The Casita Maria Gala was held at the Plaza Hotel on Tuesday, October 15, 2019, with cocktails beginning at 7:30 PM. There are so many reasons this dinner is one of my favorites of the year, including the drop-dead gorgeous fashion where luminaries such as Mary McFadden, Deborah Norville, Jacqueline Weld Drake and hundreds of Latina beauties arrive in gowns and jewelry rivaling any Hollywood Awards Show.
There is even a fair amount of royalty in the mix with Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia and Princess Marie Chantal of Greece deep in conversation for the entirety of the evening-perhaps discussing which palace they were going to vacation at. A healthy dose of philanthropists is a staple which this year included Barbara Tober, Mai Hallingby, Susan Gutfreund, Dayssi Kanavos, and Mary Elizabeth Snow, who were dressed to impress without a hair out of place or an accessory that wasn’t exquisite.
But this dinner isn’t all staid socialites as authors Christopher Mason, Gregory Speck, and Hunt Slonem appear year after year and regal the crowds with their over-the-top stories and attire. Another great feature of the evening is its late starting time. Those 6 PM cocktail hours kill the entire day-7:30 is a much more reasonable hour and creates a certain excitement in the air as darkness has set in.
Furthermore, there is no more beautiful venue in New York than the Plaza ballroom. Hunt Slonem was sharing the panic of years ago when the Mandarin became the site of this fiesta, breathing a sigh of relief when it returned to the Plaza. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that speeches nearly every year last no more than 5 minutes.
This year honorees Juan Montoya, John Hardy, Ambassador Mary Dawkins, and Brig. Gen. Peter Dawkins, along with Edgar Legaspi, adhered to this protocol, all clocking in with speeches that lasted no more than 4 minutes – thank the Lord (past guests of honor Audrey Hepburn, Oscar de la Renta, and Nancy Kissinger I am told did the same.)
There are no lengthy live auctions where you have to be coaxed by a guy with a British accent into buying dinner for 10 at Rao’s for $10,000 – another major plus. This dinner is about socializing and dancing – albeit slightly drunkenly – as The Bob Hardwick Sound plays one catchy Spanish tune after another. Casita Maria started this trend way before the Spanish explosion in music occurred, and it has become increasingly clear that the Latin takeover is in its incipient stages.
The decor of the evening was more opulent than ever as the floral tablecloths and napkins had me dreaming of my days of flamenco dancing in Barcelona. Lest you think the evening is all frivolous revelry, the Casita Maria has served as a beacon of hope for the underserved Latino communities in the South Bronx and East Harlem.
Founded in 1934 by Elizabeth and Claire Sullivan, public school teachers in an East Harlem neighborhood school, what began as an experiment in a five-room apartment on East 113th Street now serves more than 1,000 students a day from grades K-12 with a curriculum that includes art and cultural education.
There is also a summer camp and after-school programs. In the coming weeks, there are book clubs, Zumba classes, gallery shows, and much more, allowing these children to experience a wide range of activities they wouldn’t have access to.
Past graduates Tito Puente, Grandmaster Flash, and Rita Moreno went onto achieve great things a happenstance that would not have occurred without this institution. Tickets started at $500 for those under 40 and went up to $1,250 were relatively cheap for a night of dancing, a menu of chicken and rice, and an unlimited bar.
There were also a fair number of models in the crowd, including uber-famous Adwoa Aboah, a British fashion model who has graced the covers of Vogue America, Vogue Italia, and Vogue Poland. She joined the group from John Hardy jewelry as she is one of their spokesmodels. Moreover, brainy mannequin Nell Rebowe, revealed her dual role as a neuroscientist -working on a molecule to treat neurological conditions.
At 10:30 PM, most of the guests headed to the dance floor to burn off the sumptuous chocolate dessert. I bumped into the famed architect and honoree Juan Montoya, who said the most gratifying part was visiting the school and seeing the children ask questions and express themselves. Growing up in Colombia, Montoya said he was saddled with regulations and the prohibitions – the antithesis of what this open-minded organization exemplifies.