Back in 1978, when Ron Henderson and some friends launched the first Denver Film Festival, Jimmy Carter was president and the country was poised to adopt the metric system. The average price for a movie ticket was $2.34, the musical “Grease” was the top-grossing film at the box office and “The Deer Hunter” won the Academy Award for Best Picture, reminisced Denver Film Society (DFS) Board Chairman Robert Clasen and Executive Director Andrew Rodgers in tandem with the organization’s 40th Birthday Gala on May 11, 2017.
Held at Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, the gala kicked off the organization’s birthday celebration that continued until the 40th Denver Film Festival on Nov. 1-12. With the creative nature of DFS and the film industry as her inspiration, Jennifer LaGraff, senior development manager - partnerships and events, and her gala committee set out to “separate ourselves from the annual fundraiser with rubber chicken” and the typical cocktails, dinner and dancing format.
Instead, they focused on creating a birthday party scene complete with a twist of retro as a nod to the 1970s. First, a spectacular custom invitation by Platypus Papers that featured a built-in, unfolding paper honeycomb ball set the stage as it hit the mailboxes of potential guests. “We wanted to stand out in Denver’s gala fundraiser season that starts in May,” LaGraff explains.
Those who accepted casting as an attendee were treated to signature cocktails crafted by McLain Hedges, partner of RiNo Yacht Club and owner of Proper Pour at The Source, and a selection of hor’s d’oeuvres upon arrival at 6 p.m. There was also a wine pull, where guests randomly selected a numbered key that determined if they went home with a bottle of wine at the end of the evening.
Relish Catering’s proposal to craft a smallplate presentation of three courses for dinner was enthusiastically selected as an alternative to the usual banquet fare. The meal and an awards presentation started at 7 p.m., complete with a gourmet salad course served with artisan breads and herb butter; duck leg confit or a spring risotto cake; and beef tenderloin topped with grilled jumbo shrimp or beet Wellington. Each course was paired with Robert Mondavi Private Selection wines served tableside.
Not only was the gala a chance to raise money to support DFS’s year-round programs, including the Denver Film Festival, Young Filmmakers Workshop and specialty programming at Sie FilmCenter, it was an opportunity to recognize movers and shakers in the Denver film industry including DFS co-founder and former director Ron Henderson. Jim Berger, Duke Hartman and Sonny Hutchinson, the founders of Denverbased High Noon Entertainment, received the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media’s Hall of Fame Award.
Colorado Governor Mayor John Hickenlooper, who previously served as the mayor of Denver, spoke about the importance of film in Colorado and “shared some great stories,” LaGraff says.
This section of the evening wrapped up with a live auction and paddle raiser, with attendees bidding on seven large experiences versus a wide range of items usually featured in a silent auction. For example, the Movies on Vail Mountain Package includes a stay at a private residence in Avon during the 2018 Vail Film Festival, dinner before the opening night film at Matsuhisa and spa services at Hotel Talisa. The Arts Around Denver Package includes a selection of experiences from Colorado Ballet, Denver Center for Performing Arts, Denver Film Society and Museum of Contemporary Art such as going backstage at the opera and walking the red carpet in style on opening night of the Denver Film Festival.
Due to its sheer size and unique atmosphere, Wings Over the Rockies has become a popular venue for large fundraisers, so LaGraff and gala co-chairs Lauren Handler and Julie Mordecai wanted to create a different look and use of the space. A jewel-tone palette that included ruby red (the color for 40th anniversaries) was selected. Lighting and mix-and-match linens provided generous pops of color along with centerpieces that included florals designed by Plum Sage and colorful paper honeycomb balls—like those in the invitations—playfully tossed into clear acrylic boxes.
The event design also featured a progressive format that moved the group through the museum’s Main Hangar from left to right, beginning with cocktails. “As each portion of the evening ended, there was another reveal,” LaGraff explains.
The big reveal of the night occurred after the dinner and awards presentation, with the east side of the venue piped and draped so guests couldn’t see the Thursday Night Fever Dessert Disco that awaited. Drag queen Khrys’taaal performed a medley of 1970s songs in true disco diva style, and Saturday Night Fever dancers helped pump up the energy as a nod to “Saturday Night Fever,” the opening night film for the first-ever Denver Film Festival in 1978. Next up were tunes spun by a deejay for dancing and delicious desserts such as Solid Gold Salted Caramel Nitro Popcorn and SweeTart Mousse with Pop Rock Cotton Candy curated by Keegan Gerhard and Lisa Bailey, chef/owners of D Bar; Ian Kleinman, chef/owner of The Inventing Room; and Chaos & Cream.
“The crowd definitely got into it,” says LaGraff, noting that some people left after the auction before the big reveal. “That was the risk about not telling about the dessert disco, but we want people to think, ‘Next year, I have to go and see what happens.’”
Pulling off an event like the 40th Birthday Gala required sponsors and partners committed to the cause and careful planning. “Denver Film Society is a nonprofit, so when producing an event we start with a $0 budget. We have to make what we spend, and it has to be successful,” emphasizes LaGraff, who has planned seven fundraising events for DFS since 2012.
Her industry involvement also paid off. LaGraff is the immediate past-president of the International Live Events Association (ILEA) – Denver Chapter and is active in the Greater Denver Chapter of the National Association of Catering & Events (NACE), so she utilized members of both associations.
As any experienced planner knows, there is no such thing as a challenge-free event. This time, rainy days leading up to the gala prompted the cocktail hour to be moved indoors. Plus, the light-up dance floor caught fire only hours before the gala, causing a scramble that had all partners pitching in and helping to find a solution. All Well Rents rushed staff and equipment over to the museum to install a floor with 10 minutes to spare before guests arrived. “Everyone called around,” she says. “It’s a testament to absolute teamwork.”
The event was considered a resounding success as LaGraff and the gala committee exceeded their attendance and fundraising goals and feedback was very positive. She confirms, “We set out for 300 attendees and ended up with 526.”
Auction: Fresh Events
Auctioneer: Gary Corbett Auctions
Bar Service: Peak Beverage
Beverages: Republic National Distributing Company
Caterer: Relish Catering
Décor: Max & Livie
Desserts: Chaos & Cream; D Bar; The Inventing Room
Entertainment: Moment’s Notice Entertainment
Florals: Plum Sage
Graphic Design: Penterra Design
Invitation Design & Printing: Platypus Papers
Rentals: Event Rents; AllWell Rents
Signature Cocktails: Proper Pour; RiNo Yacht Club
Valet: LEG Valet
Venue: Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum