Two recent events stirred up creativity, thanks to the annual Mad Hatter’s luncheon and fashion show presented by the Women’s Guild of the New Orleans Opera Association at the Hilton Riverside, and, the later, SweetArts 2015, a CAC (Contemporary Arts Center) on-site fundraiser, which regaled attendees with the opening preview of “The Grand Parade.” Each was preceded by a posh patron party (in the Opera’s case, several parties) and each made costumes and chapeaux standard, and imaginative, fare.

Hats, It’s All About

“As I stood at the back of the ballroom, I loved seeing our guests enjoying the event and wearing amazing hats,” said Karen Villavaso after the Mad Hatter’s ado. “I really enjoyed having the Champagne Patron Party just prior to the luncheon. There were rivers of champagne and the Messy Cookers Jazz Band set a festive mood,” added Dr. Jane Miller. The two, Karen and Jane, chairwomen of the Mad Hatter’s 31st Un-Birthday, tapped on both the major event itself and the one immediately leading up to it. Accolades abounded for both.

On the Sunday prior to the Hilton’s Tuesday luncheon, another patron party unfolded at the Opera Guild Home in the Garden District, a National Historic Landmark. Tony Lala chaired that one. Betty Brooks Doss, a stalwart supporter of the Opera, also rounded up select patrons for several smaller rounds of partying. Good times were certainly noteworthy.

Now, for the luncheon’s levity, much of it going to one’s head! The marquee names, in addition to Jane Miller and Karen Villavaso, were Virginia Eckholdt and Melissa Gordon, vice presidents of fundraising; Women’s Guild President Elizabeth “Betsy” Dowling; New Orleans Opera Association President Ranney Mize; Robert Lyall, NOOA general and artistic director; executive director Timothy Todd Simmons; Betty Brooks Doss; mistress of ceremonies Margaret Orr; Jean Rice for the invocation; and Steven Putt and Carolyn Elder from Saks Fifth Avenue, which presented 45 looks from “The Best Men and Women’s Collections for Spring 2015.”

When it was time to break bread, the hundreds of guests relished a delicious crawfish and mirliton bisque, braised short ribs, and cakes. But these were not your run-of-the-mill luncheon treats. In keeping with the tenor of the annual event, one that asks for hats of all sorts as the top accessories, the three types of cakes were fashioned as hats and used as centerpieces. “I don’t even want to cut ours because it’s so pretty,” commented one hostess. But she did, and her table mates indulged in a flourless chocolate treat. Yum.

After the fashions and lunch, there was still a lot more to come, as folks made beelines to the auction tables (especially the one with hats done by celebrities), and applauded the characters and hat contest winners. Since the luncheon pays homage to the notables of Alice and her Wonderland crew, Opera aficionados portrayed those roles. Bruce Gordon was the Mad Hatter; Dr. Erin Fleming, the Queen of Hearts; Kathleen Robert, Alice herself; and Lawrence Pugh, the White Rabbit.

They were applauded by the likes of Ted Martin, Dr. Byron and Suzanne Scott from Mobile, Eileen Capritto, Dr. Anita Crump, Loretta and Guy Corbett, Olga Wilhelmine, Louise Ritter, Joan Ingram, Constance Cowart, Joan Eckholdt, Gina Klein, Marcel Leone, Carolyn Landwerlin, Margie Mielke, Jackie Elliott and daughter Mignon, Elaine Benigno, Carrel Epling, Mary Reidy, Sammy Steele, JoAnn Wisdom, Pat Kelly, Carol Follman, Carol Hall, Cindi Mistrot, Sonda Stacey, and Mary Katherine Tusa.

More excitement was generated by the announcement of the winners in the hat categories: Most Whimsical, Betty Chenault and Celeste Fahey; Most Beautiful, Yadonna West; Best Ensemble, Suzanne Scott; Festive Fascinator, Debbie Evans; Best Original Theme, Samantha McCraney; Best Group, “Mamma & Dem”; and, for the Mad Hatter’s Choice Award, Celeste Fahey.

They were judged by Teresa Guzzetta, Ed Marshall, Joseph Parrino, Suzanne Perron St. Paul, Peggy Scott Laborde, Terrance Osborne, Damon Singleton and Camille Whitworth.

Still to go at the event for which Tony Lala did the decorations and “Uniquely New Orleans” was the 2015 theme, were the announcements of the Wonderland raffle winners and the 50/50 drawings. Barbara Ballard was tapped by Lady Luck for the latter.

