Prince of Parties

On January first, for the 16th year in a row, caterer Jackson Hicks will host a now-legendary party. "At home," his invitation always announces. "Light repast and conversation. After two." There is a telephone number but no name or address. Hicks asks only his 150 closest friends, people who recognize his thick cream-colored stationery, with its lavender engraving. By four o'clock, Hicks' north Montrose Street will be lined with luxurious cars. His neighbors, in their clapboard bungalows and worn brick duplexes, have become accustomed to the sight of his own vintage Rolls and his white Jaguar. Still, they must regard New Year's as the day when the televised Rose Parade is followed by a living, local Parade of Opulence, as Hicks' flock of short-jacketed valets welcome guests by name at his front door. Inside, dazzlingly handsome young waiters-selected from a large, skilled, Bruce Weber-worthy catering staff-offer champagne in over-sized flutes, and pass trays of caviar-topped blinis, or bite-sized chicken empanadas.

Hicks' "light repast" encompasses smoked salmon, lobster, several pates, French cheeses, a baked ham and always, chili pepper-spiked black-eyed peas, for Texas-style good luck. Guests who've tried pastries from the long dessert table will turn a corner to find freshly made, perfect strawberry shortcakes, and helplessly succumb. Anybody expecting the buffet here to constitute a catalog of trendy, spa-derived nibbles will be surprised at the hearty straightforwardness of Hicks' menu. The body-conscious socialites queuing up expectantly have already tasted every chic, healthy dish on the planet, and are thrilled at the presence of a holiday ham.

Invariably Hicks employs musicians for the afternoon. Last January the Rob Landes jazz trio performed so irresistibly that dancing broke out in the least-crowded corners. Occasionally there are other entertainments: In 1986 card-readers and astrologers, last year political cartoonist Jimmy Margulies, who sketched caricatures. Sunshine pours through Hicks' windows without fail, bathing big vases of calla lilies in mellow gold. "The question," one says, "is whether Jackson orchestrates the sunlight, along with everything else."

If it sounds a bit much, well, it almost is. When dozens of eminent Houstonians gather at this plum of a party, not even as accomplished a host as Hicks can prevent the clash of too many colognes. Missoni knits rub against Polo tweeds, and cocktail dresses, donned too early in the day, glitter with a certain edge. Hicks' food, for all its delicious directness, sits in state on antique silver. His hunky waiters might, to the grumpily hungover, look slightly smug.

What rescues Hicks' guest list from shallowness is the mix of his dear old friends with his glamorous new set. In truth, not every car the valets park is recently tuned, and a few of the cashmere sweaters clustered near the fireplace were happy finds at the Purple Heart. During the past 20 years Hicks has met three-quarters of the city, and he invites to his party those who engage or delight him regardless or their status. Hicks shows that he cares for people by providing them with savory food and attentive service - he has all his life. Because he is brilliant at this, he may become quite famous.

Around Houston, Hicks is a prominent figure. Houstonians land success, and by the end of the financially wobbly '80s Hicks had emerged a popular winner, a local-boy-made-good, in the hazardous, bitchily scrutinized business of gala-giving. Five Januarys ago his crews raised a circus-sized tent on the cold, bare site of a new wing for Methodist Hospital, and served a flawless seated luncheon for 800. Weather inside the tent, a cozy 75 degrees with no gusting winds, was supplied by Hicks. The last four annual balls at the Museum of Fine Arts have been Jackson and Company productions, and he's planning the next. He marshaled Wortham Center's million-dollar opening bash, honoring 2,300 patrons, and Dominique de Menil's pair of receptions - one for 700, the next night's for 3,000 - to dedicate The Menil Collection.

When investor Barry Galloway splurged on a big Fourth-of -July celebration at his Diamond G Ranch near Brenham in 1986, he hired Hicks to mastermind the fanciest Western barbecue imaginable. Four hundred guests assembled on a wide, grass-carpeted field, to watch an afternoon air show and, later, an eye-popping fireworks display. Between spectacles they caroused at a Long Branch-style saloon, or tried the brisket and corn-on-the-cob served up by cowboy-hatted waiters. Expansive, imposing Ida Tyson, director of Hicks' kitchen, took charge of a quilt-covered table laden with her pecan and apple pies. Tyson is "a treasure - a great, instinctive cook," avows Hicks. He is so dependent on her talents, and protective of her sometimes-fragile health, that she's seldom out of hailing distance: "I couldn't believe my luck when Jackson consented to let Ida come back to the ranch not long ago," says Galloway. He had wanted Tyson to be there to astonish his weekend visitor, Bill Cosby, with her biscuits and Southern fried chicken - which she did.

