On Saturday, the UNCF Mayor’s Masked Ball rounded up lively legions for a bash at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans with Entergy as the presenting sponsor, Dr. Norman Francis as the honoree, and “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” in support of UNCF fundraising and scholarships, as the slogan. Concurrent with the formal-attire gala was the Italian-American Marching Club St. Joseph Parade in the Vieux Carre, which got a social send-off six days earlier at the Piazza d’Italia and featured a whirl of dancing.

Masks and Maze

Guests were prepared for hours of laurels and levity upon arrival at the Hyatt Regency’s Empire Ballroom for the UNCF Mayor’s Masked Ball. Both attire and acronym figured in the word “Masked.” The black-tie, long-gown guests turned out by the numbers in clever and creative masks with many participating in the “best” contest that had Stephanie Burks as the winner. As for the acronymic thrust, it was Mankind Assisting Students Kindle Educational Dreams and coined a while ago by the ball’s founding co-chairman Billye Suber Aaron. The Masked Award was created by visual artist Brenda Singletary.

This year, in keeping with the UNCF mission of “providing educational opportunities… for deserving African American youth,” and for his myriad major accomplishments, the award went to Xavier University of New Orleans President Dr. Norman Francis. He’s about to retire as the “longest sitting university president in the U.S. (since 1968).” He has been named by his peers as one of the 100 most effective college and university leaders and holds 40 honorary degrees from other universities. On Saturday evening, he put on a tuxedo and received the prestigious 2015 Masked Award.

Additional luminaries included the host committee, which consisted of the Honorable Mitchell J. “Mitch” Landrieu, mayor of the City of New Orleans; Dr. Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of UNCF, which includes 37 member colleges and the 60,000 students who depend on UNCF support for their education; Roderick “Rod” West, executive vice president and CAO of Entergy; Michael O. Smith, general manager, Hyatt Regency New Orleans; event founders Alden J. and Rhesa McDonald — he’s the president and CEO of Liberty Bank and Trust Company; and from UNCF, Therese M. Badon, vice president of development of the Southern and Western Division, and LaJuana Chenier, regional development director of Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

Notable co-chairing names — and most individuals were present — continued with Iftikhar and Angela Ahmad, Dottie Belletto, Ronald V. and Sheila Burns, Henry and Karen Coaxum, Tommy Dortch, L. Ronald and Sally Forman, and the laureled Norman Francis and his wife, Blanche. Also, Roy A. Glapion, Alfred and Lawanda Gordon, Blaine and Tammy Kern, Dr. Walter M. and Adria Kimbrough, Christopher and Martha Robertson, Mark Romig, Hasting and Jackie Stewart, Richard “Ricky” and Lori Thomas, Doug and Denise Thornton and Joel and Shirelle Vilmenay. Dr. Kimbrough and Mark Romig enjoyed turns in the limelight as, respectively, the president of Dillard University and the evening’s auctioneer.

In the program’s Parade of Stars and Dignitaries, the above Dr. Kimbrough, Mayor Landrieu, Dr. Lomax, Rod West, Dr. Francis, Therese Badon, and Mark Romig figured prominently, as did representatives from Marquis Sponsors Shell Oil Company and Ochsner Health System; Xavier alumna Danielle Edinburgh Wilson for a tribute to Norman Francis; and, program-listed for student testimonials, Brionne St. Cyr (Xavier class of 2018) and Michael Clemons (Dillard class of 2015).

Sure cynosures were comedian/actor Jonathan Slocumb and erstwhile Orleanian Hoda Kotb, who now answers to co-host “Today” and correspondent, “Dateline NBC,” and was presented a key to the city by Mayor Landrieu.” When she spoke, she said she’s frequently asked if she misses New Orleans. She says she replies, “Every day.”

Dinner music was purveyed by the Nicholas Payton Trio. And later, the gala sounds were from Maze featuring Frankie Beverly.

