Just a Day In The Life of Jackson Hicks

It is 10 o'clock on the morning of the Texas capitol building's hundredth birthday, and the famous pink-granite portals appear to have sustained a terrorist bombing. Twisted aluminum frames and massive sheets of broken glass are being lowered from ladders with ropes and carted out in wheelbarrows. Workers sweep up dusty debris as tourists step gingerly around the chaos.

The famed Houston-based, full-service special events coordinator Jackson Hicks, who has added his touch to such events as the '88 Winter Olympics in Calgary (where he catered over 50 events for VIPs), is blitzkrieging the legislative structure into shape. And if major remodeling is called for, the fact that the party of the century, the Centennial Ball, starts at 7 p.m. sharp - according to Hicks' 10-page timeline - doesn't seem to deter him in the least.

Capitol officials have been talking about removing that ugly vestibule for years, and at Hicks' urging, they finally do so on the morning of the anniversary party. By 11 o'clock, the eyesore is a bad memory, like the fall of the Alamo.

Earlier, a one-ton, greenery-swathed, flower-laden chandelier, a replica of the Victorian original, was hoisted into place and suspended from the great rotunda. Now, below it, carpenters assemble the ground-floor orchestra stand, where the Houston Pops will serenade dining and dancing guests while Dixieland jazz, fireworks and heralding trumpets will entertain them on the terrace before dinner. Texas may feel beleaguered these days, but tonight there's gonna be a party that will make its glory days pale by comparison.

In the basement, dozens of tables are being set up and covered with thousands of plates to be filled assembly-line-style by the white-uniformed team headed by Miss Ida. Meanwhile, upstairs, the east and west ground floor wings are filling up with rows of round tables draped in dress-black finery.

The crew, many of them in their Jackson & Company T-shirts emblazoned with "Pamper People," concentrate intently on their tasks. And yet, while folding the mounds of white napkins or gingerly fitting tapers into each candelabra, they somehow manage to smile and answer politely when a tourist asks where the restrooms or state senate chambers are. They know the answers because they've been quizzed by Hicks' aides on their mastery of the manual, complete with floor plans, that's issued by the caterer for each major event he does.

As a young helper arranges the peonies, Lufkin roses and gilded decorative cabbage for one of the centerpieces, a passing tourist snaps off a rose and sticks it in her lapel. "This lack of control is driving me crazy," mutters Hicks, the perfectionist, through clenched teeth. The capitol building remains open to the public today, he explains, despite assurances that closing it would be "no problem." "Some politician got worried it might by considered elitist by the voting public to interrupt 100 years of no solitude even for a single blessed day!" So Hicks' army covers chairs, sets tables and decorates pillars as sightseers troop past, ogling, shooting pictures, asking questions, tripping on vacuum cleaners and light cords, filching candles and generally turning an already daunting task into the equivalent of gourmet guerrilla warfare.

And throughout the day, in the midst of the chaos, a video crew films the preparations, as it will be the ball, documenting this occasion for the Texas archives. Jackson Hicks, master caterer, will go down in history, and he's not quite 40.

While most kids are making mud pies, Jackson Hicks was making pecan pies. "My parents were wonderful about encouraging us to follow our natural inclinations," says Hicks, whose brother is a judge and sister is an AT&T executive. "I've always liked to entertain."

Hicks' first private party took place when he was 13. "I wanted to invite a hundred kids over to celebrate my birthday," he recalls, "and my parents okayed it, as long as I earned all the money for it doing odd jobs, planned every bit of it and did all the cooking and cleanup." That party was a hit, and young Jackson knew, then and there, what he would be when he grew up.

Today Hicks is one of Texas' most sought-after caterers. Besides the Olympics, he has catered the Wortham Center inaugural and the Menil Collection opening, and his clients extend from coast to coast. Nellie Connally, on the Centennial Ball's committee, says she chose Jackson because he's "the best." She's worked hand in white glove with him to give this once-in-a-century celebration an understated Old World opulence befitting its pioneer beginnings.

At 11:30 a.m., Jackson meets in the senate reception room with his staffers and captains for the next to last of five strategy sessions. The distances in the hallowed halls are enormous, he reminds them. It will take an extra six or seven minutes to do anything; they'll need to send for the next course when a guest is halfway through the one he's on, or it will be too late. Jackson likes things on time.

His Adonis curls and cherubic features notwithstanding, the angel faced Hicks is a tough boss. "We've got long list of people ready to take your job," he warns the staff this day. Careless mistakes are not tolerated.

Since the pay is $10 to $15 an hour, plenty of young people want those jobs, no matter how demanding Hicks is. His 24 page staff manual warns that he's not out to win any popularity contests, and today no one dares to play devil's advocate: "Yessirs" and "Sorry, sirs" abound. Staff people also know better than to slouch, chew gum or daydream on the job. Still, Hicks' attractive core staff of 26 seems more eager to please him than afraid not to. This hard-driving taskmaster, after all, pays their bills if they've got a personal financial crisis and donates leftover tenderloin to the homeless.

"At last night's meeting," he points out to his crew, "the Austin group [of fill-in waiters] seemed really flat. It's up to you guys to spark them into action. Austin doesn't do things the way we do."

"I'll say," one staffer cracks, holding up one of the gummy, Austin catered hero sandwiches which can hardly be choked down. Everyone laughs. Being the best can be a comfort.

There will be a three-to-one ratio of guests to staff tonight, Hicks reminds them, so there's no excuse for his platoons of bartenders, busboys or waiters to drop the ball.
Speaking of balls, he chides, there were too many drops at Houston's Opera Ball: "You've got to stack the trays toward the center." Then there was that other Opera Ball debacle: Waiters using expensive napkins as Handiwipes mopped up remnants of a chocolate dessert, forcing Hicks to buy 300 new napkins.

