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OPINION COLUMN: TED KRUCKEL

Occupied by Wall Street: Poking Around the Robin Hood Benefit

The performances/presentations read like a greatest hits of mainstream media. Neil Young opened with two acoustic songs, “Heart of Gold” and “Long May You Run.”

Photo: Courtesy of Robin Hood Foundation

I don’t know quite where to begin in describing the Robin Hood Foundation’s 22nd annual gala on Monday at the Javits Center.

Should I start with the staggering success of their $57 million-dollar haul? The foundation’s senior vice president of development, communication, and events, Mark Bezos, was certainly not over confident just a few minutes before the event started. Last year’s gala, which had Lady Gaga perform, was a startling winner with a $47.4 million take. What I didn’t realize is that this organization has no endowment. They give away every dollar they make at the end of each year. And with ticket sales kicking the evening off at $21.2 million, they were less than half the way there.

Or should we just jump to the fun stuff? Mark took us behind the curtain walls of the Javits Center, away from the dining room the size of multiple football fields (400 tables, 4,000 diners) to look at Rihanna’s elaborate King Tut stage. But elaborate doesn’t quite describe it; after all, it did seem to make the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur look dinky. Ms. Rihanna wore an alligator gold bra (her second alligator look this week) and was accompanied by dancers tricked out in the seven veils of animal prints. If she was any the worse for wear after being hospitalized the other day for “exhaustion,” well, the elaborate eye makeup did not reveal such.

Since this is BizBash, should I talk about the nuts and bolts? A Glorious Food captain, who would not be identified and seemed a little bored by my questions, confirmed that while the first course would be plated, both the entrees and desserts would be butlered “French-style,” meaning passed on platters by waiters from the left, if you please. (More event details—and a slideshow of images—are in my colleague Anna Sekula's report.)

It’s the grand mack daddy of all fund-raisers, dwarfing the comparatively puny $11.5 million ducats the aforementioned Met hauled in at its Costume Institute gala last week.

In 2011 the Robin Hood Foundation gave away $146 million to what it deemed, via its proprietary number-crunching formula, to be the 200 most effective charities servicing the poverty cause in New York. And the giant screens flashed the alarming facts of need: 17,000 children born into poverty every year, 1.4 million (that’s one in six) New Yorkers rely on emergency food every day, and more.

And not one dollar of what Robin Hood earns goes into party planning and decorating; all the event costs are absorbed by the foundation’s board of approximately 30 members, starting with Tudor Hedge Fund head and Robin Hood founder Paul Tudor Jones and including a bunch of Masters of the Universe-types like Harvey Weinstein, Kenneth Langone, Bob Pittman, and John Sykes, with educators like Marian Wright Edelman and Geoffrey Canada thrown in for gravitas, plus Gwyneth Paltrow, I guess because she and Harvey Weinstein seem eternally and inexplicably linked at the hip (or not so, if you think about it).

And this Mark Bezos guy, brother of Amazon Czar Jeff, who I’ve heard about but never met, is one of these extremely caring and gifted guys who you can’t help but admire. In addition to being a do-gooder on a grand scale, he is a volunteer fireman in Scarsdale, New York, and a motivational speaker, natch. He explains that while the event is massive and grand, they don’t blow money on flowers and decor, and the plastic table centerpieces with words like community or give certainly don’t expose a lie.

Every guest gets a nifty little IML device in which to place their absolutely secret and private bids, which are accepted and immediately tallied. A giant tote board scrolls away the millions, with the milestone numbers garnering boisterous cheering. Remember: this is Wall Street talking.

The theme this year was the subway, which is a tad ironic since the Javits Center is one of the few places in Manhattan completely inaccessible by subway.

I’m reminded of this when I arrive under drippy skies to confront a massive crane, miles of scaffolding and even a missing windowpane. Renovations, don'tcha know? Once the guests start to arrive, it’s a giant flow of the wealthy, all shapes and sizes, some spectacularly turned out. Well at least a few. My favorite was the White family from New Orleans (Paul Tudor Jones had connections there and in Virginia. Big time connections, if you need to know), whose patriarch was dressed kind of like Dr. Spock. His observation by the way, not mine.

And then it feels remarkably like a subway station, without the poor people. People walking purposefully down long industrial hallways. To be honest, the feeling was a little grim. I wondered, Who would really want to come to this?

Inside the arena-size cocktail reception hall, I met a bunch and even recognized a few. Sarah Perkins comes every year, brings clients, loves it ... you get the idea. Nearly everybody works in finance. There are a few fabulous types—Tyra Banks, Harvey Weinstein’s uber-glamorous wife Marchesa, designer Georgina Chapman—but mostly it’s your bread-and-butter Wall Street-authorized occupiers. But everyone is having fun, excited by the bigness and drama of it all, and I am too, now.

The performances/presentations read like a greatest hits of mainstream media. Neil Young opened with two acoustic songs, “Heart of Gold” and “Long May You Run.” Seth Myers was the M.C. Jimmy Fallon and The Roots did one of their variety show send-ups, explaining the Robin Hood mission late-night-style. Then there was Rihanna’s act, and the audience rushed the stage as a proscenium revealed the heretofore-hidden Tutankhamen setup.

Stadium-size Jumbotrons mitigated the effect of possibly being a half-mile from the stage. And endlessly ticking up, the tote board measured the evening’s breathtaking results in real time.

The next morning Bloomberg News reported that one of the guests really enjoying himself was Lloyd Blankfein, C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs. He was feasting on schadenfreude: the topic of Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan Chase’s $2 billion trading debacle from a few days before was served as the main course.

Not that I’m that worried. Jamie Dimon reassured us on Meet the Press that it was only a few percentage points of their earnings. From that quarter! 

So I guess my takeaway from the whole Robin Hood Foundation experience, as impressive and honorable as I truly believe that it is, was not what a huge achievement this Wall Street-fueled fund-raiser is, but why is there only one?


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