There aren't many black-tie galas that open with, "Are you ready to rumble?" But those are the exact words co-chair Greg Looser used at the third annual Men of Menil gala, just before he introduced four Japanest sumo wrestlers who fought 12 matches before the black-tie crowd at Richmond Hall, the Menil annex that houses minimalist sculptor Dan Flavin's works of fluorescent art.
In coming up with the idea of importing sumo wrestlers for the occasion, co-chairs Looser, David Fitch and Harry Pinson admitted they were thinking outside the box for a fundraiser benefitting an old-guard Houston museum.
"We wanted something a little bit risky, just a little bit out of the ordinary."
"We wanted something a little bit risky, just a little bit out of the ordinary," Pinson explained.
The after-dinner entertainment had the audience up and cheering, snapping photos of the matches with their cell phones and yelling the names of their favorite wrestler. Byama, a 360-pound wrestler originally from Mongolia, remained undefeated throughout the evening, although the crowd favorites appeared to be baby-faced wrestler, Yama, who, at 580 pounds was the heaviest wrestler, and Noro, who at 320 pounds was the lightest.
In a bit of comic relief, two tuxedo-clad men were plucked from the audience for a brief match against the wrestlers. Mark Watts, president of the Friedkin Group, owner of Gulf States Toyota, which was the evening's lead corporate sponsor, and Scott McGill, a Rice University classics professor, stood their ground in the ring.
While the idea of introducting sumo wrestling at a black-tie benefit is not an everyday occurence for a Houston event, it's not as farfetched as it might seem. The extensive Menil art collection includes priceless pieces from Asia Minor and founder Dominque de Menil always maintained a world view.
And since the Men of Menil fundraiser has the theme of a gentlemen's smoker, it's open to different forms of entertainment. Last year, the dinner featured a quartet of magicians who performed amazing card tricks, including three card monte and shell games.
"The general concept of this evening is a smoker at a private club that featured prize fights, so we tried to figure out what we could do that was closer to the original concept." Pinson said. "Someone said, 'how about sumo?' and everyone hooted. But we put it on the list (of possibilities) and the the rest is history."
Organizers sought out Andrew Freund, executive director of the California Sumo Association, who produces sumo events all over the world. "I thought it sounded wonderful," Freund recalled. "We love to play at places where people are sophisticated, educated and understand the cultural significance of sumo."
"We love to play at places where people are sophisticated, educated and understand the cultural significance of sumo."
Among the places that sumo wrestlers have peformed is the Friars Club of Beverly Hills, Freund said. "Sumo is unique, exotic and it has 2,000 years of Japanese culture."
The evening started with drinks in an open-air tent behind Richmond Hall before guests went inside for a dinner, catered by Jackson & Co., that included a man-size portion of osso bucco and duck salad on a nest of pasta. After the matches ended, guests gathered for an after-dinner brandy and cigars in a tent in front of the hall.
Menil director Josef Helfenstein was pleased to report that the evening raised more than $443,000 — a record amount for the event.
In the crowd of 260 were former Mayor Bill White, Deputy Consul General of Japan Takahiko Watabe and Daniel Watanabe, who helped coordinate the wrestlers’ visit.
Also on hand: Albert Chao, Adrian Patterson, Ford Hubbard, Murry Penner, Dr. Michael Kaplan, Perry Radoff and sons Russell and Bradley, Bill Stewart, Michael Metz, Mark Wawro, Eddie Allen, Jared Crane, Ransom Lummis, Shannon Sasser, Danny David, James A. Elkins IV, Scott Ziegler, Thomas Wessell, Meredith Cullen and Robert Jamail.
With the success of the sumo-themed party, some were already surmising what the entertainment might be next year. Fencing, anyone?