Inside the Barnstable Brown Gala with Southern Indiana’s Chris Hughes and Brent Rogers.
By Angie Fenton | Photographs by Tony Bennett
For nearly three decades, Patricia “Tricia” Barnstable Brown and her sister Priscilla Barnstable have hosted a star-studded Derby Eve party that’s known from coast to coast. The Barnstable Brown Gala, which takes place at Tricia’s Louisville home, has raised millions of dollars for diabetes research while also attracting celebrities – and media – from around the globe to the River City.
Those who are lucky enough to attend the always-sold out bash walk away with memories and stories of mingling with some of the biggest celebrities from the entertainment, sports, business and reality TV worlds, many of whom perform on stage, in one fashion or another, during the Friday night affair.
What most people don’t know is that much of the production of the world’s biggest Derby Eve gala now rests in the hands of lifelong Southern Indiana residents, friends and business partners Chris Hughes and Brent Rogers. The co-owners of Sounds Unlimited Productions (SUP), an event production company based in Jeffersonville, are responsible for ensuring guests and attendees enjoy an action-packed evening full of unexpected moments and once-in-a-lifetime musical experiences.
Years ago, “about 11 or 12,” noted designer Vinnie Washaleski brought the duo into the Barnstable Brown Gala mix, Rogers recalled. “He brought us in because Tricia’s (indoor) pool room needed some punch. He saw what we were doing with lighting (at events produced by SUP) and said, ‘I want you guys to make this room cool.’” So they did.
“For us, on this side of the river, it was like, this (party) is what you see on TV and all of the craziness that you see about people gathering outside on the front lawn (to watch celebrities walk the red carpet). That’s all we really knew about it,” Hughes said. “We had such a little, bitty part, but it got us in the door.”
The next year, SUP was invited back to the gala to light the poolroom again. This time, they brought new lights and updated technology, but this time they also helped light the main area of the event. The band – which is made up of musicians from the Kentuckiana area who have to be ready to play just about any song a celebrity guest might want to perform – “loved it,” said Hughes, “and all these top name celebrities, when they came on stage, (for the first time), they were lit well. Instantly, we made a splash.”
But the party had an impact on Rogers and Hughes, too. While the raucous revelry was certainly a main focus of the gala, the purpose – the passion – was to raise money for diabetes research. “We wanted to be a bigger part of it because it had a purpose,” Rogers said. “This was not just some big A-list party. This was a party that meant something.”
Particularly, to Tricia Barnstable Brown, whose husband Dr. David Brown was diagnosed with diabetes in 1989. He died in 2003. In the year’s that followed, Tricia and her family committed themselves to raising even more money to battle the disease, which led to the creation of the Barnstable Brown Kentucky Diabetes and Obesity Center in Lexington. “We’ve donated $10.5 million in the last eight years to our center,” said Tricia, during a recent visit to her gorgeous home on Spring Drive.
About six years ago, Hughes and Rogers decided to keep their costs as low as they could to help the gala raise as much money as possible, but another company came in and promised to put on a bigger, better show. “The bottom line is we were outsold” and weren’t asked to participate in the gala, “but the Monday after Derby, we were rehired,” Rogers said, with a smile.
“It was a learning experience for us,” said Hughes. “Here we were trying to keep it dialed back because it was a nonprofit, but we learned you can take the production value up, make it a better event and it can make more money.”
While the other company promised to increase the production value of the Derby Eve party, “they didn’t,” Rogers said. “We got our hands back on it, took the production value up and they raised more money.”
Happy celebrities and guests equals a better gala equals more money for diabetes research. It also equates to a thrilled party host in Tricia Barnstable Brown. “Chris and Brent are efficient and fabulous. Just fabulous. They get it done. I have a rock solid team,” she said. “I’ve got all the confidence (in them) in the world. If they say something is going to get done, it gets done, which is one of the most important things you can bring.”
A LOOK INSIDE
One of the benefits of producing the exclusive event is getting up close and personal with celebrities. “Do we have stories?” Rogers laughed.
“Yes,” Hughes said, nodding his head. “We have stories.”
Kid Rock is the “most talented person I’ve ever been in the same room with,” he added.
Joey Fatone is one of the nicest. “He can sing anything. He’s so amazingly talented,” Rogers said.
“Guy Fieri was awesome,” Hughes added. So were Brooke Shields and Clay Walker, Gene Simmons, Dierks Bentley, Barry Bonds, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Johnny Gill from New Edition and the list goes on.
One year, Jimmy Fallon, who was a part of the cast of “Saturday Night Live” at that time – “This was before he was Jimmy Fallon,” Rogers said – was asked to perform on stage. They coordinated with the band, and soon, Fallon took the stage to sing “Roadhouse Blues” by the Doors.