As they go over the menu - Gulf Coast shrimp, North Texas bobwhite quail, West Texas beef roulade and East Texas pecan chocolate mousse - one staffer points out that the manual incorrectly lists champagne with the shrimp course. "It's wrong and you're right," Hicks concedes with a smile. For, Adonis curls and Promethean demands aside, Hicks is only human.

Except for out-of-town jobs (Hicks spent five days in Austin prepping this centennial), most of his days are spent at his meticulous Montrose office in Houston, planning impending events in various stages of development. On a recent Thursday, Scott Harmon, a Rice University architecture student, stops by with the latest computerized architectural renderings for an upcoming Corpus Christi Watergarden
benefit. For an hour, they huddle and pencil in changes, improving pathways and sight lines from VIP tables to bandstands, and cutting tent sections and costs.

"People expect a different standard from us," Hicks says bluntly, "and we deliver it." The bottle of antacid within easy reach behind his gleaming, orchid-laden desk helps him stomach the daily aggravations that are part of this job. So does experience. He had a two-year stint at Neiman Marcus, honing his administrative skills, and spent 10 years as buyer for Richard's Wine & Liquor.

Ten years ago this month, Hicks became his own boss, and word-or-mouth referrals from overjoyed clients and guests have garnered him so much business that it's not unusual for him to handle between 12 and 15 dinners a week. Lynn Wyatt, who uses Hicks often for the public galas she chairs, gushes, "He has absolutely impeccable taste. "He makes the most intimate dinner seem grand and the grandest event seem intimate." Beautifully framed articles from publications as diverse as the London Daily Mail and American Business line his office walls, and heap similar praise on the man Houston's Wortham Center opening chairwoman Terrylin Neale calls "a brilliant maestro."

Not only is Hicks a genius, but he also works hard. He follows Thomas Edison's formula for success (2 percent inspiration and 98 percent perspiration) and expects his employees to do likewise. For all major events, every staff member is required to attend two or more unpaid training sessions to iron out the kinks. He's there too, routinely working seven days a week, 16 hours a day. "I don't have time to exercise," he laments, patting a potbelly that is surprisingly small, considering the culinary temptations he's faced with daily.

Not even Glorious Food in New York does the kind of detailed preliminary planning that he does, he boasts, pointing to the growing rack of huge, black production books amassed for each big event. Hicks is not a modest man, and why should he be?
He hands over his Rolodex, his huge emerald ring catching the light. "Call anyone here cold," he says, "but you won't hear a single complaint."

Dealing with the problems of the capitol building's elegant but stony, cavernous space, Hicks hired acclaimed Houston florist Michael Duerr to decorate. He knew that Duerr's expertise with massive spaces would result in the stunning, softening warmth now lushly in evidence. On each table, Hicks uses yard-high, Giacometti-slim candelabra to bring the stratospheric ceilings down to size.

At four p.m. below the glowing floral chandelier, the Houston Pops orchestra tunes up, saturating the air with rhapsodic sounds. Nearby tourist are stopped in their tracks, transfixed by the unexpected free concert. Back in his tiny capitol office, there is much that's not music to Hicks' ears - or eyes. One Austin recruit emerging from the racks of white waiter jackets and gloves is yanked to attention. "Those aren't regulation tuxedo pants," Hicks points out, and the startled young man professes amazement that dark pleated cotton trousers don't count. He's probably well aware of the staff manual promise that dress code violators "will not be asked to work again."

At five o'clock sharp, the most glorious event of Hicks' day transpires: The capitol doors are shut to the public and Hicks is back in control of his life. Because of that, he's in a more expansive mood at the 5:30 p.m. full staff meeting. Almost 200 strong - and resplendent in white jackets, gloves and well-scrubbed smiling faces - his people fill the Texas Supreme Court chambers.

"Don't forget," he grins, "that there will be important people everywhere tonight. [Hicks himself knows the favored drinks of 500 Texan VIPs, and he tries to ensure that they have them in hand before they reach the bar at any major event.] Remember that these are political animals, so even if they aren't important, they think they are."

At 7 p.m. Jackson gives the nod to begin lighting the 600 candles in the towering candelabra, and watches like a dotting father as white-gloved young men and women go about this painstaking task with the solemn reverence of acolytes. Gradually the massive dark halls grow brighter and take on new life. Slipping away to the terrace, where the first few guests have arrived, Hicks returns with former client Terrylin Neale just as the last few tables are completed. The capitol is suddenly filled with the golden glow of yesteryear that Hicks was charged with recreating, and Neale lets out a gasp: "It's absolutely breathtaking. "Jackson Hicks' face brightens with the compliment.

Two hours later, however, halfway through dinner, Hicks' face is ashen white.
More than a few guests thought they had RSVP'd but actually hadn't. "Normally, I have a ticket-taking system that gives me advance notice, but I wasn't allowed to have control of that, so …" So it's time for another Hicks miracle: his loaves-and-fishes routine. Extra tables in full regalia seem to appear, as if someone had rubbed a genie's lamp, along with all five courses of food, and though these are not the best seats in the house, no one is sent home hungry.

The only time Hicks really lost his aplomb was just after the fireworks, when the crowd was about to be ushered inside for dinner. As if frenzied by the thrilling United States Army Herald Trumpets and the pyrotechnics, the crowd pressed so hard against the surrounding cordon that there was no way to untie it. When Hicks shouted "Get me a knife," someone wondered if he might want it for the slitting of his own throat. Finally, an industrious, petite waitress huddled beneath the teeming masses and managed to loosen one end of the cord, almost getting trampled for her efforts as Texas' upper crust stormed past.