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Giant Chalkboards Send Robin Hood's Message

David Stark's design for the blockbuster benefit made a big statement and provided plenty of metaphors and symbols-erasing poverty, improving education-for the foundation's work.

Event designer David Stark created a dozens of large chalk drawings- ranging from 50 feet wide to 35 feet tall-of New York scenes for the Robin Hood Foundation benefit's cocktail area in the Javits Center.

From decor to auction lots, the much-anticipated Robin Hood Foundation benefit had one main focus this year: children. Four thousand well-heeled guests showed up at the Javits Center to raise an all-time high of $48 million at the event, including $19 million for a 1,500-student charter school scheduled to be completed by 2009. “It was an incredible night,” said Robin Hood director of marketing, communications, and events Laurie Fabiano. “We came out of there knowing that we can build a high school, which is pretty amazing.”

The benefit was held in a section of the convention hall divided by thick black curtains into three sections: a cocktail room, a dining room, and a performance area. Fabiano told event designer David Stark, who was working on the event solo since his split with business partner Avi Adler, that she wanted this year’s decor to be New York-centric and to illustrate Robin Hood’s connection to the city. Stark responded with a theatrical set of towering, hand-drawn chalk sketches depicting New York landmarks and iconic scenes—from the Washington Square Arch and the New York Public Library to MTA buses and Times Square billboards. “There is a correlation between the decor and tonight’s purpose, because Robin Hood has literally infiltrated the whole city,” Stark said shortly before guests arrived. “And everybody started in a classroom, everybody has a relationship with chalkboards.”

To create the scenery, Stark and his team began drawing three weeks in advance on more than 35,000 square feet of chalkboard. (He even applied for a Guinness World Records designation for the largest chalk drawing.) Robin Hood’s logo of the feather-capped hero with a bow and arrow appeared throughout the illustrations, on a pedestrian’s T-shirt, a restroom sign, and a diner, among other places. Stark also connected with major players in the Robin Hood organization by incorporating donors and board members into the drawings, putting their names and likenesses on taxicabs, street signs, and newsstands. The drawings themselves were covered in a coat of clear paint so that the chalk wouldn’t rub off onto the clothing of passing guests. They could add to the work, though, with bowls of chalk placed on highboy tables throughout the cocktail area. “The guests absolutely loved it,” Fabiano said the next day. “At the end of the night, most of the chalkboard panels were filled up with graffiti the guests had added themselves.” Also on hand was a team of artists, dressed as construction workers in hard hats and orange jumpsuits, who roamed the floor and added to the drawings and, later, moved guests into the dining area.

For the first time ever, the benefit’s dining room was a completely round space, with screens around the perimeter. As guests entered, the screens flashed video footage of New York scenes—a basketball game, taxicabs speeding by, children laughing in a park—in addition to a child’s hands drawing “thank you” on a chalkboard, and an animated film of the cityscape depicted in chalk, all created by event producers Live Nation.
Some 500 waiters passed out cold filets of beef, herb-marinated chicken, and macaroni and cheese from Glorious Food, with wine by Genofranco. Four hundred and four tables of eight, 10, and 12 were draped in purple and yellow linens, with giant purple allium and yellow crespidia centerpieces.

On a stage in the center of the room, Jon Stewart hosted the event (as he did in 2004). Tom Brokaw kicked off the live auction with a multimedia presentation of films, statistics, and photos about Robin Hood, poverty in the city, and schools that the foundation has built. When the lights went up, Jay-Z was standing on the stage, and he gave a speech about schools in Manhattan and in Brooklyn, where he grew up. He discussed how rap is being used in some schools to teach math and motivate kids to read, at which point a group of 600 charter school children joined him on stage for a rap number called “Read Baby Read.” Bidding on the charter school commenced next, and Robin Hood surpassed its fund-raising goal of $10 million by an additional $9 million.

Other lots auctioned off at the benefit included a package for eight people to spend a week at a private mansion in Casa Chorro, Mexico; a week at prestigious golf club Bitterroot Valley at the Stock Farm in Montana; and a week on board a 142-foot yacht in the Bahamas—with private jet transportation to and fro. Such lavishness was the auction lot norm, as another package included lunch and a seaplane ride with Jimmy Buffett and rock and roll camp with Jon Anderson and Dee Snider, among others. The benefit’s door prize, too, was over-the-top; it included two Vespas or a pair of business class tickets to Europe.

Once the auction was over, curtains on one side of the room lifted to reveal a concert stage, and Beyoncé entered on a staircase lit up with intelligent fixtures that fluctuated with her as she descended. The singer’s set lasted for an hour, and was followed by another hour of DJ-supplied dance music.

Courtney Thompson

Posted 06.21.06

Photos: Susie Montagna (Washington Square Arch, hallway, drawing guests), Jeff Thomas/Image Capture (construction workers, dining room, centerpieces)

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