Story by Steve Kaufman
Photos by Frankie Steele
Larry Bisig doesn’t go to the Oaks anymore.
The Friday of Derby weekend is a long day for him and too much of a rush coming home from Churchill Downs only to head right out again to the Barnstable Brown Gala in his neighborhood.
Then again, Bisig doesn’t go to the Barnstable Brown party anymore either. Not technically.
Bisig, a Louisville businessman – CEO of Bisig Impact Group, a marketing and branding agency – has become the voice of the celebrated Derby party put on by twin sisters Priscilla (Cyb) Barnstable and Patricia (Tricia) Barnstable Brown at Tricia’s home on Spring Drive.
He’s the one with the microphone, standing in the tent at the foot of the driveway, who announces to the gathered crowd, “Here’s Tom Brady, quarterback of the world-champion New England Patriots,” as each limousine pulls up and disgorges its passengers. (This year, of course, he’ll need to amend that description of Brady.)
Bisig had been on the sisters’ invite list from the party’s beginning in 1987. But 18 years ago, the twins were looking to expand the party celebration to the front lawn since as many as a thousand people had begun to gather outside the house.
Bisig believes his participation began with a conversation between the Barnstable sisters and his brother, Charles, who lives next door to Tricia.
“Knowing that I had a background in communications, he approached me, and I approached them,” he said.
It was a pond of water, and Bisig was the proverbial duck.
“As part of our public relations discipline at the Bisig Group,” he said, “I’m speaking on behalf of clients all the time to the media and doing radio appearances, so I’m comfortable with it.”
Besides, he said, with characteristic self-effacement, “It’s not rocket science.”
Perhaps not. But rocket scientists don’t have to stand before a thousand people on a Friday night in May (in all kinds of weather) from 7 in the evening until about 1 in the morning and never lose their poise. Or their voice. Or their energy. Or their concentration.
If you can imagine crowds of people sprawled out around the intersection, and car after car pulling up to the driveway there’s what he calls “choreographed madness.”
“It’s not unusual to have two or three cars show up at the same time,” he said. “There’s always the fear of missing a guest in the chaos – especially as the evening gets dark – or, worse, misidentifying a guest.”
However, Bisig said they have what he calls a “somewhat organized system” for the police escorts to get the word to his podium about who’s in the next car driving up. So, he’s usually saved the embarrassment of announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Richie Sambora,” when Sammy Hagar gets out of the car.
“It’s been 99 percent mistake-free,” he said.
Though it’s not always mistake-free on the parts of the guests. “I’ve seen them turned down or delayed because they didn’t have their ticket,” he said. “Everybody has to have a ticket. The president of the United States couldn’t get in without a ticket.”
Tickets are upwards of $1,000 each – $2,750 for a seat at the VIP table. Who doesn’t remember the last $2,750 ticket they forgot to put in their pockets?
Bisig said he bought into his role because he approved of the twins’ intention: not only to provide a special welcome to the guests “that they don’t receive even at the Oscars or the Grammies,” he said, but also to be inclusive of the Louisville community at large.
“It’s its own little universe down near the gate,” Bisig said of his domain, “and a gesture on the sisters’ part to let everybody in the neighborhood have a little fun.”
He shows up at party central just as people are arriving in the late afternoon, with lawn chairs or blankets, for a glimpse of the party’s guests. Those guests are dropped off at the bottom of the driveway, on the curb at Spring Drive near Cherokee Road, and begin to ascend the driveway, through a gate and into the house.
As they exit their limos and before they go through the gate, Bisig announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Jeff Bridges.” And the crowd appreciatively applauds – or screams and yells, depending on the guest. (He remembered Janet Jackson receiving the most screams about five years ago.)
“When I say, ‘Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers,’ the place goes bonkers,” he explained.
Bisig said the guests are happy to have the attention, and some – like Harry Connick Jr. – work the crowd, like a politician on a rope line, before going inside.
Though Bisig is media-savvy and relaxed in front of microphones, he has avoided doing any banter other than a simple announcement of each party guest’s name. He understands that he’s not the show; the guests are. After 27 years of helping brand names break their way into public consciousness, he knows exactly where the center of attention should lie. (The list of clients at the Bisig Impact Group, located on South Fourth Street across from the Brown Hotel, includes Toyota, Brown-Forman and Norton Healthcare.)
It’s important to note that the event is about more than just showing off who’s in town for Derby. The sisters and their mother, Wilma (Willie), have dedicated the party to raising funds for the Barnstable Brown Diabetes and Obesity Research Center at the University of Kentucky.
Tricia’s husband, Dr. David Brown, suffered from diabetes and died in 2003. He was a co-founder and host of the Derby event until his passing. Son Christopher Barnstable-Brown now flies in from New York to serve as co-host.
