By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Maridan Kassab doesn’t need the scrapbook from the first St. Avips Ball to recall exactly what she wore that night, what the decor looked like and where it was held. Her memories are as fresh as if it were yesterday.
“I wore a blue silk top with a peplum,” she said. “We all had corsages, of course, and long white gloves.”
Her memories are impressive because the city’s most stylish annual fundraiser, a benefit for the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts, is celebrating 50 years this spring. But the grand affairs have made such an impression on those who attended, they’re not soon forgotten.
Kassab, an original member of the Friends of St. Avips, said the ball was begun in response to the opening of the Ozark Artist Guild in the Zelleken House at Fourth and Sergeant streets. It had been purchased through the generosity of Spiva, a philanthropist, but money was needed for the day-to-day operation.
“They had just formed, and they were begging for money,” Kassab said.
As Kassab tells it, her husband, Anthony, was reading a Civil War book at the time and became enamored with the history of the St. Cecilia Society in Charleston, S.C. The society, formed in 1766, was named for the patron saint of music and for 54 years its annual concert series formed what historians have called one of the most sophisticated musical phenomena in the nation.
Anthony Kassab thought a ball would be fun.
“It sounds funny coming from a guy, but you gotta remember, he had a dress shop,” she said, laughing.
A committee of women met in early 1963 to formulate plans for such an event, and it was suggested that they spell Spiva backward.
In just weeks, that first ball took shape and came together on Tuesday, April 16, as a grand affair in the Empire Room and Joplin Club of the Connor Hotel.
“The nationally famous Russ Carlyle and his orchestra performed,” Kassab said. “But we had to hold the ball on a Tuesday to accommodate the band’s schedule.”
Tickets were $10 per person, by invitation only, with 220 people in attendance. The ball didn’t begin until 9 p.m., with a buffet served at 11 p.m.
George and Agnes Spiva were dressed spectacularly and led the grand entrance.
“Everyone marched around. It was fun,” said Kassab, who was 28 years old at the time.
The elegant event netted a $1,037 check in support of the arts.
“And the rest is history,” noted the Spivas’ daughter, Joy Spiva Cragin, with a laugh.
Growing each year
The occasion has become noted for its elaborate annual themes, each chosen by that year’s chairwoman.
Committee members each have their favorites: The “Modern Art Ball” at Briarbrook in 1969, because Maridan Kassab wore pants; the “Williamsburg Ball,” because they rented farthingale hoops for under their skirts; and “Spiva By the Sea” in 2004, because there were live goldfish in bowls on the tables.
But the central theme has never changed: Fundraising in support of the arts.
“We all wanted the arts center to be a success,” said Kassab.
In 1967, that arts center moved to Missouri Southern State College and become known as Spiva Art Center, then to its current location at 222 W. Third St. in the 1990s. This allowed the group to shift their efforts from funding the center month-to-month to building a permanent art collection and to promote the arts in the community.
Among the group’s credits is securing the commissioning of the Thomas Hart Benton mural for the Joplin Centennial in 1973.
In 1999, organizers added an art auction and the event took on a life of its own. All told, the ball has raised more than $600,000. Last year’s take was $45,000.
This year’s co-chairs, Shannon Satterlee, whose mother-in-law is a sustaining St. Avips member, and Louise Secker, whose mother is a sustaining member, would like to raise more.
But they have been working with a special challenge: “We were coming off of the tornado,” said Satterlee of the initial planning efforts last summer and fall.
“This is the first spring after the tornado, and we really wanted the ball to reflect that,” Secker said. “We wanted to be sensitive. Our golden anniversary is important to us, but this is a community event now. We are celebrating, yes, but we also are moving forward and rebuilding.”
So they settled on “Joplin in Bloom” as the theme of the golden anniversary. Butterflies -- depicted in the Community Mural at 15th and Main streets -- were used on the invitations and in the party favors. And this year the decorations will not be discarded at the end of the evening.
“I think the most important thing we’re doing is using recyclable trees in a very park-like setting,” said Secker. “They will all be planted at Parr Hill park afterwards.”
The trees were ordered through Empire District Electric Company with the help of their arborist to ensure the proper species and a good fit to the city’s tree plan.
The ball will be held at Downstream Casino. The J Rob Band, of St. Louis, which performed at last year’s ball, has been invited back.
Their goal: To raise $50,000 in honor of 50 years.
“It’s especially appropriate this year to be working to raise money for the arts, because what a part the arts have played in the recovery of Joplin,” said Secker.
The ball has been made possible, organizers say, through numerous business partnerships and sponsorships and legwork by a committee of 40 people.
“We worried about the support this year, but it turned out well,” said Satterlee.