride who decided to stage an out-of-town wedding, McKee booked an extra hotel room, cranked the air conditioning thermostat down to 60 degrees and stored her flowers overnight. She has created heart-shaped clusters of candles on lawns to glow dreamily after dark and covered hotel bridal suites in handmade wreaths and rose petals, even fashioning the newlyweds' initials on their pillows in fresh blossoms.
And in extreme circumstances, when deliveries arrived but were sparse or spoiled, she has run through strangers' yards with scissors, snipping blooms here and there. "We call that pruning the neighborhood," she says with a giggle.
She's also created fresh floral collars for a bride's dogs to wear as they walked down the aisle in the wedding. "The dogs were these fluffy, fuzzy things, and I was struggling to get the flowers over their heads," she says. "I finally managed to get them dressed; but then they did not like the collars and they refused to budge."
Even when McKee tried to bribe them with treats, the dogs remained immobile; finally she ran to find the mother of the bride. "She talked to the dogs and reluctantly, they got up and slowly walked down the aisle," McKee says.
The sky can be the limit when it comes to Gulfshore party décor. Witness the two-story inflatable "sky dancers" that bend and twist in time to the music, which Kathy Wheeler used at a benefit for the Cancer Alliance of Naples. In another Wheeler-produced event, a luncheon benefit for Naples Botanical Gardens, guests, speaker and a visiting celebrity all played (however unwittingly) a role in the décor. After the luncheon was modeled after Hat Day in Central Park, Saks Fifth Avenue booked the world's foremost milliner, Philip Treacy, for a trunk show before the party.
"The invitees all ran to Saks for gorgeous Treacy hats to wear to the party," says Wheeler. "It was his most successful show ever." The parade of beautiful women adorned in beautiful hats became part of the party's look; in addition, famed designer Carleton Varney, the keynote speaker, designed the table linens and signature scarves for the event. "We even served lunch in beautifully decorated hat boxes," says Wheeler. "The visuals were amazing."
Anne Matthews also has experience decorating outdoor spaces. On one occasion, she removed every piece of furniture from a client's living room and then set it all up in an exact replication of that room on the front lawn. "She wanted an outside party on the lawn, so we moved it all outside," says Matthews, "including sofas, rugs, wing chairs, table lamps, piano, everything. The weather was perfect, and the party worked."
Beth Bell-Carr of She-She designed and decorated 70 bow-trimmed lampshades in a Chanel-inspired motif to use as centerpieces and later, auction items at a benefit luncheon for cancer patients. For another party, she created a martini "luge," which delivered drinks to guests approaching the limbo line at record speeds. And, for a party called Ice, Bell-Carr crafted frozen shot glasses made entirely of ice and filled them with Blue Curacao, vodka and a dusting of sugar. "Guests tipped their glasses and downed this icy blue concoction we called a Blue Whale and then threw their shot 'glasses' into the swimming pool and watched them melt," she says. "People really enjoyed it."
A fabulous theme can make for a party that goes down in history. The Last Dinner on the Titanic fund raiser for the Immokalee Foundation was the first gala Diane McGinty attended after she moved to Naples, and she says it made a dazzling impression. "Men were in tuxes and women in ball gowns, and the Marco Island Yacht Club was decorated like the ship's ballroom," remembers McGinty. "The gala committee had really done their homework. The menu was identical to what was served on the Titanic that night. We danced to an orchestra playing the same songs; and as the evening grew late, the commodore announced that we had hit an iceberg and would have to leave the ballroom. The orchestra played Amazing Grace and everyone had chills."
Naples photographer AP Alexander is on the scene with his camera for many charity bashes as well as private parties, and gets a bird's-eye view through the lens. He agrees that the theme keeps people talking. "At a great biker party at Port Royal, the guests all wore leather and arrived on Harleys. And then there was an Elvis party and this terrific party with a Survivor theme."
Stalking that elusive "wow" factor, hosts have gone wild and imported some real party animals. Panthers, lions and tigers in cages caused a sensation at a circus party planned by Matthews & Gardner. For another client's third annual Kentucky Derby party, the horse statuary and ice carvings seemed blah, so Matthews brought in a live thoroughbred, complete with jockey clad in racing silks and a gargantuan wreath of roses around the horse's neck. "Horse and rider were right in front of the party to greet guests, and everyone was thrilled," says Matthews.
Gulfshore parties have featured live butterflies in centerpieces, white doves at weddings, horse-drawn carriages, exotic snakes in glass terrariums and parading elephants tramping through a very surprised host's backyard. And then there is Karen Coplin's pug party, starring dozens of dogs in costume and a guest list that stretches all the way to Miami.
Coplin began her annual Pug O'Ween just for fun, inviting six or seven pug owners to her Old Naples home for drinks around Halloween. Everyone dressed their little dogs in garish garb and it was a good time. "I dragged a few chairs outside and ran back and forth to fetch beer," says Coplin. "Pugs are such silly, sociable creatures, and they loved getting together."
After the party, Coplin was besieged by pug owners who had heard about the bash. She staged a second Pug O'Ween; this time 47 dogs showed up with beaming owners in tow. Today Coplin's annual dog party is a howling success, with a full-fledged auction that benefits the Humane Society of Collier County. "It is a sight when all those pugs arrive," describes Coplin. "They come down the sidewalk in baby strollers, wearing dreadlocks, ballet tutus, tuxedoes, everything."
What else would you expect in Southwest Florida?