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An epic birthday party for benefactor James Armstrong

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

It started with a card. It ended with a dance. And, in between, an epic birthday party.

Mega-benefactor James Armstrong turned 80 this week. His partner, Larry Connelly, started planning the salute to his eight decades five years ago. You could see the results last week at the Driskill Hotel.

Start with the David Kurio flower arrangements. Truckloads of orchids, roses, peonies, tulips in variations on fuchsia, peach, melon and chartreuse. These volcanoes of floral glory competed with chandeliers towering over crimson tablecloths.

Move on to party planner Victoria Hentrich's stagecraft: Giant photos of Armstrong hanging in the ballroom, stuffed peacocks perched on banks of more flowers, a long feasting table for family members and round banquet tables for other guests. Then there was the crowd. Particularly well-represented were backers of Zach Theatre, Austin Lyric Opera, Austin Symphony Orchestra, Austin Cabaret Theatre, Ballet Austin and various health and social charities.

Mela Sarajane Daily, Jill Blackwood, Jamie Goodwin and Kelli Shultz performed American standards and a dance anthem. (Armstrong's tastes are catholic — he made Connelly take him to see Lady Gaga.) Son James C. Armstrong tried his hand at stand-up comedy during a fond salute to his father. Then Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel got folks onto their feet — those who didn't retire to the quieter lounge or coffee room.

What about the man? He's given away millions. Yet no more shy, thoughtful and unpretentious benefactor could you meet.

He's clearly adored. While we all dined and danced on our host's dime, he asked that gifts be made to the Armstrong Community Music School, which recently separated from Austin Lyric Opera. What a guy!

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com