When tragedy strikes, event planners are faced with a wrenching decision

Guests at the recent Huntington Theatre Company’s spring gala, which included a silent auction.
Guests at the recent Huntington Theatre Company’s spring gala, which included a silent auction.

The 7,000-square-foot event space at the Revere Hotel should have dripped with Bacchanalian decadence last Saturday night. A massive party, planned by bigger-than-life New York night life magnate Susanne Bartsch, called for a room of rotating disco balls, DJs, glittering drag queens, and dramatic red lighting.

Instead, the space sat empty and dark.

After the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, and the subsequent manhunt, Bartsch, who is well known in New York for these carnivalesque fetes, called off the event she had been planning for months. She felt her party was simply too frivolous and too jubilant for Boston’s current mood. She has rescheduled for May 11.


“There’s two sides of the coin,” Bartsch said. “Some say celebrations are needed more than ever, while others think the party should not go on. I think Bostonians need some time to reflect, grieve, and collect themselves.”

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It was a dilemma faced by many. Across the city, organizations and party planners were forced to wrestle with the question of what to do with their lighthearted and celebratory affairs while memorial services were taking place across the region.

Cancel and allow the city to catch its collective breath from the events that captured international headlines? Or continue with parties and give residents of a wounded city the opportunity to be among friends and, at least for a few hours, try and set aside the nonstop cycle of bombing news?

Party planners and board members of some of the city’s largest arts organizations are still grappling with the question more than a week after the tragedy, and the decisions haven’t been easy — or cheap.

Initially, Boston Ballet planned to go ahead with its annual gala, a black-tie evening of dinner and dancing that was scheduled for last Saturday. Even at $750 per person — or $10,000 for a table — tickets to the lavish fund-raiser, called the Balanchine Ball, were sold out.


However, the program needed to be tweaked to reflect the mood of the city after the bombings. Organizers decided George Balanchine’s ballet “Serenade” still would be performed, but the rest of the event was “toned down,” said Boston Ballet executive director Barry Hughson.

Then Friday’s massive manhunt forced Boston Ballet to reconsider its decision.

“We were dealing with the reality of a terrorist suspect, perhaps strapped with a bomb, running around Boston,” said Hughson. “And an event like this is a huge logistical effort and there were no truck deliveries at all on Friday.”

When it was clear the gala would have to be postponed, the Ballet put the word out to its patrons, and made arrangements to donate food prepared for the event to the Women’s Lunch Place . Hughson acknowledged his organization lost money by postponing, but he said that was trivial.

“It was a devastating day in the history of the city,” he said. “This is an event that will be rescheduled. It pales in comparison to what happened.”


Many of the parties that haven’t been canceled have become fund-raisers for the victims of the bombings. Local fashion designer Lori Kyler Christensen decided to go ahead with Thursday night’s show at the Liberty Hotel . She created Marathon-themed merchandise with half the proceeds going to The One Fund Boston, the charity set up by the city to help the families of bombing victims.

‘There’s two sides of the coin. Some say celebra-tions are needed more than ever, while others think the party should not go on. I think Bostonians need some time to reflect, grieve, and collect themselves.’

“I was a little wary of going through with it because I thought this wouldn’t be the most respectful time to have an event,” Christensen said. “But I don’t think it’s wise to stop doing things the way that we normally do. I thought this would be a night of completely mindless, lighthearted fun for anyone who just needed a night off.”

Real estate agent and man-about-town Ricardo Rodriguez decided to hold his event on Tuesday for the organization Youth Design because he felt the benefit was not disrespectful of the city’s mood.

“It’s the intention of the event and the vibe of the event that’s important,” said Rodriguez. “I don’t think we’re ready for big, debaucherous, and super lux parties. It just feels wrong. But if it’s an event to support something local, I think that’s energizing.”

Boston-based event planner A.J. Williams said she’s trying to strike a balance between getting back to work and being sensitive to the profound shock and sadness felt by so many. For example, she said her company is currently planning the Ad Club’s centennial party.

“We’ve delayed the invitations,” said Williams, who lives in Copley Square but is staying outside the city while she struggles with her feelings after the bombing. “This is a party that’s going to be under a tent and be very celebratory. The timing is just not right to be sending out the invitation.”

The instinct to cocoon after such a traumatic event is understandable, according to Dr. Stuart Goldman, a psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital Boston. But he predicts that the sadness or insecurity will pass.

“There’s a temporary sense of unreality. Like, did that really just happen? People are trying to figure out the impact on the city and on their lives,” Goldman said. “People will be more mindful and cautious, but over the coming weeks and months, that decays and life returns to normal.”

That sense of sadness is even keeping some of Boston’s most seasoned party mavens out of circulation. Marilyn Riseman, a fixture on the social circuit in Boston who is out and about several nights a week, has decided to set aside her stack of invitations. She was at a party at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel just a few hours before the bombings, and Riseman is still shaken.

“I’ve postponed every single thing I had,” said Riseman, still spry at 85. “To be honest with you, I can usually jump back from most things, but I really haven’t jumped back from this. It’s almost a feeling of, like, leave me alone, don’t invite me, I don’t want to go out.”

This is the busy season for party planner Bryan Rafanelli, whose company organizes annual spring fund-raisers for some of the city’s largest nonprofit groups. If Rafanelli has anything to say about it — and he does — the tragic events of last week will be acknowledged at every one of those events.

“This is not over for a lot of people,” he said. “As someone who advises my clients, we need to create a place during these events to acknowledge the victims and the first responders. It’s incredibly important. It’s about the character of the organizations.”

Rafanelli handled the arrangements for the Huntington Theatre Company’s spring gala, which was held at the Castle this week. As soon as the 500 guests were seated, the Huntington’s managing director, Michael Maso, made it clear that the theater company was not oblivious to the city’s pain.

“Our job is to bring people together to celebrate our common humanity,” he said. “Tonight we celebrate this value with passion and commitment and artistry, and joy. . . . By coming here tonight, you are celebrating the strength and resilience of this great city.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther. Mark Shanahan can be reached at shanahan@globe .com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.