The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 6, 2014

Celebrity Night fundraiser

Beckley residents dine at eateries to feed charities

By Brandi Underwood
Register-Herald Reporter

— It isn’t every day that you can order a New York strip steak with a Glock pistol on the side, but Beckley Police Chief Lonnie Christian took his role as a public servant to a new level last night for the 26th annual Celebrity Night.

Christian may have been off duty, but he topped his work attire with an apron and grabbed refills as an honorary waiter at Black Knight County Club for the yearly fundraising event. Hosted by 10 local restaurants — Black Knight, Boston Beanery, Calacino’s, El Mariachi, Foster’s Tavern, Fujiyama, Outback Steakhouse, Pasquale’s, The Dish Cafe and Beckley Moose Lodge — the iconic event calls for local “celebrities” to wait tables and pull a double shift for a good cause.

“This is a very difficult job, especially carrying the liquids,” Christian admitted. “It’s all new to me, but it’s gone good so far.”

He joked that the presence of his pistol may help his mission to draw hefty tips from diners, 100 percent of which will benefit the United Way of Southern West Virginia and the Women’s Resource Center.

At Foster’s Tavern, members of the Beckley Area Derby Dames also elevated the restaurant experience by delivering artichoke dip and burger platters on their roller skates as patrons filled the street for a “block party” atmosphere.

From face painting to a dunking booth, Foster’s offered fun for the whole family while continuing the legacy started 26 years ago by Celebrity Night founders Debbie Short, Judy Harrah and Susan Landis.

Short, the first director of the Women’s Resource Center after its establishment in 1983, said she was inspired to launch Celebrity Night in Beckley after seeing the fundraiser hosted by another nonprofit organization.

She inquired how she would go about organizing a similar event, and the organization mailed her a guidebook detailing its planning process, she said.

The rest, they say, is history.

“Foster’s is the only restaurant that has participated from the very beginning,” said Short. “It’s a whole lot different now, and that’s good. I think things need to change and grow.”

For many years, the evening’s largest money magnet was an autographed apron — boasting the names of all the “celebrities” who participated that year — which was auctioned off at the end of the night.

“If someone spent $150 for that apron, that was huge,” Harrah said. “Now, restaurants get competitive with ways to raise additional funds aside from just tips.”

From raffles to auctions, each restaurant and its business partners come up with their own ways to raise money. A Foster’s raffle boasted round-trip tickets for two to Myrtle Beach, and The Dish Cafe teamed with Raleigh General Hospital, Shear Style and 105.9 WTNJ to raffle off tech gifts like Bluetooth speakers and universal charging pads.

Devin Billeter, owner and operator of The Dish, said the restaurant’s events were “bigger and better” than last year’s.

“Last year, The Dish had only been open for about three months when we hopped on board for Celebrity Night,” Billeter said. “We’ve come a long way since this time last year, so we felt an even bigger need to give back to the community.”

The Dish donated 10 percent of all of Monday’s sales to the United Way and Women’s Resource Center, as well as all of the tips generated over the course of the evening.

As Cinco de Mayo and Celebrity Night merged at El Mariachi in Beaver, so did the crowds. Owner Jose Rizo said Cinco de Mayo is already one of his busiest nights of the year, so pairing the holiday with Celebrity Night could very well be the edge they needed to finally take the top spot vacated by reigning champ Bunker’s.

Business partners Chase Bank and Beckley Newspapers sported sombreros and kept the margaritas flowing for the festive occasion, which drew a lively crowd all evening long.

Mary Ann and Richard Foster showed up to support longtime friend and “celebrity” Nancy Kissinger, but admitted that they probably would have been there even if it wasn’t Celebrity Night.

“We try to always support anything that the United Way is involved with,” said Richard. “It’s almost like killing two birds with one stone since it’s also Cinco de Mayo.”

Mike Mays, a “celebrity” with Chase Bank, wouldn’t comment on whether he thought El Mariachi was going to win, but did say the timing was pretty perfect in order to draw a large patronage.

“Everyone is a winner tonight,” Mays said, in good sportsmanship.

With past Celebrity Nights earning upward of $35,000 to $40,000, event organizer Margaret Ann O’Neal, executive director of the United Way of Southern West Virginia, said she is optimistic that this may be the biggest year yet.

“We have not been anywhere tonight that hasn’t been crowded,” O’Neal said. “It’s going to be a close one.”

The official winner and donation totals compiled from tips, raffles and auctions will be announced Monday.

— E-mail: bunderwood@