Denise Truscello / DeniseTruscello.net
Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015 | 11:57 p.m.
It was a glittering and glamorous gala, and honoree Debbie Allen of “Fame” notoriety was cool as a cucumber as she was praised and lauded as Woman of the Year — but she almost didn’t make it.
Debbie was determined to get to the 31st annual Nevada Ballet Theater Black and White Gala, which is the Las Vegas social event of the year at Aria. It meant a whirlwind travel schedule flying in from Chicago where she is directing the new Fox series Empire and flying back immediately after the ceremony.
“Empire” is the new musical drama TV series that debuted Jan. 7 starring Oscar nominees Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. In just three episodes, Debbie’s new series has become a ratings hit watched by 11 million TV viewers.
Winter snow and ice conditions in the Windy City where Debbie is filming not only threatened the schedule, but also the entire timetable. Past NBT honorees have included Elaine Wynn, the first in 1985; Phyllis McGuire, 1994; Debbie Reynolds, 2001; Celine Dion, 2004; Rita Rudner, 2006; Paula Abdul, 2007; Bette Midler, 2009; Marie Osmond, 2010; Priscilla Presley, 2011; Mitzi Gaynor, 2013; and last year Florence Henderson.
Five hundred Las Vegas VIPs turned out in gorgeous gowns and tailored tuxedos for the fun and fashionable ball annually described as the creme de la creme of Las Vegas society events. It certainly marks the highest status of sophistication. Youngsters who study ballet danced their way into the Ironwood Ballroom escorting Debbie to her near-stage table where husband former L.A. Lakers star Norm Nixon was waiting.
Surprise guest Motown records founder Berry Gordy Jr. was there with his daughter, Sherry, to salute Debbie. He’d flown in earlier to watch her show at Boulder Station and receive her proclamation from Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman. Former Supremes singer Mary Wilson stopped by the top table to hug them all.
Our thanks to Denise Truscello, who captured the Woman of the Year celebrations with Debbie, former Stratosphere headliner Frankie Moreno at solo piano and Desmond Richardson, former principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Christian Kolberg and radio DJ Chet Buchanan handled the auction and live-music fundraising efforts.
Debbie’s sister actress Phylicia Rashad was the honorary chairwoman of the glitzy gathering also attended by Miss America chief Sam Haskell, who used to be Debbie’s Hollywood agent. Also at the gala: reality-TV star Holly Madison, Miss Teen Nevada Amy Smith, Olympic champion ice skater Oksana Baiul with producer Carlo Farina, Venetian and Palazzo President Rob Goldstein and hotel honchos Bobby Baldwin with wife Audra, who is VP of NBT’s Nevada Board of Trustees, and Bill Weidner with wife Lynn, who was the dinner co-chair.
The gala also marked the first-ever Nancy Award, an etched Lalique crystal statuette of a dancer in flight, presented to Las Vegas executive Diana Bennett, CEO of Paragon Gaming, for her charitable contributions to NBT and youth and women’s organizations throughout the valley, including our beloved Opportunity Village. Diana and Paragon are developing and managing the Riviera, among other North American casino properties.
NBT now in its 43rd season was co-founded by Las Vegas luminary Nancy Houssels. The dancers will celebrate her 80th birthday on Feb. 21 at their Smith Center home with a special performance including guest artists from American Ballet Theater and Pacific Northwest Ballet, with excerpts from “Swan Lake” staged by Cynthia Gregory and a world-premiere performance choreographed by artistic director James Canfield with Frankie and acclaimed street-dancer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley.
Debbie’s amazing career has spanned three decades and earned her three Emmy Awards and five NAACP Image Awards. A videomontage of her remarkable achievements, including “Fame” in 1980, was played.
President George H.W. Bush appointed her to represent the United States as a cultural ambassador of dance. She has been artist-in-residence at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for 15 years. A remarkable series of achievements for a creative force in entertainment who was rejected the first time she tried to sign up at a Texas dance academy because of her color. Today, her nonprofit Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles is flourishing since its 2001 launch.
I sat opposite Berry and Debbie and chatted with her over dessert about the meaning of the Woman of the Year Award. She told me:
“There is a real cultural spine in Las Vegas that is flowering and expanding the possibilities for young people, and that is most of my life right now. That they are recognizing me and all the many years, it means we are in parallel. I’m not doing it in a bigger way as Nevada Ballet Theater, but I do it in my own way. It’s a tremendous honor for me; it really is. The Woman of the Year is something; it’s a responsibility.
“I’m dying to come here to the Smith Center and do something. I hope you’ll invite me to come and bring my dancers. I know it’s an incredible theater and supporting the arts in the Las Vegas community beautifully. I saw the opening concert special on PBS and have seen all the photos. I go everywhere in the world, but Las Vegas is really my back yard, so I would love to be here.
“The flowers are blooming; that’s what’s important here. Also, people need to know more about Nevada Ballet Theater. Your dancers are beautiful, as they have all shown tonight. It’s art. It is transformative, and we don’t have enough of it. Las Vegas is really in so many ways the Entertainment Capital of the World. I know we have Broadway, but there are no shows like the shows in Las Vegas anywhere else in the world. I’m still mesmerized by ‘Ka.’
“I flew in this afternoon. I almost didn’t make it because of the weather. I think that I made it with less than an hour from the airport to the dinner. I’m directing ‘Empire’ in Chicago, and it’s a brutal schedule. I didn’t even have time to make a lunchtime call to you last week. Now I’ve got to fly right back. I’m hoping that the snow doesn’t shut me out. They were really worried I was leaving town, but I said to everybody with the TV show, ‘Look, I’ve gotta go to Las Vegas, but I’ll be back.’ I’m so proud of this tonight. I am taking the award and the gifts back to Chicago to show them all.”
Debbie has proven over the years that she is an artistic tour de force, and she didn’t disappoint at her Woman of the Year gala. She’s still got all the moves, discipline and enthusiasm from “Fame” that made her a worldwide phenomenon.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.