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Photo courtesy of Wilson Farish and Jason Power

This year’s Howl-O-Ween Ball was a spooktacular event for Houston SPCA, raising $915,000 to help support the rescue and protection organization’s lifesaving work.

A sell-out crowd of more than 350 gathered at the large, open-air Equine Rescue Arena on the Houston SPCA's Campus for All Animals for the event, which was co-chaired by longtime supporter and board member Zane Carruth, along with Cheryl Byington, a rescue dog mom and fierce animal lover.

The elegantly decorated soiree by Bergner & Johnson was filled with gauzy ghosts, candelabras, and pumpkins for the cocktail hour, where elegantly costumed guests bid on items that included a $3,000 shopping spree at Neiman Marcus.

A drawing for a beautiful, yellow-stone ring from Franco Valobra of Valobra Master Jewelers was also available, followed by a “Paws Up” live auction that included a private suite for 10 people at a TAMU football game and a rare opportunity to witness a rehabilitated bald eagle released back into the wild, and much more.

Honorary chair Linda McIngvale joined honorees Evelyn H. Griffin, Judge Roberta Lloyd, Frances Moody Buzbee and Tony Buzbee, and the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Services.

Deborah Duncan, KHOU-TV’s Great Day Houston host, served as emcee. Dance presentations by TUTS student performers inspired guests to get up and boogie to tunes spun by — who else? — DJ L-Boogie.

The fun continued at the after-party with dancing as well as desserts, coffee, cocktails, and puppy cuddles in the adjacent Adoption Center. And here's a not-so-scary end to the night: Three lucky pets were adopted!

You can see all adoptable pets online at www.houstonspca.org, as well as learn how you can support Houston SPCA in its mission to promote respect for all animals and free them from suffering, abuse, and exploitation.

Photo courtesy of Wilson Farish and Jason Power

Ball co-chairs Zane Carruth and Cheryl Byington.

Photo by Daniel Ortiz

Prominent sports power couple lends a helping hand to deserving families at $525,000 HelpCureHD gala

a helping hand

While the Houston Astros are no doubt the hottest ticket in the Bayou City, but a recent soiree at Minute Maid Park proved just as scorching.

Former Houston sports power couple Allie LaForce, TNT’s popular sports reporter, and Joe Smith, former pitcher for the Astros and Minnesota Twins, were in town to host their annual HelpCureHD Gala at Union Station in Minute Maid Park.

The annual gala, only a few years old here in Houston but gaining buzz and notoriety thanks to the who’s-who of guests who attend, raised a record-breaking $525,000 was raised for the couple’s charity, the HelpCureHD Foundation. Astros owner Jim Crane and his wife Whitney, as well as players Ryan Pressly (and wife, Kat) and Kyle Tucker, and former Astros player Tony Kemp joined a lively crowd of generous sports fans.

The at times emotional evening featured tear-jerking testimonials, videos, and a raucous live auction — with Crane often refusing to be outbid. Auction items included a three-night stay in Napa at the Four Seasons and Crane’s personal seats to a game, located in the Diamond Club, plus a chance for one guest to throw the first pitch. Another package promised two tickets to every home Astros playoff game including the World Series.

Needless to say, energetic auctioneer Johnny Bravo was busy.

Presenting sponsor for the event was OOVA and Fess Parker Wines provided sips. A show-stopping moment came with a raffle for a stunning 22-carat Asscher cut tanzanite gem set in 18-karat white gold with accent diamonds and mandarin garnets, donated by Shaftel Diamonds — giving the gala some extra glow.

As CultureMap has previously reported, the HelpCureHD Foundation is one of the few national nonprofits dedicated to battle the scourge of Huntington’s Disease (HD) and helping potential parents with Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis and In Vitro Fertilization (PGD-IVF) treatments. That process helps doctors screen and bypass HD, meaning a baby born free from its clutches.

Adding to the poignancy, LaForce and Smith greeted grateful families — and toddlers — helped by the foundation.