During the reception, the host chef was the Hyatt Regency’s Eric Damidot. Then came “butler-passed” goodies and the Action Station noshes, all before the four-course dinner done, in turn, by celebrity chefs John Besh, Leah Chase, Brian Landry and Kelly Fields. Glazer’s presented the wine and spirits.

Fabulous features of the ball abounded. Outside the ballroom, deep pewter tablecloths and votive candles were atop the café tables near the auction items. Hotel stays, sports memorabilia and select photographs had folks adding their names as eager bidders. Smiling from frames (with remembrances of photography past) were Muhammed Ali and the Beatles in 1964, John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie in 1953, and Sean Connery as James Bond (from 1962-71) with the inscription, “Vodka Martini, Shaken, Not Stirred.”

Leading into the ballroom were silvery-white curtains framing the doorway and same-color branches placed in containers mounted on pedestals. Within, the party eye immediately targeted the stage area that was flanked by a brace of giant video screens, where the evening’s action was captured full-size. The napery was midnight blue and floral-forward centerpieces (mainly of lilies) were placed inside tall, clear glass vases with lighting at the base.

After the formalities, fun kicked in. During the live auction, as masterful Mark Romig was urging the audience to keep besting the $1.3 raised in 2014, he hyped a special Fashion Week Trip to New York.

“I’ll even go with you,” quipped cuss-free-comedian Jonathan Slocumb. The audience loved it. When the winner of the Nissan Maxima (courtesy of Premier Nissan of Metairie) was announced, the name pulled was Ken Jones. Slocumb went over to Ken’s wife, gave her a hug and sang the initial lyrics of Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones.” More chuckles.

Next up for thrills was the 10 p.m. Parade of Masks with its dozens of contest-hopefuls — and won by no. 26, the above Stephanie Burns, for her black and garnet feathery mask, and then the spontaneous line dancing to the Wobble and then the Cupid Shuffle. The whole room seemed to gyrate with joy.

A change of musical pace, and face, produced Maze and their “honest, raw soul music.” The crowd pressed close in to the stage to move in unison when Frankie Beverly, the all-white-clad featured performer, zipped into “Southern Girl.” The song became yet another cue for dancing.

Pre-Parade Celebration

Although spring still awaited on the calendar, it felt like a day during that season at the Piazza d’Italia for the 45th annual Pre-Parade Celebration for the Italian American Marching Club St. Joseph Parade. Judge Anthony Russo and the late Joe Cardenia founded the first parade in 1970. Always a special moment, the presentation of the queen, Miss Sarah Cardenia Vogel, and her 80 court maids thrilled the assembly. Parade coordinator Peter Gilberi (accompanied by Julie Haydel) announced them.

Special parade marshal Lena Prima regaled the parade pack with songs made popular by her late father, Louis Prima, among others. Smiles lit up with her renditions of “C’e la Luna,” “That’s Amore” and “O Mamma.” Then there were the Italian food and desserts provided by Angelo Brocato’s Gelateria and Pasticceria, special muffulettas catered by Alicia Gilberti Perry from Mr. Roo’s Deli and Catering, and the attendance of the above Judge Anthony and Linda Russo, Earl St. German, Morris and Susan Vacarella, Michael Calderone, Ed and Ilene Catoire, Judge Charles and Carolyn Imbornone, Joseph Cannizzaro, Marc and Gena Gilberti, and George and Fay Cortello.

Noted, too, were the parade’s Caesar, Armando A. Asaro, Darryl Cortello, Eric Christensen, Marlo Christensen, Fred Holley, Donald Rouzano, Claude Maraldo, Dr. Joseph Cusimano, Mark and Norene Fonte, Kenny Licata, Sal Cerino, Sidney M. Cerami, Marie Cardenia, and Herbert and Cheryl Montalbano.

Arguably the highlight of the celebration is a glorious feat of feet. Queen Sarah and her 80 maids danced the popular tarantella in front of the piazza’s majestic waterfall fountains.