“Meanwhile, Brent’s like, ‘Did you know he could sing? Can he sing?’ We had no idea,” Hughes said.
“So, Jimmy Fallon takes the microphone, turns away from the crowd in true Jim Morrison fashion and the band goes into what was about a 10 minute version of ‘Roadhouse Blues.’ At one point, Fallon is just killing it on stage. He’s killing it,” Rogers said. “Fallon is singing with his eyes closed and all of a sudden, Kid Rock comes up on stage, takes a guitar and starts playing. Jimmy Fallon doesn’t know he’s there on stage, and in the middle of the song he’s singing, (Fallon) looks over and says, ‘Holy s—! It’s Kid Rock.’ Of course the place goes crazy. … After the song is over, Jimmy Fallon jumps off the side of the stage, and we never see him again.”
That particular side of the stage had about an 8-foot drop, Hughes said, so they sent security over to make sure he was OK, but he was nowhere to be found. “Monday morning, in (The Courier-Journal), we find out that Jimmy Fallon left with a group of people, went down to a fraternity at (the University of Louisville) and partied all night with them. That was one memorable scenario we will not soon forget. So, we feel like we had a pretty big hand in making Jimmy Fallon who he was,” Rogers said, winking as he laughed.
“It was so Barnstable,” Hughes said. “It’s fun to see stars get starstruck like (Fallon) did.”
The party is “a jam session” without a scheduled lineup, Rogers said. And it’s up to the 12 to 15 members of the SUP crew to keep it flowing, from the red carpet entrances to the lighting to the performances that go on until the wee hours.
“At any one time – and for as much as I love my role in this party, it can be a tad stressful – because we could have Boyz II Men and Kid Rock and Miranda Lambert and they all want to sing next, and it’s up to us to figure it out,” Rogers said.
But it’s not only celebrity guests who get the all-star treatment.
“The girls (Tricia and her sister Priscilla) are so amazing and accommodating to everyone who comes through, and I don’t just mean the celebrities,” Rogers said. “Anyone who’s got a ticket, they’re appreciative of this. And again, it’s in this woman’s house. It’s not at a convention center. The level of cool at this, you want to talk about old Hollywood, I mean here you are showing up in a limousine and walking into someone’s house and they’re having a party in someone’s backyard. It’s pretty phenomenal.”
Though many people and organizations try, Hughes said, “you can’t match what this (gala) is.”
“And we’re just grateful to be a part of it,” Rogers said. “Our job has evolved to whatever the (Barnstable) twins need, we will do it. The team of people, from the caterers to the tent companies to the guys like us to Tricia and (Priscilla’s) team of people, it’s truly amazing. Everyone has the same goal and that is we want to get through this night with no complications and give the twins the best party they could have.”
‘We Sleep Well’
But, eventually, all parties must come to an end, which Hughes and Rogers after Barnstable Brown Gala is over. After all, it’s then time to direct their focus toward the next event – or events, depending on how many they’re producing on a given day – and continuing to grow their business, which they bought in 1997. Their clientele vary from soon-to-be newlyweds and retirees to nonprofit organizations and major corporations, and they’re continually expanding and increasing the technology and services they offer for events large and small.
“Our growth has been organic,” said Rogers. “It’s been slow and sure and trying to do the right thing, which sometimes means making less money, but I know at the end of the day we both sleep well.”
Barnstable Brown Gala
May 1 • Spring Drive in Louisville
This year, Tricia Barnstable Brown and Priscilla Barnstable will host the 27th annual Barnstable Brown Gala at Tricia’s home in Louisville on May 1. The sisters, who first became famous as the Wrigley’s Doublemint Twins, along with their mother, Wilma “Willie” Barnstable, work tirelessly year-round on what has become the major fundraiser for the Barnstable Brown Kentucky Diabetes and Obesity Center located in Lexington, Ky. Since 2008, the Barnstable Brown Foundation has donated $10.5 million to the center.
New Albany resident
Family: Wife Sarah, son Austin, 14, daughter Ali, 13, Toy Australian Shepherds Marley and Scooter, and a bearded dragon named Drover.
Mentor: “We’ve kind of written our book as we come along … but we discover new mentors every year.”
Family: Wife Kim, son Jonathan, 8, daughter Sally, 4, and a hound named Petey, 13.
Mentor: “Chris and I both grew up working in family businesses. I know a lot of my work ethic and my personal panache comes from my dad. A lot of that has served me well.”
Sounds Unlimited Productions
502.693.6089 or 502.523.1333