Fêtes: A Night to Remember in New Orleans

By SARA RUFFIN COSTELLO APRIL 30, 2018

Party planner to the Obama White House pulls off epic New Orleans tricentennial bash. 

 ©Michael Blanchard 

©Michael Blanchard 

“Tonight marks the first time this historic building has ever displayed people of color on its walls!” beamed Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Historic indeed for a city frequently found smack in the center of controversial debates surrounding race and history. But the mayor is no stranger to firsts and the evening was a full-tilt celebration staged at Gallier Hall–the legendary Greek revival building that formerly housed City Hall, now tastefully refurbished by First Lady Cheryl Landrieu. It is the Big Easy’s tricentennial, an occasion which dovetails with the twilight of Landrieu’s mayoral term and a new chapter for the city itself. 

 © Michael Blanchard

© Michael Blanchard

To pull off the high profile gala whose packed guest list included celebrities, city officials, socialites and, of course, politicians Landrieu’s team tapped Bryan Rafanelli, the ultimate insider’s guy, skilled at pulling off tight-security parties for both the Obamas and the Clintons. Rafanelli planned for just under a year to get this important night right. Handsome in black tie (and looking like Tom Cruise’s stunt double), the event planner swept through the 1850’s era rooms for one last check while explaining his inspiration, “every party has a story to tell and tonight is an opportunity to reflect back New Orleans past and present.” Alongside the First Lady, Rafanelli oversaw every detail of the evening while making certain to tap local businesses to execute the vision. Guests were wowed by hundreds of regionally grown cherry blossoms arranged by florist Kim Starr Wise, which stretched to the top of the entrance hall’s tall ceilings.

 © Michael Blanchard

© Michael Blanchard

Up a sweeping stairway of black and white marble on the top floor, rows of flags representing the sixty-two nations that influenced the city–including Haiti, France, and Spain–stood watch over the cocktail hour. The supper, a thoughtful blend of cuisines for which New Orleans is famous, was dreamed up by caterer Joel Dondis and served in twin ballrooms each painted a different, historically accurate hue. But all anyone could talk about were the menu cards. First Lady Landrieu worked with Yonder Design to conceptualize the allegorical scene, which crawled around the menu’s borders and referenced native flora and fauna (including, but not limited to, the brown pelican, magnolia blossoms, iris, blue crabs, jasmine, camellia, and ferns from the lowlands). While tapping his foot to musician Shannon Powell aka "The King of Treme,” Rafanelli mused, “these are not just parties, these are moments that historians will look back on and describe the way in which we lived.”