Casita María Fiesta 89th Anniversary Celebration

Jacqueline Weld Drake, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Casita – Photo by Lieba Nesis

The Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education’s annual gala celebrating its 89th anniversary took place on Tuesday, October 10, 2023, with cocktails beginning at 7:30 PM at the Plaza Hotel. Aside from the magnificent venue, the best part of the evening is the late hour, which provides a sensual allure that other dinners beginning at 5:30 PM lack.

Jennifer Fischer, Marc Rosen, Sharon Bush, & Alexandra Seegers – Photo Lieba Nesis

While expected attendee Mayor Eric Adams missed the only party he hasn’t attended this year – maybe he was cavorting at Casa Cipriani – the rest of the 300 guests paid $1,500 per ticket for an evening that was short on speeches and long on entertainment – in other words “perfection.” Still reeling from the horrific news in Israel, the thought of attending a fiesta seemed strange; however, nobody benefits from depression – action is the only way to go.

Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia & Mary Elizabeth Snow – Photo by Lieba Nesis

Casita Maria was established in 1934 by Claire and Elizabeth Sullivan as the first charitable organization to serve Latinos in New York City. Operating out of a tenement apartment in East Harlem, its primary mission was to offer recreational activities for newly arrived families from Puerto Rico.

James Borynack, Lynne Wheat, Sherri Stephenson, Adolfo Zaralegui – Photo by Lieba Nesis

In 2009, enough funds were garnered to open a 90,000-square-foot six-story educational and cultural facility, which increased the number of children participating from 300 to over 1400. Focusing on “Casita Kids,” this building on 928 Simpson Street in the Bronx features musical and dance performances and a comprehensive program addressing children’s physical and emotional safety through drug rehabilitation, gang intervention, and teen pregnancy prevention.

Left is Shane O’Neill, Photo by Marilyn Kirschner

A primary component of its Creative Youth Development program is nurturing the talent of adolescents with a list of illustrious alumni, including jazz composer Tito Puente, hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Melle Mel, and renowned percussionist Benny Bonilla.

Omar Hernandez & chair Jean Shafiroff – Photo by Lieba Nesis

The invitation read black tie, and guests did not disappoint as Senors and Senoritas arrived in their smashing attire for second-floor Plaza cocktails, followed by a lavish ballroom dinner containing filet mignon, risotto, and decadent blackout cake.

Jonathan Farkas, Frederick Anderson, Somers Farkas – Photo by Lieba Nesis

The table settings were splendid as fruits such as pineapple, lemons, and limes were featured amongst vibrant tablecloths. Guests such as Somers and Jonathan Farkas, Sharon Bush, Enrico Bruni, Mary Elizabeth Snow, Janna Bullock, Jean Shafiroff, Alisa Roever, Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, Barbara Tober, and Mai Hallingby joined the night’s illustrious honorees which included Grammy Winning Producer Nelson Albareda, the honorable David and Jennifer Fischer and Dr. Ramon Tallaj.

Janna Bullock, Enrico Bruni & Mary Snow – Photo by Lieba Nesis

Ramon Tallaj and David Fischer were unfortunate no-shows as others filled in to accept their awards. Paradoxically, former US Ambassador to Morocco David Fischer was on his way to Israel when he was forced to turn back as he is one of the leaders credited with putting forth the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and Morocco and Israel and the UAE in 2021.

Marilyn Kirschner & Lieba Nesis

Even legendary photographer Patrick McMullan joined the festivities with his ubiquitous camera, snapping away as Grammy producer Nelson Albareda accepted his award. Albareda recalled his great-great-great-grandfather arriving in America in 1876 and laying the foundation for him to pursue his dreams with the first artist he signed, Tito Puente.

Puente unfortunately passed away in 2000 at the age of 77 after complications from surgery to repair a heart valve. He was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, and his impact on Spanish music is unrivaled. Albareda boldly stated he was honored to accept the award, declaring, “The future of America is Latino kids.”

“The Boys Table” – Photo by Lieba Nesis

Honoree Jennifer Fischer was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in May 2022, reiterating children’s importance in determining our future. After a five-minute live auction, the best part of the evening began – the music of The Bob Hardwick Sound, which contained some of the most authentic-sounding Spanish music, one to the streets of Madrid where flamenco and haciendas abound.

After the short dinner program, guests took to the dance floor with alacrity and enthusiasm. Philanthropist Jacqueline Weld Drake, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Casita, was one of the first to arrive on the dance floor. Drake, who opens up her splendid Park Avenue home every September for the Casita kickoff party, has been instrumental in nurturing this pivotal organization, which currently provides high-quality arts education to 1,000 students daily.

El Cigala with The Bob Hardwick Sound – Photo by Lieba Nesis

Guests who left at the early hour of 10 PM will undoubtedly lament their unfortunate decision as superstar Cigala took to the stage with a haunting voice and a signature authenticity that had the guests enraptured.

El Cigala is a Romani Flamenco gypsy singer who has released more than 10 studio albums along with receiving a Latin Grammy for best traditional flamenco album in 2004. His electrifying performance was more “Gipsy King” than any band member, and after a short performance, the guests unsuccessfully begged for more.

Exiting the Plaza ballroom, I took one last glimpse at the magnificent table decor and vibrant crowd. The post-Covid New York gala season is thus far exceeding expectations.

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Lieba Nesis

My love of fashion, writing and photography were something that always dominated my lifestyle however it wasn't until I was approached by the editor of Lookonline that I realized I could utilize these three skills in combination.

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