Barristers Benefit Ball Marks 25 Years
by Sara Crocker
The signature fundraising event for the Denver Bar Association’s Metro Volunteer Lawyers marks its silver anniversary on May 4. Lovingly referred to as the lawyers’ prom, the ball was created out of one member’s simple desire: to dance.
"I could never understand why there was never a dance that the bar had," said Administrative Law Judge Tom DeMarino. "Nobody danced and I thought that would be a neat thing to do."
DeMarino was set to become the DBA’s first vice president in 1988, and while meeting with incoming president Charles Casteel and the Board of Trustees, he asked Casteel what his role was. Casteel responded that he didn’t know but DeMarino should come up with something.
DeMarino did have an idea: a dance for the members.
"The initial idea was just to have something social to get our lawyers together that would aid in collegiality and the like, but as we sat around talking about this at board meetings and committee meetings, it also became apparent we could use this as a potential fundraising event," Casteel said.
Though there is debate about who specifically suggested benefitting Thursday Night Bar, the predecessor of MVL, the decision was made to benefit the organization that so many metro area attorneys gave their time to and that advanced access to justice.
"Pro bono attorneys do make a difference in people’s lives," said Gina Weitzenkorn, who was the executive director of the Thursday Night Bar when the ball was launched. "Sometimes I think that attorneys don’t really understand that they are really making that difference, so I think it’s important that we continue to support MVL and see that we can serve as many people as we can in our community who obviously need the assistance of an attorney and can’t afford one."
As they worked on this first ball, there began to be some anxiety about ticket sales. It was just two weeks away, and although the event planner assured Casteel and DeMarino that this was the time that most people RSVP, they decided to take matters into their own hands.
"Tom, in all of his energy, said, boy, let’s knock on some doors, and I said, let’s do it," Casteel said. "We took off over a couple weeks period and went up and down 17th Street, small and large firms — went in unannounced sometimes, met with some of managing partners, chairs, and friends we knew at those firms to try to get them to commit to buying patron tickets and we were surprised at the success we had."
In the end, that inaugural ball on May 6, 1989, entertained nearly 500 attorneys and raised more than $40,000 for the Thursday Night Bar.
"With the enthusiasm of Charles Casteel and the energy of Tom DeMarino, it was bound to be successful," said DBA Assistant Executive Director Dana Collier Smith, who has served as the staff liaison to the ball committee since the ball was launched.
After the success of this first ball, it became an annual event. It’s one that’s evolved over time, but the essentials — great food, killer entertainment, and an excuse to get dressed up for a good cause — remain the same.
"It’s always nice seeing lawyers in a non-work environment, dressed up and ready to party," said Sheila Gutterman, who chaired the ball committee in 1993 and 1994.
Gutterman was an event planner before she became an attorney, and she jumped at the opportunity to get involved with the ball.
"I had this experience so I immediately thought, Barristers Benefit Ball, this could be wonderful," she said.
She also brought on her former event planning partner Faye Gardenswartz, who has remained the ball’s event planner since getting involved in 1993.
"The lawyers have never stopped going after the funds they need to keep the programs going, and we’ve never stopped trying to make it a memorable party," Gardenswartz said.
As the ball enters its 25th year, many of the original planners marvel at the fact that it’s continued to remain one of the most important events on the legal community calendar.
"It’s just so incredible to me that it’s continued that long and what’s very, very important to me is that people go to the Barristers Ball who really were not very connected to MVL or TNB initially, but because of the publicity around the ball and their involvement with the bar association, people come year after year after year and continue to support it," Weitzenkorn said.
Collier Smith agreed.
"Having this kind of event sustain itself for even eight or nine years is unheard of. They just kind of wind themselves down and the support doesn’t continue. So now to have us having a celebration for 25 years and raising the kind of money we continue to raise each year is unheard of across the country," she said. "We are incredibly fortunate that our members are supportive of the event, they are supportive of MVL, and it’s still a fun place to be."
That success may come from the consistent energy of those who serve on the ball planning committee.
"I think that the key to the success of it is that it changes every year. It changes with the personality of the [chair]," Gardenswartz said.
There have been hundreds of members who have worked over the past 25 years to ensure the ball comes off without a hitch and raises valuable funds for MVL.
"When something lasts for 25 years and is still going strong, between year one and year 25 there have been some people who have put in a lot of effort, and to those people, I take my hat off and I salute them," Casteel said.
And, it all started with one member’s desire to dance.
"It’s a wonderful institution because it’s the one time when all of the bar gets together for a giant social event and everyone has fun," DeMarino said. "I was thrilled every year to just go out and dance." D