Cheers to 50: A history of supporting local causes in style
It was the summer of 1986. Baton Rouge’s party-going crowd gathered around the outdoor swimming pool at the Country Club of Louisiana, dressed to the nines, cocktails flowing.
Models sauntered their choreographed routines down a runway set above the glistening blue water, under bright lights and bumping music. Suddenly, a chopping sound filled the air and a helicopter dramatically landed on the nearby golf course. Two of the models and a tuxedo-clad man ran through the scene and hopped into the aircraft before soaring away into the night, leaving the guests in shock.
This may seem like a scene from a classic film, but it’s actually from one of the most memorable Baton Rouge Best Dressed Balls in the event’s history. The theme that year was James Bond, and the planning team went all out.
“Most people were stunned. They couldn’t believe what they had just seen,” says Beth Phillips, longtime fashion director for the event and for the former D.H. Holmes department store. “It was then that we really had to ask ourselves, ‘How are we ever going to top this?’”
The Best Dressed Ball has raised about $3.2 million for the American Cancer Society in its 50 years of operation, and has almost an equal number of stories to match—from Price LeBlanc famously throwing his hot sausages into the crowd during his runway debut to the time Phillips and team brought in live animals from the Baton Rouge Zoo to complete that year’s Big Top circus theme.
Though the ball today doesn’t involve helicopters and zoo animals, it still maintains its status as one of the city’s favorite social and charitable events of the year. Here’s how it all began:
Peggy Cangelosi, a local socialite and wife of prominent lawyer Theo Cangelosi, first organized a group of women around the cause in 1966. At the time, fashion shows and magazine rankings of the “best dressed” were becoming popular throughout the country. So Cangelosi and her group decided that Baton Rouge would host its own event in the same vein—originally calling it the Hall of Fashion Ball.
The first event took place at the old Capitol House Hotel, which today stands as the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center. It consisted of a style show, dinner and dancing, according to Dan Jumonville, who has been involved with the organization since the late ’60s and has seen the event flourish into what it is today.
“It was more or less just a word-of-mouth event,” Dan says. “The early balls were fairly simple affairs. The founders got as many socialites from around town to attend as they could. It was pretty small to start with—maybe 100 or 150 people attended.”
Shortly after, the founders recognized that they needed outside help to ensure that the event would grow, so they looked to the young men of the Capitol Sertoma Club.
“One of the members’ mothers was one of the founding socialites,” says Dan, who was involved in the club at the time. “She figured out that she could get all of these young guys to do the grunt work. We hauled the tables, built the runways, and so on.”
The Sertoma Club coordinated and staged the event, but the men needed help with the fashion. So in 1974 they joined forces with D.H. Holmes, a premier department store in the area, and its brand-new fashion director Beth Phillips. It was then that the ball took off with unprecedented levels of style.
“When D.H. Holmes was involved with the ball, we had a huge budget and we had free reign on the presentation. We went all out,” says Carla Jumonville, Dan’s wife who worked on the ball’s fashion committee and has also been involved since the early days.
The once-small affair grew to be the highlight of the year for many in Baton Rouge. Phillips, along with Carla Jumonville, Linda Ward Dalton, Cherie Giblin and Charlotte Levy, coordinated elaborate themes for each year—like “Double Oh Seven,” “Champagne and Diamonds” and “Red Hot Risqué”—and added more fashion shows, professional models and even a volunteer organization for youth called the Teen Board that did everything from steam clothes to dance in the show.
“It was a theatrical production,” Phillips says. “It took a year to plan. The stores were behind us, Sertoma was behind us, and I had a wonderful crew of women who supported me. It was so rewarding working with all of the people, and knowing that we were producing something, entertaining people and raising money that was going back to Baton Rouge’s neediest.”
And with more attractions came larger spaces. The event moved to the Old State Capitol (where Best Dressed honorees and models would flaunt their styles down the sweeping staircases), to the once-grand Bellemont Hotel, to the River Center and then to the Country Club of Louisiana.
But the over-the-top productions slowed down after 1989 when D.H. Holmes was purchased by Dillard’s and was forced to close its Louisiana locations. The newly national department store decided not to sponsor the ball again, and the onus was put on Sertoma to find new partners and scale back.
“Any organization has its ups and downs. When D.H. Holmes had to pull out of the ball it was a big deal because they funded so much of the presentation,” Dan says. “The shows became a little less extravagant. They were still quality shows, but the Hollywood style had to be deleted.”
Since then, local boutiques and businesses have partnered to make the Best Dressed Ball a success. The likes of the all-female local Mardi Gras Krewe Artemis, as well as Carla Jumonville and Linda Ward Dalton’s clothier San Carlin, have played significant roles in outfitting the models and keeping the show a must-see over the years. After a stint at the Belle of Baton Rouge, the event has since moved to the Raising Cane’s River Center with more than 1,400 guests attending. Last year alone the event raised $330,000 for the American Cancer Society.
“Many of our community leaders and outstanding citizens have been nominated as Best Dressed and take pride in this incredible event,” says M’Elaine Jumonville, Carla and Dan’s daughter and the chair of this year’s event. “I am very proud of all the hard work we have accomplished over the last year to bring this event together.”
The 50th celebration will take place on Aug. 19 with a live auction and the band ATL Groove Factory entertaining guests. Past participants will be recognized for their contributions. Event planners are expecting an incredible night of celebrating and fundraising.
“As long as cancer exists, this event has proven that our community will not back down to this terrible disease,” says M’Elaine. “Cancer may spread and grow, but the giving human spirit will do the same, only stronger. I am truly honored to be part of the Best Dressed Ball—supporting, helping and giving hope to those with cancer.”