Dinner Room



  • Event Designer
  • Entertainment Co-Producer
  • Songwriter (“Coming Home” for Wynonna Judd)
  • Accompanist
  • Graphic Designer


When Mike Merchant, CEO of ANASAZI Foundation first approached me regarding their annual scholarship dinner, I knew is was a night I wanted to help make memorable. Multi-Grammy Award winning performer Wynonna Judd was slated to receive the Turn for Peace Award for her efforts to promote peace and healing among families everywhere. From my experience, the evening would be a success when, long afterward, Wynonna, the ANASAZI families, and other guests would experience a feeling of joy when they remember it. Moreover, what I hoped would come to mind for them wouldn’t be so much the specific details but the overall sense created by the theme and ambience accentuated by certain emotional highlights.

Whether an event is a birthday or anniversary celebration, a party held by a business firm to honor clients, a fashion show, or a wedding, every one is a special occasion and cause for celebration. Because parties mark some of life’s most important and intimate moments, ensuring the success of such events is a priority for everyone. People always want their event to be perfect and special, something that gives joy and pleasure to those in attendance. This evening with Wynonna required the same thoughtful consideration in planning.


Staging an event can be quite an art. In essence, you don’t plan a party as much as you design it. Planning an event is a production: the venue and setting are the stage; the host, the director. One must go through the process of envisioning and creating and entire environment fore their guests from scratch, one that will be both exciting and memorable—in sum, an experience. The uppermost goal of planning any event is to elicit an emotional, even passionate response from the guests while inventing an environment that is meaningful and personal for the client.


ANASAZI Foundation is a charitable organization helping behaviorally at-risk youth and their families through wilderness treks and seminars. At the core of their program is the belief that peace comes from one’s way of being (rather than doing) and that behaviors are merely symptoms of the condition of the heart. Many families benefiting from ANASAZI learn the lessons of personal choice and how those choices either hurt or heal relationships.



My first question to answer did not involve color scheme or center pieces. Instead I considered the thought, “What is the overall impression I would like to convey to the guests?” Mike had only one word of input, “elegant,” which left the options pretty much wide open. I immedieately knew I needed to instill a feeling of peace in the heart of every guest. I decided to keep the evening simple following the mantra “less is more.” Some people would have believed that simplicity is not sophisticated enough for such an event.


I used four elements: light, feathers, sticks, and sepia tone images all in repetitions throughout the ballroom, reception room, registration area, and VIP room. The theme colors finally came to mind as Mike and I found the perfect event location at Scottsdale’s Four Seasons Resort. Their ballroom easily inspired the use of the more delicious shades of cream, chocolate, and coppery-gold.


Each element used in decorating had a unique meaning associated with ANASAZI as did the color palette. Sticks are essential to the youth participating in the wilderness trek portion of ANASAZI. They are used to make fire, shelter, utensils for eating, and for other tools such as hiking sticks. I wanted to bring the “trail” (as the ANASAZI experience is so affectionately called) to the guests that evening. However, it had to be dressed up in a way that would be celebratory and elegant. The solution was simple: glitter.


20 foot tall pomegranate branches were clipped, stripped of leaves, bundled with wire, potted in cement, and sprayed with gold, bronze, and white glitter. I placed these in the ballroom behind the stage and seemed to create a shelter over performers and speakers much as they would in out on the Trail. Flood lighting the already towering trees from the base made them seem to stand even higher by casting shadows of the barren branches on the walls and ceiling. The glittered branches danced in the room’s slight breeze, reflecting light from the tiny bits of glitter tat appeared like magic dust in a fairytale.


The centerpieces were intended to bring in a little of the upcoming season as well as remind the guests of peace. White goose feathers, reminiscent to those of a dove,were glued in rows onto cardstock cones then embellished with luxurious curled ribbons and fine glitter spray. We placed them on gingerbread-colored suede toppers and surrounded them with twigs coated in bronze and gold glitter. Small votives illuminated the white feather trees and tables in the dark.


10 of the 35 tables centerpieces were substitutes with slender 24 inch tall crystal vases from which sprung 30 inch sprays of gold and bronze glittered branches matching those at the base of the feather trees and behind the stage. The vases were nestled in fluffy white feathers on a gingerbread topper.


At each place setting was a printed program of the evening’s event, a dinner menu, and a gift for each guest including a signed CD from Wynonna and an ANASAZI candle.


Previous to this event I was fortunate to participate as the Entertainment Producer and entertainer for other ANASAZI galas. As Creative Director, I still ended up participating in unexpected entertainment roles. For one, I stepped in to play piano so the pre-dinner pianist could take a well needed break. Additionally, I had already committed to singing and playing the piano with Wynonna later in the evening. I was reminded of this one fact: sometimes as a host, one must be prepared to take on any role to make sure guests are able to enjoy the evening.


The reactions to the room decor, tables, lighting, music, and meal were positive, making it clear the evening was a success. Entertaining is multi-faceted; it is part content, part presentation, but mainly theater. Whatever the event, I’ve learned it’s important to be confident in my own sense of style and be willing to take some risks. I always begin with the question in mind, “What is the overall impression I want to convey to my guests?” Then, trusting my creative instincts the next event is sure to be an inspired and therefore enjoyable process. – JR


with Wynonna 2012