The storms of winter 2010 shut down roads, cancelled classes, closed up shops and nearly ended a signature Baltimore event before it started.
On a cold January night, organizers of the Pratt Contemporaries' inaugural Black and White Party watched the uncertain forecast and the falling snow, worried that the conditions were going to keep guests away from their humble celebration.
Yet several inches of snow — usually a kiss of death for the winter-wary in Maryland — did not prevent 200 or so people from attending. This year, the party has a waiting list more than three weeks out, an expected attendance of 650 and a national-brand sponsor (CoverGirl).
"It makes me proud thinking back to the party ... when we were stressed seeing the snow come down, to where we are today," said Roswell Encina, director of communications for the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Now, "I've met so many people through the Black and White Party. It's amusing, you hear people talking about it throughout town."
Inspired by writer Truman Capote's legendary 1966 Black and White Ball, the party has turned into a major fundraiser for the library and one of the hottest social events in Baltimore. Along with trivia nights, happy hours, author receptions and other events, it has furthered the Pratt Contemporaries' efforts to attract younger patrons to the 127-year-old library.
Shelly Terranova, annual fund director for the library, said that the party is the first time many have visited the central Pratt Library on Cathedral Street.
"They haven't seen how beautiful and grand it is," she said.
The Pratt Contemporaries aims to raise awareness and funds for the Pratt and represents a national trend among arts and culture organizations to reach younger patrons through professionals' groups. The concept can be seen elsewhere locally, such as at the Walters Art Museum with its Walters Enthusiasts. Key to many of these groups is a marquee event.
The Black and White Party remains the Pratt Contemporaries top fundraiser — accounting for close to $200,000 of the $280,000 the group has raised since it was formed three years ago. It calls for stylish black-and-white dress and festive themes — "James Bond," "Midnight in Paris" or, this year, "The Great Gatsby."
Putting together a party of this scale is no small feat. It is essentially assembled in a mad scramble over a five-hour window the day of the event. All hands are on deck to transform the stately library into a hip spot.
"When we do the final walk-through, even I forget all the work we do," said Kate Powell, chair of the Contemporaries. "You can do all the planning and preparation, and all of the sudden, you realize all the stuff that needs to happen behind the scenes to make this happen."
Lindsey Stone of Baltimore-based Union 3 Event Productions has helped to plan the event since its inception, shaping each party around its theme. That has meant erecting a grand Eiffel Tower replica in the middle of the party for last year's "Midnight in Paris" theme or making guests pose with baguettes and mustaches for pictures.
A good chunk of the decor is donated by the Maryland-based events-rental company Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, which helps create the spectacle, according to Stone.
"We are able to blow it out of the water," she said. "That is why it is so spectacular, because we have that 'wow' factor. We try and outdo ourselves each year."
Even the food is a production.
Tali Adelstein, director of catering for Linwoods, has been busy reading up on the Roaring '20s to craft a menu reminiscent of the time period. That ranges from beef bourguignon to a [Leonardo] DiCaprio champagne punch. (The actor is slated to star in the highly anticipated "Great Gatsby" remake this year.)
"When you are doing something of this caliber for both the number of people involved and the location of a place with such meaning, what you are looking to create for them is a complement to the whole goal they are trying to do," she said. "This party is coming into its own. It is definitely getting the attention it deserves."
Erin Blume, a 33-year-old health care provider who lives in Hampden, plans to attend the party for the second year in a row.
"It's cocktails, dancing with friends among the sparkling hundreds," Blume said. "It's the type of party you don't want to leave. There's always a glass of red wine spilled on a white shirt (I may have done that) and a corset slip (not me)."
Organizers love the buzz the party is getting. They hope it carries over to meet the ultimate goal of the Pratt Contemporaries.
"It gets young people who may not know where the library is inside the building," Powell said. "In the end, it is calling attention to how great the Pratt is. It's given us tons of exposure and lets people know the services we provide."
Volker Stewart, founding partner of The Brewer's Art, has developed an "accessible" and "interesting" pale ale for the "Gatsby"-themed party. "We wanted to make something that wouldn't shake your taste buds, but pique your interest," he said. "It's fairly malt forward with botanical flavors in it. It's not going to be super roasty and hoppy. It's going to have a pleasant drinkability to it. But it's not going to be boring."
How do you stand out in a sea of black and white?
Lisa Schatz, owner of Cupcake in Fells Point who regularly attends the party, suggests that people follow modern trends inspired by the Roaring '20s. She'll likely wear a Moschino flapper-style miniskirt and pair it with a simple top and perhaps a lace-up "granny" shoe like the ones from Poetic License, sold at Poppy and Stella in Fells Point. Schatz also recommends a drop-waist dress, which is popular this year: "Don't go too far with the '20s items — you don't want to step into costume land at an elegant charity event."
By the numbers
0: number of tickets available; the party sold out three weeks ago.
2: number of floors the party will take place; a VIP area has been added for the first time.
4: number of years the party has been thrown.
5: number of hours it takes to completely decorate the library for the party.
5: number of bars.
15: number of bartenders.
42: pounds of grits.
100: number of songs DJ K-ICE Ingersol will play during the party.
112: pounds of beef, sauteed and slow cooked, to make Julia Child's beef bourguignon.
130: pounds of chicken.
200: number of guests that attended the inaugural party.
650: number of guests this year.
1,000: number of postcards inviting people to the event.
2,315: number of 12-ounce glasses of the signature pale ale Brewer's Art is making for the event.