Black-tie gala was fete for a czar

Published Jan. 11, 1995|Updated Oct. 3, 2005

Not since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 have so many well-heeled Americans had so many kindly thoughts about Russia.

Some 700 citizens paid $150 each Tuesday night to celebrate "The Treasures of the Czars," the opening exhibit of the new Florida International Museum. They crowded the lobbies and ballrooms of the Don CeSar Beach Resort to exult in the best civic cultural triumph in years, to sample, gingerly, some of the richest food this side of a butter factory, and to stare, mostly in approval, occasionally in disbelief, at the style show of the season.

Women came in striking ball gowns, deceptively simple knee-length dresses, or whatever was in their closets. There were velvet and taffeta skirts, sparkling bodices. Emerald green was a leading color, as well as aubergine, the egg plant color.

Linda Whitman wore a pearl sash; it started around the neck and ended up on one hip.

Carol Dameron, a silk-screen artist, wore a mink jacket she had bought some years ago at Maas Brothers in downtown St. Petersburg, about where a Faberge egg is now being displayed in the museum, she believes.

Not shrinking unseen against a wall was Joy Parrish in a dress that designer Donald Brooks made for her about 10 years ago in New York to wear to an art-deco ball.

As always, men were easy to categorize. Their tuxedos ranged from Perry Ellis and Brooks Bros. to the $105 overnight special (shoes and shirt included) from Sacino's.

Easily the most elegant male was a Russian wolfhound (a.k.a. borzoi) named Black Jack. His owner, Tami Cook, had brought him so people could see the dogs that always hung out in the czars' assembly rooms.

"They were used to run down wolves, hunting by sight not by smell," said Cook. "But this nice old boy wouldn't know a wolf if it came up and bit him on the butt."

Underlying the fashion show was a sense of pride in the new museum. "It's the greatest and most exciting thing to happen to St. Petersburg," said Fay Baynard.

Tinker McKee, from a prominent St. Petersburg family, was so eager to make the museum a reality that she got a job, her first in 45 years. The committee put her on a computer, taking reservations, but McKee was no hacker and after two days went to work for the museum as a volunteer.

She was very pleased with the gala. "Do you know what the best part is?" she asked. "It's that few of the old guard like me are here _ and many of the young are carrying on the torch. And here's a first _ there are even people from Tampa here."

The reception was on the first floor of the hotel. The food was served in three ballrooms on the fifth floor. Russian food in the old style. Cream sauces and caviar and sour cream and elaborate pastries. There was a bowl of yellow sauce to put on a pastry stuffed with salmon. The sauce was nearly pure butter.

Earlier in the evening, the chefs wheeled out monstrous ice sculptures, mostly of the double-headed Russian eagle. Chopped ice engulfed a great bowl-like container, with dozens of shot glasses full of vodka sunk almost to their rims. Looked tasty.

Deborah Little was playing a piano in the Catherine the Great Room. "It's a Baldwin and brand new," she said, "just out of the carton." The piece was fast and tuneful, a Russian folk song about a baker shouting his wares on a village street.

"You'll like my Boolitchki / they are fresh as can be," the song goes.

Maybe not Cole Porter, but the message comes across.

Before dinner there were songs by the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and a wistful little message from Irina Rodimzeva, curator of the Moscow museum which is lending 350 priceless pieces for the exhibit. "They mean so much to us," she said through an interpreter. "Please take care of them well."

St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer thanked her, and then said something very true: "Generations of students, if they learned anything about Russia, learned only about the Cold War."

Now we have something better to teach them.