“They’ve raised millions of dollars,” Bisig said. “It’s not just a party.”
Because of the connection to UK, Bisig said that Wildcat athletes get special recognition. Randall Cobb, John Wall, Julius Randle, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis, Terrence Jones, Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress have been among the more recent attendees. John Calipari is an almost-yearly guest. (The Barnstables’ father, Dale, was a member of Kentucky’s “Fabulous Five” national basketball champions in 1948 and 1949.) But Louisville athletes, like Teddy Bridgewater, Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and Lamar Jackson, also show up in force.
Bisig takes his job so seriously that he has set up a succession plan. He has brought in Lawrence Bisig, the oldest of his three sons, to take a turn at the microphone. “I’ll pass it over to him some day,” Bisig said.
Not until the very end, once the last guest has entered, will Bisig run inside “and help myself to a plate of food.” By then, it’s 1 a.m. Of course, the room has far from emptied out. There’s still the opportunity to insult Kid Rock, as Bisig inadvertently did one time.
“I’d come in for some food and found myself standing next to him,” Bisig recalled. “I asked him if I could get a shot.”
Bisig meant a photograph, but in Kid Rock’s dictionary, the first definition of “a shot” is something to drink.
“So, he brought over a tray and told me to help myself,” he said. “I don’t drink hard liquor, so I turned his offer down. And he became ‘insulted’ – though in a fun way. He said, ‘Hey, we’re in Kentucky, man – what’s wrong with you? I thought you said you wanted a shot?’”
While Bisig has volunteered himself right out of the party itself, he said, “It’s an honor to be out front.”
He recalls some of the most memorable guests: Gregory Peck, George Foreman and Fleetwood Mac.
“Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was there around the time we invaded Iraq (in 2003),” Bisig recalled. “That was something.”
The guests take notice of Bisig, too. “Travis Tritt has become one of my favorites,” he said. “He always comes over and says hello. He recognizes me now, which is fun.”
The party brings together a group of people from all walks of life: sports, TV, movies, music, business and politics. Once they’ve come, he said, most of them come back every year.
“They wouldn’t consider going to the Derby without coming to the party,” he said. “It’s that unique. That’s the magic of it, and these folks have been to every party that’s ever been. They invest their time and money to make sure they’re there on Derby Eve at a home right here in Bonnycastle.”
In fact, Bisig believes, the house itself is one of the biggest stars of the night. “It’s such a beautiful home in a picturesque setting,” he said. “And when it’s all lit up for the party, it has a gingerbread/Walt Disney look to it. The curb appeal is over-the-top.”
An event of this magnitude doesn’t just happen, of course. Bisig explained that it’s, “a pretty incredible achievement on the part of the sisters and their mother to create such a thing. You can’t believe the amount of work they put into it. They go all year long, arranging for catering, security, guest-procurement.”
The hardest part is making sure the high-end guests are there. “The A-listers attract the CEOs, and everyone else falls into line,” he said. “It’s not just the Hollywood types from out of town, but also the who’s-who of Louisville. It’s the gold ticket.”
8 to 10 a.m. – Wake up. Walk one mile.
10 a.m. to 12 noon – Get sons situated with tickets and betting money. They depart for the track.
12 to 2 p.m. – Nap.
2 to 4 p.m. – Visit Morris Deli. Acquire ham and swiss sandwich and daily racing forms.
4 to 5 p.m. – Visit Barnstable Brown house’s curbside podium for sound check.
5 to 6 p.m. – Contact each son at Churchill Downs; ensure that all is well.
6 to 7 p.m. – Watch Oaks at home.
7 to 7:30 p.m. – Shower and get ready.
7:30 p.m. – Make “the walk” down to Barnstable Brown house. Receive light applause from gathered crowd as they realize I’m the “Sound Guy.”
7:45 p.m. – Start announcing guest arrivals.
1 a.m. – Start announcing guest departures.
3:30 a.m. – Depart party and take melancholy walk up Cherokee Road. Take in the smell of spring thick in the air.
3:45am – Hit the sack; rest for Derby.
9 a.m. – Up for Derby Day.
10 a.m. – Get dressed.
11 a.m. – Handicap the day’s races.
12 p.m. – Select Derby pick at Derby Altar.
1 p.m. – Depart for Churchill Downs with three sons, sister and brother-in-law.
1:30 p.m. – Distribute tickets to family.
8 p.m. – Dinner at Big Springs Country Club.
10 p.m. – Hit the sack!
Hints for Newbies at Churchill Downs
No heels; foot comfort is essential.
Don’t drink too early or it’s a long day.
Set your DVR.
Parking will run you $50 in a yard near the track.
Take Monday off!