- Gathering supported South Bronx-based nonprofit Casita Maria
- Baz Luhrmann and Schwarzman's friend John Bernbach honored
The story of how Steve Schwarzman, chief executive officer of the world’s largest private-equity firm, wound up at the Plaza Hotel ballroom Tuesday night with GrandWizzard Theodore, the man credited with inventing scratching at the turntable, starts in Paris in the early 1970s.
While GrandWizzard Theodore was verging on puberty and a hip-hop breakthrough in the South Bronx, Schwarzman, a New York banker, went to Paris to work on a merger.
The man on the other side of the deal was John Bernbach. “It was my first time meeting an American who spoke fluent French,” Schwarzman recalled at the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education annual gala. The deal fell through but the two became friends. Later, Schwarzman hired Bernbach.
“We bought a group of hotels,” Schwarzman said of Blackstone Group’s 1998 acquisition of four London properties -- Claridge’s, the Savoy, the Berkeley and the Connaught. “We had a very good person to run it, but he wasn’t used to that clientele. I got John to take that person and figure out what to dress him in and how to speak.”
Bernbach also guided Schwarzman to Casita Maria, a nonprofit in the South Bronx.
“It is an island, a route out of poverty,” Bernbach said, right after Schwarzman handed him an award for his service, to Casita Maria, where he serves as a board member.
As for GrandWizzard Theodore’s presence at the gala, that had to do with another honoree, Baz Luhrmann, who hired the hip hop pioneer to work as a consultant on his musical drama television show "The Get Down," about the South Bronx in the 1970s. It’s scheduled for a 2016 premiere on Netflix.
"One of the things we explained to Baz is that we never used earphones, back at a certain period of the jam," GrandWizzard Theodore said of the era that gave birth to hip hop. "We started to use earphones because Grandmaster Flash, he was a messenger, and he went to a radio station and saw the DJ listening through earphones before he played the record. So Grandmaster Flash decided to bring a pair of earphones into the equation. Before that we just put the needle to the groove."
Not only has Luhrmann tried to get historic details right, he’s also showed faith in the contemporary South Bronx, hiring Digital Bodega, a production company based there, to film behind the scenes footage. On stage, he said the story of creativity pouring out of the South Bronx against the odds reminds him of his own, coming from a "small country town in the middle of nowhere" in Australia. "All it takes is for somebody to open that door for you."
For GrandWizzard Theodore, Casita Maria did open doors -- giving him a place to play ping pong and make pot holders when he was a kid and the Bronx was burning. More recently, he has returned to DJ summer block parties. "Tell kids that no matter where you live, you can become something," he said.
After dining at tables decorated with climbing roses, guests ended the evening on the dance floor joined by cast members of "The Get Down." The band didn’t have a turntable, so there was no scratching. Veronique Pittman and Bob Pittman were also honored.
The event raised more than $500,000.