One or two old-timers have asked me about the Newberry Gala, or, as I always liked to call it, the galagalagala. (This is one of those jokes that doesn’t work in print—like a lot of my Vaudeville fossils. See, the world is apparently divided among people who pronounce the word “gala” as gay-la, those who pronounce it “gaa-la”, and those who pronounce it “gah-la”. So to me it has always been the gaylagaalagahla. No, it wasn’t funny to anybody but me, even in those days. Nice of you to ask. I’ll remember it in my notes for Santa Claus.)
What the old-timers—those who attended during the last century—ask me is “Where are the books?”
The Gala was originally held without books: it was a grand dinner with a great speaker and quite a wonderful air about it. But one can’t rest on one’s laurels: one must always try to make this year’s bigger than the last. One feature they wanted to improve was the bar and hors-d’oeuvres buffet on the first floor. This was a romantic arrangement, with Ruggles Hall (East Hall, we called it, in those primitive days) lit largely by candles. Candles upstairs were a no-no, so this was where people who cannot believe it’s an elegant affair without candles could indulge themselves. (So did the people who came for the open bar, but that’s another story.)
“Hey!” somebody exclaimed. “This is a library! Why not decorate the buffet with BOOKS?”
A call was sent to the Book Fair for a load of decorative books. This is a code phrase which a Book Fair Manager needs to know. What’s wanted are hardcover books, preferably with gilt lettering on the spine. They can be broken sets of the works of James Whitcomb Riley or deluxe binders for National Geographics. It will be too dark to read the spines anyhow; the job of these books is to look nice in candlelight.
For several years we supplied books which were pretty but not special. This was vital, because when the grown-ups went upstairs to dine and the catering staff cleared the buffet, the books would be dumped into boxes for me to collect next morning. I did collect them, and was fascinated by the effects of candle wax on imitation leather bindings. (Really cheap fake leather repelled the wax; genuine but thin leather acquired permanent stains.)
AND people kept sliding the books from under the candles to see what they were. This comes of allowing literate people to attend a gala dinner.
The darkened buffet and bar started to give way to a brighter bar and buffet in the lobby, and the books were promoted upstairs. Now tasteful arrangements of books were included in the table décor. And because the light was so much better, the books needed to relate to the theme of the evening: Southwestern history, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Hecht. This sounds like more work, and it was, but, hey, what does Uncle Blogsy do all day but sort books anyhow. We collected books for six months (if they knew the theme that far in advance) and carried boxes upstairs come the big day. Someone with the Jewell staff (George Jewell has almost always been the caterer of choice for these events) would tell me how the books were to fit into the decor, and I would leave carefully selected piles of books on each table to fit the requirement. The boxes would be hidden in a corner, and my job was done until the next morning.
These books came back without candle wax, but had seen contact with wine or water. There was an ingenious water candle arrangement one year—the water was held to offset the flame—and the first two to be lighted promptly broke, sending water across my tasteful display. This is why one brings spares.
The climax of that era was the Great Elizabeth Gala, a dinner of which stylish people still speak: the regal air, the great exhibit, the memorable speech, and the lack of books still resound in people’s memories. There was so much lead time for this gala that we could put in extra effort, weeding out the less presentable books in favor of bright, impressive books about Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, Henry VIII, and anything else reasonably Elizabethan. I had books about Tudor music, a picture of Queen Elizabeth playing the lute, and oh, scads of wonderful things.
I told people for weeks afterward that there were SO books in the gala displays. It’s just that the decorating crew decided to put them underneath the tablecloths to hold up the rest of the centerpieces. Most of my books were used, but not a single one was seen.
Oh, we had a few gala dinners after that with books in the display, but it was never quite the same. And there’s one in every crowd, isn’t there? “Are old books sanitary? Is this something you really want on the table with food?” Between that and Uncle Blogsy still sulking four years after the Elizabethan business, it was decided to save him the trouble of hauling a dozen boxes of books up and down again.
Even though for some years now the Gala (now the Award Dinner) has been bookless, people do inquire. The books gave them something to do between courses and, alas, even during the speaker’s presentation sometimes. This may also have had something to do with the decision to go book-free in the centerpiece.
There are seats available for this year’s dinner, renamed for this occasion the 125th Anniversary Dinner. No books on the table, just some author named McCullough, who has a couple more Pulitzers than I have so far. You can read all about it at http://www.newberry.org/david-mccullough-receive-newberry-award. (I checked for you: the bar and the buffet will be as open as ever. Don’t say I never did nothin’ for ya.)