Still lesser-known that Alzheimer’s Disease, HD is a devastating neurodegenerative condition affecting more than 30,000 Americans each year. It slowly attacks the nerve cells in the brain, causing eruptive mood swings, loss of memory, emotional outbursts, and a litany of other neurological distresses.

For LaForce and Smith, the campaign is personal. Smith’s beloved mother, Lee Smith, passed away in 2020 after a long battle with the disease. As HD is hereditary, Smith himself faces a potential 50-percent chance of inheriting it. He’s chosen not to get tested, and instead, spread awareness and raise crucial funds through events like the gala.

He’s also chosen to focus on his family; miraculously, he and LaForce are expecting a baby boy this fall, and will finally enjoy the gift they’ve helped 18 families — and seven more soon — receive.

“We are incredibly grateful and inspired,” LaForce tells CultureMap. “Our goal every year is to raise more money than the previous year. We believe when people see what we are doing, and meet our HelpCureHD families, they will be supporters for life. Our gala attendees are a combination of dear friends, healthcare professionals, athletes and philanthropists — all of which understand the sense of urgency for our families and what we are trying to do. We couldn't do it without them.”

Seen in the crowd: Whitney and Jim Crane, Adrienne and Jared Crane, Kat and Ryan Pressly, Kyle Tucker, Tony Kemp, Marla and Matt Hurley, Jen and David Grisby, Dr. Erin Furr-Stimming and Chris Stimming, Jo and Jim Furr, Dr. Dottie Roach, Robert Clay and Dana Barton, Adrienne, Danny and Iris Shaftel, Jessica Roupe, Rachel and Jeff Bagwell, Debbie and Rudy Festari, Julia Morales, Iraida and Danny Brown, Dean Putterman, Elizabeth and John Elder, Dr. Sherri Levin, Amanda Boffone, Julie Chen, and Shelley Boyer.

Jim Crane, Whitney Crane, Allie LaForce, and Joe Smith.

Photo by Daniel Ortiz
Jim Crane, Whitney Crane, Allie LaForce, and Joe Smith.
Photo courtesy of The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation

Houston leading ladies receive surprise honor as 2023 Women of Distinction

2023 women of distinction

A group of Houston leading ladies recently received a surprise honor for their tireless work in the community.

The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation recently held its Surprise Day for its newest class of Women of Distinction. The fun tradition was hosted by upscale boutique Elizabeth Anthony.

This year’s class is as follows: Tammie Johnson, Lisa Sailor, Jordan Seff, Rani Puranik, Mayte Weitzman, and Evelyn Leightman, who is the 2023 Ambassador.

These women will be honored at the annual Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation 2023 Winter Ball, which raises critical funds for research and patient support.

Each year, Women of Distinction are selected based on their leadership in and impact on the Houston community. The nominations process is rigorous, according to the foundation. Judges represent a diverse group of CEOs, Women of Distinction, non-profit and community leaders. The Oversight Committee remains another touchstone to ensure the process remains fair and equitable. Both groups are anonymous to ensure the process is competitive, according to a press release.

As for the event, family, friends, foundation staff were on hand to surprise the nominees. Also making an appearance: Cheryl Byington, Gayla Gardner, Sharon Owens, Kelley Lubancko, Mary Ann McKeithan, Leila Perrin, Dena Rafte, Heidi Rockecharlie, Miriam Sera, Helen Shaffer, Kelli Weinzierl, Beth Wolff, Chris Rowley, and Tim Goedecker.

Socially minded locals should watch for date and location of the 2023 Winter Ball to be announced later this year.

Woman of Distinction Tammie Ann Johnson (third from left) with (left to right) Cheryl Byington, Heidi Rockecharlie, Beth Wolff, Mary Ann McKeithan, Leila Perrin, and Cynthia Wolff.

