Top Hats; Memorable millinery heads up the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation's gala tribute to civic leader Walter Sondheim; FOCUS ON HATS


It may be the Maryland headquarters of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, but these days the small office in Towson looks like a milliner's shop. A milliner who is, let's say, a cousin of Salvador Dali.

Every day, new hats arrive. Not your ordinary hats, mind you. These are surreal chapeaus sporting flora to fauna, and everything man-made in between, including (quite literally) a kitchen sink.

When JDF executive director Janet Rosen sees a new hat, she starts "screeching," she says. "I try them on. I get excited." Other staffers, she says, "think I've lost my mind."

Yeah, she's crazy. Crazy like a fox. All these hats, around 100, will serve as centerpieces and auction items at Saturday's gala. "Hats Off to Walter!" honors Walter Sondheim Jr., the 91-year-old former state school superintendent, and one of the early champions of downtown development in Baltimore -- who hates getting attention as much as he loves giving it to a worthy group.

"I think it's just wonderful that people have done this -- for the cause, not me," he says.

While the gala's guests are asked to cap off their formal attire with a topper of their own choosing, Rosen enlisted the creative help of public school students from around the state as well as several local artists and interior designers for the shindig's decorations.

"We definitely wanted something dramatic," says Leslie Rose, a design assistant at Alexander Baer Associates interior design firm in Baltimore, who created a hat. She and Michelle Sanchez, another design assistant, came up with a lofty jumble of silk roses and gingham, complete with butterfly and bumblebees.

They got the idea from an old photo. "At the end, we thought it kind of looked like Dr. Seuss," Rose says.

For Owings Mills artist Smadar A. Livne, the challenge was working on a small scale. "My pieces are usually very large, 4 feet by 6 feet and larger. Then they gave me this tiny hat to work on," she says.

But the painter/sculptor prevailed, coming up with a court jesteresque creation made of orange and fuchsia felt.

Area youngsters with insulin-dependent diabetes gave us a sneak preview of these fanciful hats. Jimmy Albaugh, 12, of Arbutus; Nia Anderson, 11, of Owings Mills; Chelsea Levin, 12, of Parkville; and Erin Sell, 12, of Bel Air did the modeling duties.

A Sondheim evening

"Hats Off to Walter!" takes place Saturday from 7 p.m. to midnight at Baltimore's 5th Regiment Armory. Guests are encouraged to wear hats with their black-tie dress. Nancy and Lou Grasmick are the party's honorary chairs. The evening begins with a cocktail hour and silent auction, followed by a seated gourmet dinner and a fashion show provided by Ruth Shaw, highlighting fashions by Tuleh.

At the end of the fashion show, friends of Walter Sondheim, above, will fill the runway, saluting his decades of civic service and leadership in Maryland. A live auction, dessert and dancing completes the night.

Tickets are $250 a person, with proceeds going to the Walter Sondheim Jr. Research Grant in Diabetes. Call 410-823-0073 for tickets and information.

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