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Friday, April 24, 2015

The Executive Files: Preparing for a Princess

Conceiving, organizing, preparing, and attending galas go with the job description of the president of any arts institution. During Karen Brooks Hopkins’ 36 years at BAM—the last 16 as president—she has overseen plenty of those. And on April 28, 2015, she will preside over her last one in that capacity. BAM is putting on the Karen Gala to thank her for her tireless work in making BAM the crown jewel of a revitalized downtown Brooklyn. (It’s okay to gloat a little at galas—some would say it goes with the definition!) It will be “a gala to beat all galas,”—well, maybe except for that one time, when she held a gala for true royalty. This is her recollection of how the late Princess Diana came to BAM. (And dare we hope that someone someday will remember THIS gala as fondly?) 

Princess Diana with Harvey Lichtenstein at BAM.

by Karen Brooks Hopkins

The phone rang in the office. It was one of those gray mid-March mornings in New York when you are positive spring will never come and no one interesting will call, until it does. Anyway, the phone rang.

My secretary informed me that Brian McMaster, executive director of the Welsh National Opera, was on the line with important news from Wales. A ray of sunlight shot across the Brooklyn skyline. Perhaps… perhaps this would be the morning. This could be the call.

Briefly, to provide some historical background: We had been negotiating to bring the Welsh National Opera to New York since the summer of 1987. It takes a long time with opera, and the WNO’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff, which we hoped to bring to BAM, was large and expensive, making the negotiations extremely complex. We (BAM & WNO) had reviewed the budgets at least 500 times. It was clear the only way this project could happen was if someone like the Queen herself opened the production with a royal gala. Well, we couldn’t have the Queen, but what about the young, beautiful, and vivacious Princess of Wales, who, it turned out, was the patron of the Welsh National Opera!

This was it. This was our plan. We had to convince the Princess of Wales to say yes. If she would come, the gala to end all galas would be launched. BAM Opera, a new program initiative of the Academy would be inaugurated with her visit. Bankruptcy would be avoided. The company could come to New York. All would be well. It was a long shot. After all, how many times in history has the future Queen of England come to Brooklyn?

Brian and the WNO staff went to work on their end, using all of their influence to get Buckingham Palace and the United States State Department to agree.

To make a very long story a little bit shorter: the phone rang on that cold morning in March 1988. Brian spoke (in his perfect English accent) in a hushed, but, it seemed, enthusiastic tone. “The answer is yes,” Brian said, “yes, the Princess of Wales will come to BAM.”

Now, it is important to note at this juncture that a British expression of intensity or excitement is more like a sentence with a very small exclamation point at the end rather than similar American expressions infused with screaming, yelling, and all capital letters. In his own way, shall we say, Brian was excited. I began yelling in earnest and in two minutes flat the 14-member BAM fundraising staff had assembled in my office and were staging a loud, and I might add, quite overwhelming display of enthusiasm.

Brian heard the noise and exclaimed quietly that he, too, was “chuffed” that HRH had agreed to come. The conversation ended when Brian informed me that I was not to do anything but to sit quietly and that I would soon be contacted by “a representative” of the British Consulate in New York.

I felt, as I waited for my contact to call, like a character from Mission Impossible. However, excitement notwithstanding, the fundraising’s creed is delayed gratification. I waited patiently for “the call.”

Two days later I was contacted by the consulate. I was told, again in a perfect British accent, that for security purposes we should use “no names, no dates,” only referring to the event as “The Royal Visit.” “But,” said I, “when the Princess…” “Ah-ahah” said he, “no names, no dates—just the Royal Visit.” For the next several months until we were allowed to release the date to the press, everyone at BAM, all 120 employees including the president and the executive producer, Harvey Lichtenstein, referred to the gala in a perfect English accent as “THE ROYAL VISIT.”

In May (nine months prior to the event), I was on vacation with my family in Vermont at a remote country inn. Harvey called. Needless to say, it took approximately 10 minutes for the innkeeper to get “Lichtenstein” pronounced in a way that I knew it was Harvey. He told me that I had been invited to Buckingham Palace in August. I would go, said he, along with Brian McMaster, Beth Rudin DeWoody, co-chairman of the gala and BAM trustee, and Denis Azaro, BAM’s director of development, to visit Anne Beckwith-Smith, Her Royal Highness’ lady in waiting and personal secretary. If all went well, we could confirm the visit and begin making arrangements. We were going to St. James. It was staggering.

Denis and I were scheduled to arrive in England on August 8th, 1988 with plans to go directly to Cardiff and meet Brian for some preliminary meetings. Beth would join us a day later in London. We were also planning lunch at Browns, one of London’s great hotel establishments the following afternoon with Fred Hauptfuhrer, the bureau chief of People magazine in London. People, because of their keen interest in the Princess of Wales and her positive effect on magazine sales, was favorably inclined to sponsor the event.

In short, everything was perfect. I was flying first class complimentary of British Airways (the official airline sponsor the WNO’s visit). I was going to Buckingham Palace and there was a gala sponsor ready to say yes at lunch the following day.

Then, my bag failed to appear at Heathrow Airport. It couldn’t be happening. You just can’t go to the Palace in your blue jeans. I drove Denis crazy, not to mention the abuse I heaped on everyone at British Airways. They bore my tragedy with a stiff upper lip and promised to send the bag along as soon as it was located. Now what to do? It was clear that I would have to put other plans aside and embark on a significant shopping spree in Cardiff, just in case the bag didn’t show up. Luckily, I found a great shopping partner in Kathy, Brian McMaster’s secretary, who showed me where bargains could be found quickly in Cardiff. At this point, I had had the usual two-hour sit on the runway at JFK Airport, flown to London, taken a three-hour bus ride from London to Cardiff, and been on an intense shopping expedition purchasing everything from a suitable dress to toothpaste and it was still the first day of the trip. What did it matter? The Princess of Wales was coming BAM!