Photo courtesy of The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation
Woman of Distinction Tammie Ann Johnson (third from left) with (left to right) Cheryl Byington, Heidi Rockecharlie, Beth Wolff, Mary Ann McKeithan, Leila Perrin, and Cynthia Wolff.
Photo courtesy of Allie LaForce and Joe Smith

Inspiring celebrity sports power couple hosts can't-miss gala with surprise Houston Astros guests

a home-run cause

As an energetic, elegantly casual, sports-themed soiree — call it an “anti-gala” — the annual HelpCureHD Gala is a chance to support a little-known but crucial cause, all with the potential to get up close and personal with Houston Astros star players.

The event, hosted by celebrated power couple Allie LaForce and Joe Smith, will be held at 6:30 pm Thursday, August 11 at Union Station in Minute Maid Park.

Single tickets for the red-hot fundraiser are still available at $500; find them here. The gala will feature a seated dinner, cocktails, auction items, plus music. (The live auction could be described as electric, as bidders vie for sports-related packages, often competing with Astros owner Jim Crane himself.)

As for the players, while no appearance is ever guaranteed (and commitments are always secret), past events have seen José Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Jr., Michael Brantley, and more.

Each year, LaForce the lead reporter for TNT’s NBA coverage and MLB reporter and her husband, former Astros pitcher and MLB veteran Smith, hold the gala to raise awareness for their HelpCureHD Foundation, which raises funds and awareness for the insidious Huntington’s Disease.

The devastating affliction is an inherited neurodegenerative condition affecting more than 30,000 Americans each year. It slowly attacks the nerve cells in the brain, causing eruptive mood swings, loss of memory, emotional outbursts, and a litany of other neurological distresses.

As LaForce previously shared with CultureMap, the gala, their foundation, and mission, is deeply personal for the husband and wife founders. In August 2020, Smith lost his beloved mother, Lee, to a harrowing, eight-year battle with Huntington’s; he also lost his grandmother.

Even more ominous for Smith: He faces a 50-percent chance of inheriting the scourge that, like Alzherimer’s Disease, has no cure.

But, the couple are fearlessly on the offensive, raising crucial monies to fund families who are hoping to stop the disease from passing to their children by utilizing the proven method of Pre-implantation Genetic Testing In-vitro Fertilization (PGT-IVF). Thus far, 100 families have been supported by the HelpCureHD foundation.

Again, the work is deeply personal: LaForce, who has tried repeatedly to get pregnant, is well on her way to giving birth this year.

“I have been able to experience a fraction of the emotion and joy of our amazing, brave families going through IVF to make HD-free babies,” she tells CultureMap. “Now, I am pregnant myself with our own HD-free angel. It takes a great amount of strength to get this far, and I have so much love and respect for our families, and my appreciation for them has only deepened as I have experienced it myself. After three egg retreivals, a miscarriage, and now a pregnancy, its not easy, but its worth it.”

Crediting the “village” around her, LaForce says that battling the disease, which is still mostly unknown nationally, requires a team approach, one that can be especially emotional and harrowing for families. “We rely on the doctors who discovered the HD gene,” she continues, “the doctors who discovered how to eliminate a disease with IVF, and the families brave enough to endure the process to make sure their families are happy and healthy.”

While profoundly tragic in one way, LaForce’s and Smith’s story is ultimately uplifting and positive, values the couple share and infuse in their annual Houston event.

“We have always wanted to have an event that raised awareness and money for the incredibly brave families dealing with Huntington's Disease,” LaForce adds, “while also giving people a reason to feel joy and hope. Our first two events were luncheons, and they were fun, but more serious. We knew transitioning to a gala with live music and an open bar and a rowdy auction would be the best of both worlds!”

With 100 families experiencing miraculous births and the inspiring host couple set to welcome their own baby (Joe plans to host a hilarious, March Madness-style naming competition), this year, especially, is clearly a reason to party — and get rowdy.

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The HelpCureHD Gala will be held at 6:30 pm Thursday, August 11 at Union Station in Minute Maid Park (501 Crawford St.). Individual tickets ($500) are available. For more information, visit the event page.

To learn more about HelpCureHD, visit the official website, Facebook, or Instagram.

