Last Saturday, 1,000 guests convened on the museum campus for the Shedd Aquarium Gala. With the theme “Close Encounters,” the black-tie event was spearheaded by Jennifer Baryl, the Shedd's senior director and liaison to the board of trustees; Elizabeth Tulipana, assistant director of donor relations; and volunteer chair Nancy Tague. “The Shedd gala is known to be a fun party from the most creative invitations through its execution,” said Baryl. “The greatest challenge [in planning the event] is coming up with innovative ideas that guests haven't previously seen.”
This year team opted to keep the crowd engaged (and surprised) with eight different forms of entertainment. As guests exited cabs or turned their cars over to the crew of valets near the museum's entrance, the Roberto Clemente High School Steel Drum Band provided a curbside welcome concert. The band members' uniforms—bright orange tees scrawled with “Close Encounters"—helped brand the event.
The entertainment continued in a peaked tent that housed the cocktail reception, where a trio of musicians from Peter Polzak's Big City Jazz provided a live soundtrack. To help move guests from cocktails to the seated dinner within the aquarium, performers from the Mystick Krewe of Laff, clad in Mardi Gras attire (think oversize glasses and colorful beads galore) danced through the crowd, waving signs that said “Follow Me to Dinner!” as Beetlejuice theme song “Day-O” spilled out of the speakers. After dinner, a variety of entertainers who played at three side-by-side after-parties (more on that later) ranged from jazz vocalist Stephanie Browning to a pop-spinning DJ from Fig Media. At the end of the night, fire jugglers danced to rhythmic drumming at the exit of the aquarium, providing an exotic distraction from the cab and valet lines.
The “Close Encounters” theme played out literally in a series of staging areas that allowed guests to come face to face with creatures normally seen behind glass. In the cocktail tent, staffers from Amazing Animals by Samantha were on hand to show off live raccoons and armadillos. Samantha herself fed bananas to Benny the binturong (also called a Chinese bear cat), causing intrigued guests to form an impromptu paparazzi pit of flashing camera phones. In the aquarium, animal trainers from the Shedd held turtles and lizards, while a staffer in a silky gown displayed a live falcon on her wrist.
So that guests experienced frequent and unexpected changes of scenery, the Shedd planners tapped Vince Hart of Kehoe Designs to create distinct design schemes for each element of the evening. “We went for a kind of under-the-sea theme,” said Hart, speculating that this year's gala was the most heavily produced that the Shedd has put on in 10 years. On the day of the gala, the aquarium closed to the public at 3 p.m., allowing Hart a short window in which to finish his work. “It's like putting on a Broadway show in four hours,” he said of the event's production.
To create a coral-reef ambience during dinner, Hart swathed tables in peachy-pink linens and filled illuminated, glass pond centerpieces with artificial coral and crystal rocks. For the after-dinner portion of the evening, Hart said he created “three different dancing and entertainment zones.” He transformed the aquarium's lower-level Bubble Net food court into a “coral disco” filled with bubble-embossed Lucite tables and custom furniture upholstered in hues of hot pink and lime. One level up, Hart transformed the Shedd's Soundings restaurant into a chocolate lounge, filling the space with custom furniture swathed in dark brown fabrics and dotting tabletops with Hershey's Kisses. To produce a sultry-feeling “Blue Dolphin” jazz lounge on the aquarium's tented north terrace, Hart created candlelit seating areas (inspired by those at Green Dolphin Street) filled with zebrawood tables and ottomans covered in fabric with a blue coral design. He lit the space with chandeliers wrapped in shades of sapphire-hued gel crystal and created an underwater feel by pointing moving blue lights at the ceiling of the tent.
Moving between the three after-party environments and stopping to ogle the on-site animals, guests stayed at the aquarium till past midnight.