Marylou Whitney made her grand entrance into Congress Park Friday evening riding in a rickshaw that was escorted by an enormous, swerving Chinese dragon carried by a dozen young men, all running.
The theme of this year’s Whitney Gala in the Canfield Casino was “An Evening in Hong Kong.”
The theme was used to decorate the front of the historic casino with a red, black and gold Chinese temple-style entrance gate and a giant inflated gold Buddha to greet Whitney’s 300 guests.
A troupe of 30 Chinese performers, imported from New York City, entertained the crowd outside the casino with dancing, magic tricks and acrobatics.
TV soap opera star Susan Lucci (Erica Kane in “All My Children”) sat next to Whitney in the rickshaw. Whitney’s husband, John Hendrickson, and Lucci’s husband of 35 years, Helmut Huber, walked behind the two-wheeled vehicle.
Three more rickshaws carried some of Whitney’s other guests into the park. Each rickshaw was pulled by men from the New York City-based Shanghai Rickshaws LLC.
“We come here for the performers,” said spectator Duane Saari of Saratoga Springs. “It’s great that she does this for the people.”
Saari said he actually kissed her hand when she was greeting the crowd before her party two or three years ago.
Ann Russo and her daughter, Karen, of Mechanicville had a special reason to be in the crowd for the annual Whitney Gala.
Ann Russo said Whitney and Lucci once came down to Children’s Hospital of Albany Medical Center to talk to the young patients and offer encouragement. Her daughter was in the hospital at that time.
“My daughter had her picture taken with Susan Lucci and Marylou,” Russo said of the event some years ago. They return to the park every year to watch Whitney enter the casino.
“She does good work for the community,” Russo said.
“It’s nice. We like it,” said Ben Penney of Clifton Park. Penney and his wife were among the 300 to 400 people awaiting Whitney’s arrival, though not invited to the party.
The Penneys had just finished dinner in downtown Saratoga Springs and decided to take a walk in Congress Park. Penney said they were shocked and thrilled by all the activity, music and performances on the large stage set up outside the Casino.
Before Whitney, Hendrickson and guests entered the casino, they greeted the crowd, shaking hands and passing out small Chinese hand drums that Hendrickson called “monkey drums.” He said 500 of the little drums were distributed.
Most of those who gather outside the casino in shorts and T-shirts are fans of the socialite who has a home in Saratoga Springs and has been involved in charitable giving in the Saratoga Springs area for more than 40 years.
Whitney started hosting the annual Whitney party (originally held on the eve of the Whitney Handicap horse race) well over 30 years ago with her husband Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney, who died in 1992.
She has continued the tradition with her husband of 10 years, Hendrickson, an Alaska native.
Michael Panza of the Saratoga Springs-based FineAffairs firm said Whitney and Hendrickson select the theme of the party, usually nearly a year before the party is held.
It’s then his job to start designing entrance sets and decorations for the interior of the Canfield Casino.
Many of the decorations are custom-made by local people, Panza said.
“The temple entrance facade was handmade,” Panza said. Local artists also created a huge painted muslin backdrop in the Casino’s music room that matched the cover of the party invitations, a night view of Hong Kong.
Panza would not reveal the cost of staging the party.
“We plan it for a year,” Panza said. “We get a theme, conceptualize ideas and put it all together.”
Whitney suffered a serious stroke two years ago but has made remarkable progress, working with a team of trainers and specialists during her recovery. Hendrickson said his wife works very hard and continues to make progress.
She was all smiles in her custom-made gown on Friday. She and Hendrickson went over and sampled a large silver bowl of jumbo shrimp on ice. “They are as big as lobsters,” Hendrickson joked.
Other guests included famous tennis coach Nick Bolletieri of Florida, who has groomed some of the world’s best championship players over the past 25 years. Bolletieri said he and tennis great John McEnroe are currently working on a national tennis promotion focused on inner-city youngsters.
For the first time, Hendrickson’s mother, Gwen, traveled from Alaska to spend some time with her son at Saratoga Race Course and attend her first Whitney gala.
“He came into a world he didn’t grow up in,” Gwen Hendrickson said about her son. “We were middle class.”
But she said he and Marylou have found happiness together and the affable Hendrickson has taken the high society life in stride.
“I’m very proud of my son,” she said.