Photo by Michelle Watson, CatchLight Group

Crazy Rich Asians author returns to hometown Houston for bookish Inprint Ball

A crazy rich party

The Inprint Poets & Writers Ball, Houstonian literati and bibliophiles’ favorite gala, returned to in-person celebration with one, crazy, rich night thanks to best-selling author Kevin Kwan. The Crazy Rich Asians novelist, who grew up in Houston along with a special anniversary for Inprint director Rich Levy, made the dazzling evening one to remember.

Chaired by Cullen Geiselman, with help from Host Committee, the Inprint board, advisory board, and Presidents Council, supporters and the 350 guest, the Ball raised more than $442,000 for Inprint’s mission to bring the best writing to Houstonians and its many community activities and support for emerging writers attending University of Houston and Rice University.

For a punily good evening, guests also celebrated and raised a glass to another rich literary tradition, Inprint’s executive director, and award-winning poet in his own right, Rich Levy’s 25 years at the organization.

Inprint supporters were excited to be back in the room together-this year at the Briar Club-for a ball like no other. Along with a headlining literary star as speaker, what makes the Poets & Writers Ball truly unique is its pre-dinner salon readings from up-and-coming writers and poets who have benefitted from Inprint’s support, usually while attending the University of Houston graduate creative writing programs.

This year, the writers giving guests a preview of their next literary obsession were poet and essayist Niki Herd, whose essay “George Floyd and the White Gaze,” was selected as Salon’s “Best of 2020;” poet Justin Jannise author of award winning How to Be Better by Being Worse and fiction writer Isle McElroy author of The Atmospherians, named a Best Book of 2021 by Esquire. All three authors praised Inprint’s support during their time in Houston and stressed how vital those prizes and fellowships had been to their work. Some also recounted how leading Inprint community writing workshops and programs had especially influenced their writing and personal lives.

After a poetic dinner designed by Robert Del Grande, who contributed an actual culinary poem about the inspiration for the meal, it was time to get crazy with Kevin Kwan.

ABC-13 News journalist Melanie Lawson led Kwan on a journey into his life in writing. Born in Singapore, he now calls New York home, but Kwan recalled his formative years growing up in Houston. It was at UH Clear Lake that he wrote a poem the would become the foundation for the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, and that iconic second scene from the film when the family matriarchs gossip during Bible study. Kwan also revealed coming back to Houston to take care of his ill father and listening to his stories of Singapore became a large inspiration for the novels.

At the end of the evening, guests received a very special thank-you gift designed by artists Fiona McGettigan and Alan Krathaus of CORE Design Studio, a handmade limited-edition chapbook based on the opening pages of Kevin Kwan’s latest novel Sex and Vanity, each copy of which was numbered and signed by the author.

Seen having a crazy, literary night were Eloise and Steve Brice, Mary S and Jack Dawson, Kate Dearing and Steve Fowler, Consuelo Duroc-Danner, Brooke and Dan Feather, Sarah Flournoy, Debbie Gary, Judy and Marc Herzstein, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, Sabria and Kevin Lewis, Meg Malone, Nancy Powell Moore, Beth Robertson, Lillie Robertson, Sarah Rothenberg and Robert Azencott, Sarah Beth and Paul Seifert, Doreen Stoller and Dan Piette, Liara Tamani and Larry Animashaun, Brad Telford and J. Mark Deaton, Phoebe and Bobby Tudor, Michelle and Rishi Varma.

Writers Isle McElroy, Niki Herd, Justin Jannise.

Photo by Michelle Watson, CatchLight Group
Writers Isle McElroy, Niki Herd, Justin Jannise.
Photo courtesy of Be An Angel Gala

Legendary Apollo 13 astronaut joins hep Houstonians for $600,000 Be An Angel Gala

tell me more, tell me more

Cool cats and Pink Ladies packed The Revaire for the annual Be An Angel Awards Gala, which this year boasted a Grease theme. More than 400 guests showed up for the sock hop event decked out in bobby socks and tennis shoes, Pink Lady Sandy satin jackets, and polka dot dresses.

