Imagine yourself in the 1920s, when the Hialeah Park Race Track was founded. The pistol snaps, and thoroughbreds race dramatically around the track. The crowd claps and hoots as the horses sprint. At the afterparty, flappers dance to snappy jazz music, partiers sway while holding cocktails, and the opulent ambiance channels The Great Gatsby.
That's the vibe planned for the 2017 Flamingo Ball. With the theme "The Roaring Twenties," the inaugural fundraiser for HistoryMiami’s educational programming at the Hialeah Park Race Track will offer a look at Miami's VIP scene from decades past — and reinstate one of its most famous VIP parties.
The Hialeah track opened in the mid-1920s as a greyhound racing track and then forayed into thoroughbred racing in the 1930s after a brief period when it was outlawed. The builder of the track, Joseph E. Widener, imported the first flamboyance of flamingos to Miami from Cuba in 1934. The birds were hatched and raised at the track, and today the location is considered a National Audubon Sanctuary. Paul S. George, resident historian at HistoryMiami, says Winston Churchill even visited Hialeah to paint a portrait of the flamingos when he accepted an honorary degree at the University of Miami in 1946.
George grew up in Miami and went to the racetrack when he was a boy. “The flamingos would drive people crazy; they were the most exotic thing imaginable to tourists. The Florida East Coast Railway even built a spur to take people to see the flamingos.”
Inspired by the pink birds, the annual Flamingo Ball was first held in 1965 on the eve of the Flamingo Stakes horserace at Hialeah. The event took place at the peak of the social and tourist seasons. “There was dinner, dancing, a drawing to raise money for charities, awards. It was black tie, and it was lavish,” George says. Social elites such as Jacqueline Kennedy, Harry Guggenheim, Marylou and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, and Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower attended the event.
The track was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. It was around this time that the annual Flamingo Ball events ended. George cites financial troubles and administrative shuffling for the lapse.
But the Flamingo Ball is back this year, reviving old traditions such as the Henry Flagler Award, named for the industrialist who extended the Florida East Coast Railway to Miami and led to its development. At the 2017 event, the award will go to Bob Dickinson, former CEO of Carnival Cruise Line, and Brian Keeley, president and CEO of Baptist Health South Florida.
Guests at the Flamingo Ball will enjoy a multicourse meal by candlelight, an open bar with champagne and signature cocktails, live performances, jazz dancing, and an awards ceremony hosted by journalist Cynthia Demos. Ticket prices are steep (from $250 per individual to $30,000 for a Diamond Flamingo Presenting Sponsor), but the proceeds benefit HistoryMiami’s educational programming, which includes an upcoming hands-on class about South Florida history, led by George. He will also speak at the Flamingo Ball. Attire is black tie or, if you’d like to truly immerse yourself in the spirit of the Jazz Age, 1920s-inspired.
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The Flamingo Ball
Saturday, January 14, at Hialeah Park, 2200 E. Fourth Ave., Hialeah. Tickets cost $250 to $30,000. Visit historymiami.org/event/flamingo-ball-a-toast-to-the-roaring-20s.