Story by Angie Fenton
Photography by Larry Birkhead
Sets, flowers and draping by David Williams of Magnolias and Events LLC.
Chair courtesy of Manhattan on Broadway.
There are less than two months before Kentucky Derby 144, but Tricia Barnstable Brown is “feeling fabulous.”
On May 4, the grande dame of Derby galas will welcome hundreds of guests to the 30th annual Barnstable Brown Gala, which she hosts in her opulent Highlands home with her twin Priscilla “Cyb” Barnstable and son Christopher Barnstable-Brown.
“Everybody is so excited that it is the 30th!” cooed Tricia, flipping her signature waist-length blonde hair with a laugh. “When you’ve been doing it for 30 years, you really get all the kinks worked out. We have a great team, a great guest list and celebrities that love to come back.”
Tricia’s first gala – held three decades ago – started simply enough: “The big parties were in Lexington. There were no big Derby parties in Louisville,” Tricia explained.
Businesswoman and activist Anita Madden’s over-the-top Lexington soirees became infamous annual affairs. “In past years, a fig leaf has been considered overdressing at this annual tribute to the rich and bored horse-around set,” The Washington Post claimed in 1979.
Philanthropist Marylou Whitney hosted a Derby Eve party in Lexington that the New York Times coined “the classiest in town” in 1987.
“So, I decided that I was going to have a small little fundraiser for diabetes – it ran in my husband’s family. I wasn’t sure if anyone would come, and I hoped to raise some money because I just thought it’d be a good idea to have a Derby party in Louisville, call me crazy,” Tricia laughed. “And it just took off.”
The first celebrities to attend included Dixie Carter, Hal Holbrook, Patrick Duffy, Greg Louganis, Dick Van Patten and Lloyd Bridges. (When Academy Award-winning actor Jeff Bridges attended the party in 2017 Tricia told him, “Your dad came and he helped put us on the map.”)
Eventually, Marylou and Anita stopped hosting Derby parties, and Marylou contacted Tricia: “She said, ‘I would love to bring my stars and come to your party.’ She brought Joan Rivers and Susan Lucci. I was so honored and amazed at the generosity and graciousness and the grandeur. Still am.”
Over the years, the Barnstable Brown Gala has become known for hosting celebrities from all walks of life: reality stars, professional athletes, actors, business magnates, TV personalities and musicians. Oh, the musicians!
“We always had a house band (made up of local musicians),” explained Tricia, “and my very first singing celebrity that started this celebrity singing extravaganza was (actor) John Goodman. He came up and asked, ‘Would it be OK if I sang?’ And he took off and did Blues Brothers and the other stars got up and it became this tradition.”
Guests never know who will step on stage until it happens organically (there’s a reason Sports Illustrated once named the gala the “Best Party to Crash” and offered a list of tips). Performers could include Kid Rock and Stevie Nicks followed by Rod Stewart and Miranda Lambert. Or Josh Groban and Archie and Eli Manning. One year, Janet Jackson attended, though she didn’t perform. At another gala, boy band NSYNC hopped on stage and took over. Another favorite memory of Tricia’s occurred when Tom Brady and Peyton Manning threw mini footballs into the crowd from the stage. “They were throwing rockets!” she giggled.
Stacey Robinson, Kentucky Derby Festival executive vice president/chief of staff, has worked with Tricia for more than 15 years, coordinating and co-hosting celebrities. “It amazes me how much energy and effort she continues to put into the planning of her party,” Robinson said. “It continues to be a spectacle, as evidenced by the droves of people who camp out in front of her home year after year. I believe it offers a glimpse into the celebrity sphere of Derby that many people wouldn’t otherwise be able to enjoy.”
Rain or shine, hundreds of spectators gather on the lawn at 1700 Spring Drive every Derby Eve to watch the parade of celebrities, which are announced over a speaker system by long-time emcee Larry Bisig, along with local notables like Teresa Bachman (“She comes every year”), Jonathan Blue, Mayor (Greg) Fischer and Bruce Lunsford (“He’s one of our most fun guests”).
One year, the guest who received the loudest cheers was Louisville native Larry Birkhead, who became famous after proving he was the father of the late Anna Nicole Smith’s daughter Dannielynn and winning custody and the right to fly her from the Bahamas to his Kentucky home.
“It was the story of the moment,” recalled Tricia.
“Larry’s like my best friend,” she added, though he wasn’t always.
Larry – who photographed Tricia for this story – was a member of the press whose photography and articles were published in numerous national entertainment magazines.
“I remember the first time I called to cover the party as a journalist, Tricia hung up on me,” he said. “I called the next year, she hung up on me again. I think about the third year, I sent her some of my work that was published in national publications and finally got press access. It kind of felt like getting the ‘golden ticket’ to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Now she just tells me about all the other people she hangs up on trying to get in. It’s a hard ticket to come by!”
Years later, when Larry met Anna Nicole Smith at the gala, “it was a life changing event for me. … I tell everyone about the party wherever I go. There aren’t many parties where you can listen to Miranda Lambert belt out a tune on stage while doing a shot with Kid Rock then walk past Janet Jackson and bump into Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, while Michael Jordan is talking to Usher.
“Tricia never stops with party planning,” Larry added. “You can be with her riding in the car and a song comes on the radio, and I am thinking about the lyrics and all the while, she is thinking of someone to add to her celebrity invite list.”
But it’s about far more than the celebrity for Tricia.
The cruel irony of the backstory to the Barnstable Brown Gala is that two years after the party was started to benefit the battle against diabetes, Tricia’s husband David was diagnosed with the disease. “It took his life,” she said quietly, wiping away a few tears. “It’s very personal, and it’s very important to us to donate.”
And they have.
Over the past 12 years – thanks to the gala – more than $13.8 million has been donated to the University of Kentucky Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center (there’s also an endowed chair at the University of Louisville and donations have been made to the American Diabetes Association).
“I have to say selfishly that it in the beginning, it was always more like either work or just a party to me,” said Larry. “Then a few years back, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and I had a whole new appreciation for the event. When you think about all the hard work that it takes to raise the millions of dollars that it has to help find a cure for diabetes, it is a gigantic feat.”
It’s also a mission.
Tricia and her family – including her mother Wilma “Willie” Barnstable – are actively involved at the UK center and have had the opportunity to meet people who are benefiting from the Derby Eve affair. That includes clinics set up “all over eastern Kentucky (for people) who don’t have the resources for top quality care – and we’re able to provide it.” There also was a monumental expansion that occurred at the center in late 2017.
“I have a picture of the ribbon cutting,” said Tricia as she held out a photograph in her hand. Several members of the Barnstable Brown family were present, which meant a lot, but – she added, again choking back tears – “there’s a family also in the picture: an amazing father, a 10-year-old, a four-year-old and a mom, and they all have diabetes. When the father stood up and thanked me for helping him and his children–” Tricia stopped for a moment. “There’s so many moving and important things (that have evolved from the Barnstable Brown Gala) that we keep to ourselves, but we know that there’s a legacy.”
So, what comes next? Is the 30th anniversary the culmination of what has been three decades of success and excess and celebrities and saving lives?
“I’ve been doing this for so long, I feel like it’s part of my life,” Tricia said before pausing for a moment to look away to contemplate the question.
Then, she turned back and smiled widely. “It has become part of my life. I don’t know how to stop.”