Reminiscing on old times, attendees perused the more than 80 silent auction items and snapped selfies of their epic costumes. Legendary Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise was spotted among the crowd.

As for the silent auction, the live event brought in more than $600,000 for Be An Angel, which aims to improve the quality of life for children with multiple disabilities or profound deafness by providing needed adaptive equipment and select services.

Hot items up for grabs included three European trips and a rare bottle of Old Van Winkle 10 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey that sold for $11,000. The Wine & Whiskey Pull of more than 176 bottles sold out within 30 minutes.

Event chairs Dot and Walter Cunningham joined dinner chairs were The Honorable Dan Patrick and Mrs. Jan Patrick. Emcee Sam Malone introduced Be An Angel’s executive director, Marti Boone, who presented the 2022 Angel Award to Oticon, a technology company that provides hearing technology for the special needs children Be An Angel services. Oticon’s director, Dr. Laura Shiplet was on hand to accept the award.

After a sumptuous dinner, guests were treated to the swing and rockabilly stylings of the award-winning dance troupe Dance Force.

Seen getting their ’50s on were: Paul and Kristina Somerville, Dr. Laura Shiplett, Dr. Mandy Weydeck, Judy and Ron Girotto, Marissa and Chris Kiefer, Dan Pastorini and Pam Morse, Judy and Chuck Cauthorn, Bob and Michele Chiste, George and Jan Pilko, Ray and Veronica Solcher, Steve and Mary Schmidt, Joel and Sunshine Rogers, Ann and Ron Bennett, Jessica Forsdick, Bob and Glenna Leonard, Bruce and Beth Leonard, Cary and Veronica Benson, Ross and Lisa Astramecki, Chuck and Judy Cauthorn, and Jerry Dearing.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Iconic Texas 'cowboy-style' BBQ joint's Katy outpost closure leads week's top stories

this week's hot headlines

Editor's note: It's time to recap the top stories on CultureMap from this past week.

1. Iconic Texas 'cowboy-style' barbecue joint's Katy location quietly closes. Sadly, the local outpost couldn't replicate the magic of the original in Llano.

2. Ken Hoffman urges Houston travelers to keep calm and enjoy the trip at the new-look Bush IAH. Our columnist explains why travelers might be in "for a big, pleasant surprise at Houston’s Bush-Intercontinental Airport."

3. Houston's most spectacular winter light shows and events dazzle for the holidays. We rounded up where to see dazzling lights with family, friends, and visitors.

4. Disgraced Theranos CEO and former Houstonian Elizabeth Holmes sentenced to 11 years for fraud. Additionally, Holmes faces a fine of $400 million.

5. Houston's NASA leaders 'giddy' after historic Artemis 1 moon flyby. The spacecraft cruised just 81 miles above the lunar surface.

Disney's Strange World is a visual stunner with too many story ideas

Movie Review

For a studio whose entire reason for being seems to rely on creating and sustaining familiar characters, Walt Disney Animation takes its fair share of risks. In the last 10 years, it has released nine films, seven of which were not based on pre-existing properties (the other two were sequels for two of those seven). That’s a lot of new stuff, most of which has succeeded mightily for the perennially-popular leaders in animation.

They’re at it again with Strange World, which takes place in an unknown country/world known as Avalonia, where Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is a famous explorer whose only desire is to find a way over, around, or through the imposing mountains surrounding the land. His son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), doesn’t share his enthusiasm, and an early discovery by Searcher of a unique energy source leads to a rift between father and son. Jaeger continues onwards, while Searcher returns home with a plant they call Pando that creates harmony throughout the land.

Years later, when the plant shows signs of failure, Searcher is recruited by Avalonia leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) to help in an expedition to find the source of whatever is attacking Pando. What they and others – including Searcher’s wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) – find in their travels certainly lives up to the title.

