It was Wednesday night at the Javits Center, T minus 30 minutes until guests would arrive, according to the anonymous voice warning everyone in the cavernous space. Staffers in wireless headsets walked to and fro—perfecting last-minute details, checking their clipboards, taking in the colorful, Sherwood Forest-meets-New York decor. Just days ago, the space resembled a construction site more than a fanciful medieval kingdom. After several overlapping 16-hour shifts, fork lifts, gigantic rolls of carpet, and concrete floors were replaced with glowing, well-stocked bars, a dining room set for 4,000 guests, and an enormous castle made of 100,000 paper coffee cups. As the voice called out the 20-minute mark, groups of caterwaiters milled around the cavernous room, marveling at the castle. One waiter made a stealth phone call to a friend as he walked around the space, awestruck: “Dude, you wouldn’t believe this! There’s this castle—and it’s so … big.”
Big has always been the operative word when it comes to the Robin Hood Foundation’s annual fund-raising gala. Big, high-concept decor, big-name performers, big guest list, and even bigger donations. Last year’s benefit, which netted $48 million, wowed guests with New York landmarks drawn entirely on giant chalkboards by David Stark Design, a nod to the nonprofit’s work with schools. For this year’s event, on May 2, Stark looked to the organization’s namesake, transforming a section of the Javits Center into a fanciful, modern-day Sherwood Forest. “From an iconography standpoint, we’ve used [Robin Hood] symbols like the archer or the target, but this year we thought we would go back to that time period and investigate where it collides with present-day New York City,” Stark said. “It’s a different route—situating everyone in England in the times of Robin Hood, but everything is made of New York City stuff.”
Heavy black drapes sectioned off the massive area of the convention center into a long, narrow space for cocktails, a round dining room, and a stage. The cocktail area resembled a storybook come to life, with giant castles, a vast rolling hill, and medieval tents. Stark subtly incorporated Robin Hood’s anti-poverty message in some design elements, like flags, banners, and a smaller wooden castle wrapped in newsprint-inspired graphics. “The decor was fabulous, as usual,” said Laurie Fabiano, Robin Hood’s director of communications, marketing, and events, who runs the giant production. “I felt strongly that we could have content and still be fun and beautiful.”
Although the decor is what obviously captures the attention of the well-heeled guests—and the caterwaiters—the production’s precise, expertly timed execution is equally impressive. This year, the Javits Center’s full schedule of trade shows and conventions forced the benefit to take place several weeks earlier than usual, and planners worked under their tightest load-in schedule yet—a full 24 hours less than they’ve had in past years. But even at the height of production, when the carpet still needed to be installed and the lighting was only halfway done, there was still a overwhelming sense of calm throughout the space—everyone seemed to know exactly what they needed to do and how much time they had to do it.
“We had to become much more efficient,” said Dan Parise of Live Nation, who handled the event’s overall production. “We’ve been working around the clock. As far as time goes, we’ve got everything down to a science. We can’t afford one mistake—even one mistake will set us back.”
Months before, Stark and his staff dreamed up the major structural elements, then turned to Atomic Design to help execute their ideas and come up with ways to make a giant hill and castles made of cups transportable and easy to assemble. With the design mapped out, staffers ordered 200,000 Greek Key cups from Queens-based restaurant supplier Citadel Foods. “So much of this is invention,” Stark said. “I’ve never made a castle out of cups before. We assumed all of the coffee cups were uniform in size, but when we started to build walls, we discovered that they weren’t lining up properly and they were off by about one eighth of an inch. So we had to go through and measure all of the cups and divide them into piles based on size. Making things out of unusual materials is something I love, but it can also be maddening.”
The round-the-clock set-up process began Saturday night, four days before the event, when staffers started rigging lights and installing trussing and motors. “As far as production goes, this is one of the largest in the country,” Parise said. “At a big concert or event at a venue like Madison Square Garden, there are about 90 to 100 rigging points, which is considered a lot. We have 350 rigging points.” The unassembled castles and hill arrived in pieces on Sunday, along with major scenic elements and carpeting filling 13 semi trucks. On Monday, Stark’s team scrambled to set up castle walls and assemble the trees.
The day before the event, staffers focused on sound and lighting, setting up the massive back-of-house area where Glorious Food chefs would prepare the food, and perfecting small details (like replacing a few missing cups here and there), while Aerosmith—the evening’s headliners—ran through their sound check. On the final day, 200 volunteers helped set up tables and chairs and added last-minute touches such as felt Robin Hood hats on each person’s chair.
When the guests—a mix of entertainment, finance, and nonprofit execs—finally showed up, they found cocktails and waiters circulating mini hamburgers around the castles. When the guests adjourned to the dining room, 650 servers passed grilled shrimp with basil sauce, hangar steak, and fried chicken with honey-glazed carrots and sautéed broccoli rabe, followed by brownie pudding with Tahitian vanilla-bean ice cream.
Jon Stewart returned for his third year as the evening’s M.C., working the crowd from a small stage in the center of the room. Tom Brokaw also returned, kicking off the auction by presenting a three-minute video of the foundation’s charitable work fighting poverty and improving schools. Stewart and Jamie Niven of Sotheby’s auctioned off five over-the-top luxury packages, which included custom shoes designed by Jimmy Choo, a V.I.P. trip for four to the 2008 Olympic Games in China, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Indianapolis 500 with seven-time driver Dominic Dobson. The benefit’s door prize was equally lavish—a three-night trip for two to Jamaica’s Roaring Pavilion Villa & Spa.
Following the luxury-package bidding, singer-songwriter Graham Nash performed “Teach Your Children” to introduce the portion of the auction that would raise money for a Robin Hood-supported teacher training program, and Aerosmith’s hour-and-a-half stadium-style concert capped the evening. The benefit netted a record $71.2 million—this is largely a finance crowd, remember—even though fewer items were auctioned off. “Each luxury package also had a volunteer experience component that tied back to the work we do, which helped them go for a lot more,” Fabiano said. “And people were incredibly moved and generous [in supporting] our teacher training institute.”
Photos: Marina Fragoso Senra for BizBash