Thanks for such a luncheon are myriad, but, along with quite a few of the above, those extended special gratitude were Tony Abadie of the Hilton, Penny and Al Baumer, First NBC Bank, Saks’ Carolyn Elder and Steven Putt, Yadonna West, Janie Kahn, Fleur de Paris and hat-contest judge Joseph Parrino, Faith Peperone, Stephanie and Terrance Osborne, and D. Joshua.

Although “Unbirthday” billed the activity, many smiled, saying a certain alphabet letter should be added to make it, as it turned out, “Funbirthday.”

Grand Parade and Party Pack

SweetArts is the CAC’s annual gala fundraiser that honors significant donors and artists for both their recent contributions to the CAC and the local arts community. This year, the laureled names and their recognitions were those of philanthropist Susan Brennan, board chairwoman of Prospect New Orleans and founder of Second Line Stages; visual arts, Miranda Lash, in from Louisville, Kentucky, where she’s curator of contemporary art at the Speed Museum, and, from 2008-14, was curator of modern and contemporary arts at the New Orleans Museum of Art; arts educator, Jamar Pierre, also a local artist; and performing arts, Laura Stein, co-founder and executive director of Dancing Grounds. Limelighted, too, was CAC director and CEO Neil A. Barclay.

Dawn Barrios, Denise Berthiaume, Debbie Brockley, Sandra Chaisson, Steve Dumez, Nicole Eichberger, Grant Harris, Stephanie Huger, Mark Jeanfreau (of Phelps Dunbar LLC, an event sponsor), Kathleen Loe, Gregg Porter, Staci Rosenberg, and Robyn Dunn Schwarz formed the 2015 host committee.

The “Parade” excitement started with an honorees’ party eight days before the main event at the art-attractive home of Tiffa and Kerry Boutte. So that guests could follow the collection, the Bouttes printed a self-guided tour. All party eyes had a field day savoring the art that included works by the late George Rodrigue (a very close friend of host Kerry), David Harouni, Hunt Slonem, and Frederick Guess. For starters. Furniture pieces, statuary, mixed media and other items enthralled the comely crowd that enjoyed food from Palate Catering and the Bouttes’ family restaurant, Mulate’s.

Meanwhile, the Yisrael Trio performed jazz standards and, for formalities, Neil Barclay presented the 2015 honorees with a gift of champagne and Fleur de Lis glassware from Studio Inferno.

Noted, were a number of the aforementioned, as well as actress CCH Pounder, Andrea Andersson, Jacquee Carvin, Barbara Motley with husband Biff, Ralph Brennan, Russell Whiting, Judie Oudt, and Jim Mulvihill with laureled spouse Miranda Lash.

Moving on to the headlined bash at the CAC on Camp Street were sponsorial reps Scott Howard, Regions Bank; Colleen Levy, Cox Communications; CAC board Chairman Steve Dumez and spouse Suzanne, a o s; Emily Enberg, The New Orleans Advocate; Jeanne Taber Tompkins, Event Rental; Jim Huger, with Stephanie, Premium Parking; Leo Radosta, mumms Software; and Brian Hrabar, Propaganda Group.

They rubbed shoulders – as they made tracks to the sumptuous cuisine from top toques — with Joel Chaisson and Sandra, Jessica Bride and Nick Mayor, and Jan Gilbert.

The evening opened with bellinis and blinis, oyster shooters by Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House, and music by Kiyoko McCrae & Rick Weston. After the cocktail hour, folks were whisked away to be seated in the Warehouse theater space for the Gala Preview Performance of Double Edge Theatre’s “The Grand Parade (of the 20th century).” It “depicts major events of the 20th century in a theatrical style inspired by Chagall’s kaleidoscopic vision of humanity at play, at war, and at rest.”

Post-performance, the “progressive” party moved again. Guests were ushered through the red curtain into the bash area at 9 p.m. for dinner, dancing and desserts. The Warehouse Bash featured a Vintage Vinyl Dance Party with WWOZ’s DJ Brice Nice and “Pop-Up Parlor hosted by Oliver Manhattan.” Guests were asked to come dressed in all black, or all white, so that The Parlor’s carnival-costume artists could decorate them in vibrantly colored headpieces of feathers and flowers. To record all this finery, a sort-of sartorial parade, snapped fashion photos.