PALMETTO -- For the past 16 years, the American Cancer Society has held a gala in the Bradenton area. The event has always drawn hundreds of people, but this year was an unprecedented success Saturday night at Feld Entertainment World headquarters in Palmetto.
"This is the first time we've ever sold out," said Emily Karr, cancer society development manager for distinguished events.
About 450 people paid $250 apiece for the black-tie optional Big Top Gala. A Feld spokeswoman said people showed up hoping to buy tickets, but had to be turned away.
Early tallies estimated the gala raised more than $250,000 for pediatric cancer programs in a five-county area. (Manatee, Sarasota, Highlands, Hardee and DeSoto.)
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Tickets sales alone accounted for more than $100,000. Auctions and sales of circus-themed items added to the figure.
It was just the second year the cancer society has partnered with Feld, and Karr said the partnership and opportunity to hold the event in Feld's massive headquarters was a key element of the gala's success this year.
"Most of the galas you go to in town, you're so limited," she said. "You're in a ballroom or something and there isn't a lot of space. I think the mystery of Feld Entertainment being in Palmetto made a difference. People have been wanting to see what's behind these walls."
State Rep. Greg Steube and his wife, Jennifer, were Big Top Gala co-chairs for the second year Saturday at Feld Entertainment headquarters. Steube said he's been a supporter of cancer programs in his personal life and in the Legislature.
"It's a natural fit for us," he said. "The Felds have been great partners."
Last year's Big Top Gala at Dolphin Aviation in Clearwater drew about 300 people. In previous years, when Feld was not involved, the event was called the Cattle Baron's Ball.
Before dinner, guests could try on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus costumes, or sign the American Cancer Society's Crush Cancer monster truck with the names of loved ones who had succumbed to or overcome cancer.
Circus acts -- an acrobatic clown and a aerial dancer -- were among the highlights of the evening's entertainment.
Besides partnering with the cancer society for the gala, Feld Entertainment supports cancer research with $10,000 donations to a hospital in every city the Ringling Brothers circus travels to, plus a matching $10,000 for cancer research that involves the elephants at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Canter for Elephant Conservation in Polk County.
Elephants rarely have cancer, and a researcher from Salt Lake City takes blood samples from the Ringling elephants to try to figure out why. An animated presentation at the gala documented the progress he's made. (It has to do with specific cancer-crushing genes elephants have many more of than humans.)
Almost all gala guests were grownups. One exception was 10-year-old Matthew DeSantis of Palmetto.
When he was 5, he was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. After three and half years of chemotherapy, blood transfusions and other treatments, Matthew's healthy again and attending school with friends. And he has a full head of hair.
"He's ready to get back to being a kid again," said his mother, Donna DeSantis.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.