My bag was found in London at 6:00 the following morning. I knew the precise time because Jacques Crichton, a trusty Scot and brave employee of British Airways, woke me up to tell me the good news. In a Scottish accent he said, “So, yur there in Cardiff without yur clothes.” “That’s right,” I said. “I’ll be right over,” he said. I asked to have it sent to my hotel in London now that I had a completely new Welsh wardrobe available.

We finished our work in Wales and embarked on the court of St. James to meet Anne Beckwith-Smith, who was the consummate professional. She was smart, exact, and cool all the way. It was clear that she would be in charge. We blocked Her Highness’ visit into three sections: logistics, press, and security.

I now believe the invasion of Normandy must have been simpler than preparing for the visit of a princess. We were told at the end of our meeting with Smith that in November, two months before “The Royal Visit,” there would be a “recy.” This is a British term for reconnaissance tour, when everyone gathers to review the plans for the visit moment by moment.

The “recy” came and included no less than 40 people. The security forces alone were awesome. The State Department was our principal security team. These were square jawed men with names like Doug (spelled Dug) and Wayne (spelled Wane) and they were not kidding around. Their team was backed up by Scotland Yard, the FBI, and the ever-present NYPD. In addition to security there was a logistics and press squad, a substantial group that called themselves “the Bludgers” and included members of the consulate staff in new York and representatives of the Royal Visits Department of the Embassy in Washington, DC. Smith presided over the “recy” which included a walk-through of each location at BAM where HRH would be present. The same routine would be done again at the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center, where the dinner was held.

At this point the plans for the gala evening included the performance of the opera, in the BAM Opera House, two champagne intermissions/receptions, in the Helen Carey Playhouse (for those at the Benefactor level) with Her Royal Highness, and champagne in the lobby for everyone else. The performance was followed by a dinner at the Winter Garden for 850 people. We couldn’t hold 850 people for dinner at BAM and the Winter Garden was a fabulous new New York space. So we arranged to have the dinner there.

The date February 2nd, 1989 finally arrived. We were tired but wired. Tammy Dillon, BAM’s benefit director, the staff, and I were putting in 16-hour days for two weeks preceding the event. DeWoody and Amber Walker, the co-chairman, were making last minute calls. Metal detectors were installed in the doorways. Bomb-sniffing dogs (which were the ugliest dogs you have ever seen) had moved into the hallways. Phones were ringing off the hook. The opera company was rehearsing. Members of the Committee for Legal Justice in Northern Ireland and the Irish Northern Aid Committee were planning a demonstration outside. The State Department ordered the removal of 500 balloons sent over by Moët Chandon as the décor for the champagne intermissions, because they kept bursting, which sounded like shots going off.

People magazine officials from all over were showing up to check things out. The Welsh Development Agency, an additional sponsor, kept revising their seating arrangements. Peter Carzasty, BAM’s director of press and public relations, was supervising the laying of thousands of miles of cable in the BAM basement (where no human beings had actually ever been) so that NBC’s Live at Five could broadcast from our building. BAM’s maintenance crew was doing a final polishing and cleaning job including scraping gum off the front steps. Tammy was hooked into a beeper so that we could be informed moment by moment of her royal arrival. It was here. It was finally happening, the Princess of Wales was coming to BAM.

Princess Diana, Harvey Lichtenstein, and Karen Brooks Hopkins.

She swept in at approximately 6:05, looking even better in person than in the millions of photos you saw. She was magnificent, very tall, gracious, and perfect. Even if she wasn’t, by this time, I was sure she was. She was presented to a small group of us before proceeding to her box. I was so excited that she was real and finally at BAM that when I met her, I practically cried or jumped on her or both. She moved gracefully to the box wearing a knockout white satin gown with bare shoulders covered by a tiny bolero jacket. The top of the dress and the jacket were embroidered in metallic thread and jewels. It was incredible. Everyone else was wearing black (you know New York!) and she was in white. The anthems played… American, British, and yes, the Welsh national anthem too.

It occurred to me that just a year ago I had never given the Princess of Wales much thought. Now she had taken over my whole life.

The evening seemed to glide by. The opera was a success. The logistics were tough but, except a few glitches, it worked. The champagne intermissions flew. HRH met and greeted all who were presented to her (you don’t introduce people to a princess... you present them). Smith decided that a few more people (like 50 more) than agreed to had found their way into the intermissions. But she reprimanded me good-naturedly.

Finally the guests arrived at the dinner and down the steps she came. You see, at the Winter Garden there are these amazing marble steps, something like 30 of them. With Harvey on one arm and Brian on the other, she came down those amazing marble steps. Squadrons of cameras flashed. It was the entrance of the decade.

Suddenly it was dessert. Sixty handsome waiters carried a tri-colored sorbet dripping with spun sugar on silver trays while marching in formation down those marble steps. The crowd cheered.

The evening was coming to an end. Her departure was announced and the crowd, now experts on all areas “Princess protocol,” stood.

The Royal Visit was over. 

Celebrate Karen Brooks Hopkins' legacy with Mavis Staples, Steve Reich, Rufus Wainwright, and more at the Karen Gala next Tuesday, April 28. Tickets are still available.

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