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Orchestra's gala welcomes in 2005

What a grand way to say farewell and hello: The Florida Orchestra's annual New Year's Eve gala at the Renaissance Vinoy in St. Petersburg begins every year with a cocktail reception and ends in the wee hours of the morning with dancing.

At $350 and $500, the tickets are expensive, but orchestra supporters are fervent in their enthusiasm, and made Friday's splendid "Ultimo Tango" an early sellout.

Aaron Fodiman and Margaret Word Burnside were honorary chairs for the fourth year; Monroe and Suzanne Berkman and David and Carolyn Harbert were co-chairs.

Guests first went to the mezzanine upstairs in the hotel, where servers greeted them with glasses of wine and champagne, and patrons could mingle and order from the bars outdoors. John Pivar, the Vinoy's executive chef, was present, serving lobster bites on skewers and potato cod cakes to the crowd.

In the grand ballroom, chairs had burgundy and gold covers; tables were draped with gold cloths and held bouquets of deep red roses plus centerpieces of feather wreaths that encircled gold candles. Men received gold masks, and women had gold masks embellished with sprays of black feathers.

Enormous red velveteen roses were suspended from the chandeliers, and a banner that portrayed a tangoing couple was installed above one of the stages.

Credit the orchestra's special events director, Jan Audette-Berger, for those elegant details.

The four-course dinner featured seared sea scallops; a salad of mixed greens with grilled hearts of palm; filet of beef and grilled shrimp; and several dessert offerings.

Conductor Stefan Sanderling, attending with his wife, Isabelle, led a tango-filled program, associate Susan Haig took the baton as the orchestra played more dance music, and Southtown Fever performed late into the evening for revelers who stayed the course.

The crowd reflected the three cities in which the orchestra performs: St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa, and included Ray and Nancy Murray, Jim and Emily Gillespie, Bill and Marion Ballard, Bill and Sally Wallace, David and Margo Fischer, Peter and Dr. Susan Betzer, Russ and Nancy Bond, Bob Clark and Lucille Murphy, Barb Izzi, Mike Cencula, George and Pam Campbell and Tom and Victoria Dunn.

Dick Minck designed one of his signature tuxedo shirts for the occasion, a hand-painted bird design that was reminiscent of Dali; I visited with him and his wife, Helen, during the reception before dinner.

As the orchestra's executive director, Leonard Stone, made remarks before dessert, he singled out Clearwater City Council member Bill Jonson and his wife, Becky. "Four years ago, on this night, in this room, they got engaged," Stone said.

Listed in the program as distinguished patrons were Tal and Nel Bratton, Victor Buscaino and Linda Jones, Francis and Rose Cappelletti, Bob Brown and Laura Kolkman, Leonard and Barbara McCue, Eleanor Morse, Ira Klien and Arlene Schierholz, Mike and Karen Urette and Albert and Emily Wiseman.

Gene and Patsy McNichols and the McNichols Co. were hosts for the sixth year; Christine Reynolds Photography, Dimmitt Luxury Motors, J.C. Newman Cigar Co., and Walter Industries underwrote other parts of the event. The Murrays sponsored a reception for the musicians.

And before anyone has a chance to spend a day or two at home in pajamas, know that plans for the next gala already are under way. The theme: "Hollywood Nites."

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The Queen's Court, which raises money through St. Petersburg's Queen of Hearts Ball for worthy charities each year, is seeking applications from organizations that serve the St. Petersburg area to receive grants from the 2006 ball.

To be eligible, nonprofits must be listed under Section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue code.

Applications may be received by calling 367-3353 or 399-8003. The deadline for submission is March 12. Nominations of outstanding community volunteers for inclusion in the Queen's Court will be accepted through Friday. To receive a resume packet, please call Patsy Dunlap, 892-9290.

The 2005 ball is Feb. 19 in the Hilton St. Petersburg.

Mary Jane Park can be reached at (727) 893-8267; fax (727) 893-8675; e-mail; P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.