Co-directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen and written by Nguyen, the film is a visual stunner. The quality of animation in Disney movies rarely fails to impress, and Strange World is the latest and greatest example. Whether it’s the humans, the landscape, or the innumerable weird creatures that populate the film, there is almost nothing that doesn’t deserve to be stared at and admired.

It’s odd, then, that the story does not come close to matching the graphics. There are a variety of reasons for this failure. Nguyen is the sole credited writer, and he stuffs the film full of big and small ideas, probably too many for this type of project. Searcher’s family and the world of Avalonia and beyond are diverse in multiple ways, to the point that it feels like Nguyen was trying to include everything he could think of in case he never got another shot.

The bigger sin, though, is how quickly the film advances through its plot, often bringing up new things out of nowhere. While Searcher and his family make for an interesting group, the side characters never make an impact. There are also multiple instances where the story takes a turn that makes no sense, either in the world of the film or a storytelling manner.

This includes the final act of the film, which features a significant twist that is presented and accepted in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. It adds on yet another message in a movie that contains a lot of them, but in a way that even those inclined to believe in what it’s trying to say may wonder why that part is there at all.

The science fiction element of Strange World is a bonanza for the filmmakers and animators to go as wild as they wanted in the visual department. But all that splendor is in service of a story that just doesn’t measure up, making it one of Disney’s less successful offerings in recent years.

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Strange World is now playing in theaters.

Photo courtesy of Disney

Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), and Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) in Strange World

Affluent Houston suburb leads region for highest holiday spending budgets in U.S.

Santa Baby

As the most wonderful time of the year approaches, holiday shopping budgets are in the spotlight, and a study from WalletHub lists Sugar Land as one of the top cities where Santa doesn't need a whole lot of help.

According to the personal finance website, the average holiday budget in Sugar Land is $2,793 per person, the 15th highest in the nation. As CultureMap previously reported, Sugar Land residents here make an average of $123,261; the average home price is $337,600.

Fittingly, Fort Bend, home to Sugar Land, was recently named the second-richest county in Texas.

As for Greater Houston, Santa's bag could be a mixed bag, with three suburbs in the top 100, but the urban center falling far behind:

  • Sugar Land, No. 15, $2,793
  • Pearland, No. 36, $2,172
  • The Woodlands, No. 71, $1,733
  • Houston, No. 366, $890

Each year, WalletHub calculates the maximum holiday budget for over 550 U.S. cities "to help consumers avoid post-holiday regret," the website says. The study factors in income, age of the population, and other financial indicators such as debt-to-income ratio, monthly-income-to monthly-expenses ratio and savings-to-monthly-expenses ratio.

Despite nationwide focus on inflation strains, holiday spending is expected to be healthy, and higher than last year.

"The seeming social upheaval in recent times may lead households to spend more in an attempt to take some control of the environment which they can control," says Robert Wright, University of Illinois, Springfield professor emeritus who was among five experts consulted for advice about holiday shopping.

Elsewhere in Texas, 10 North Texas cities landed in this year's top 100 heftiest holiday budgets:

  • Flower Mound, No. 3, $3,531 (The only Texas city in the top 10)
  • Allen, No. 17 , $2,670
  • Frisco, No. 37, $2,150
  • McKinney, No. 45, $2,070
  • Plano, No. 50, $1,999
  • Carrollton, No. 55, $1,837
  • Richardson, No. 58, $1,823
  • North Richland Hills, No. 81, $1,658
  • Lewisville, No. 90, $1,630
  • Fort Worth, No. 366, $890
  • Dallas, No. 401, $845

Spending in the Austin area won't be ho-hum with the Capitol City's budget of $1,705 ranked at No. 78. Two Austin suburbs, Cedar Park (budget $2,855) and League City (budget $2,541) ranked 14 and 20, respectively.

Things don't look too jolly for San Antonio, ranked at No. 431 with an average budget of $803 or Pharr, which was the lowest ranked city in Texas.

At No. 553 with a budget of $487, the Rio Grande Valley city came in just a few spots ahead of last place Hartford, CT with a budget of only $211.