Tapped by American Express to entertain executives at the 1988 Winter Olympics, Hicks and 14 assistants shipped 3,000 pounds of food 1,000 glasses, 500 pieces of sterling flatware and 10,000 flowers up to a mansion in Calgary, which they transformed into a round-the-clock four-star restaurant. Summoned by Nellie Connally to do a party marking the 100th anniversary of the state capitol building, Hicks and nearly 200 staffers hung an enormous chandelier wrapped in peonies and roses from the capitol dome and presented a menu showcasing the state's home-grown shrimp, quail and beef. Despite his constant event-planning, Hicks found time in 1989 to launch a restaurant, Jags, at the Decorative Center of Houston. Here, in a tranquil gray space, he captivates patrons with entrees as consciously fashionable as their consumers.

Other Texas caterers acknowledge Hicks' achievements, and then, sometimes, grumble over his preeminence. Though a number of professional party-givers can prepare interesting meals and convene an able staff, only a few in the world demonstrate Hicks' mania for quality, his grand theatricality and his passion for impeccable European-style service. To insure that a gala will run like clockwork, Hicks supplements his waiters' thorough basic training with a Xeroxed manual, outlining the evening's program and listing every staffer's responsibilities. Before the centennial gala at the state capitol, for instance, he issued a 27-page handbook including the history of the building; floorplans showing bars, bandstand and dining tables; a detailed description of the meal, from cocktails to cake parade; a diagram of a place-setting; and a command to "PAMPER PEOPLE!" in inch-tall letters.

New employees who don't share Hicks' creed of perfection either convert or depart. "But I think his staffers value him for his mile-high expectations. They feel good about working with a star." Says woman-about-town Carol Barden, who has collaborated with Hicks on several charity parties. "And you certainly can't accuse Jackson of not practicing what he preaches. I mean, you walk into a big ball and there he is all over the place, with his radio headset and his clipboard. Nothing escapes him, nothing. At the first MFA benefit he and I did together some guy ordered a Whit Russian, and the waiter, who'd never heard of a Whit Russian, raced over to Jackson. Seconds later Jackson sent a driver out to buy a bottle of Kahlua, and minutes later the guy got his drink. Jackson spends most nights troubleshooting, putting out fires, in terribly stressful circumstances. But he never loses his cool. He's always calm, always crisp and correct in beautiful tuxedo, always smiling that angelic smile of his.

"Before I came to know him," Barden continues, "I used to wonder, 'what's with this guy? Is he for real?" I wanted to poke him with a pin to see if he'd flinch. Finally I asked him if he'd ever flipped out on the job. And he said, 'No, Carol, when things around me are hectic and tense and crucial, that's when I feel most composed.'"

Bob Bibb, director of Houston's David Webb jewelry shop, also regards Hicks' infallible galas as an extension of his personality. "Jackson Hicks stays completely and totally in character," declares Bibb. When he and Hicks get together it's probably over dinner: A favorite form of relaxation for the caterer is an evening out in someone else's restaurant, evaluating someone else's food and service. And Mexican platters at Ninfa's on Navigation are an unshakable Sunday custom. Says Bibb, "Jackson arrives promptly, he's wonderfully turned out, he's amusing and sophisticated, and he's concerned about me. What's charming about him, too, is that he's constantly trying to guide his friends toward the same good life and the same fine things he enjoys. For years he'd tell me, 'Bob, you've got fabulous handwriting, but you ruin the effect of it with those cheap felt-tip pens you use.' Then, a few Christmases ago, he gave me a Mont Blanc pen so I could do my handwriting justice. Now whenever I write a note to Jackson I rustle up that Mont Blanc."

Since he met Hicks in 1972, and has remained a confidant to this day, graphics designer Peter Layne takes a long view of the caterer and his career. "I got to know Jackson at a point when I could buy his cigarettes," says Layne. "That was before the Jaguar, the fur coat and the gold rings. If you expect me to dig dirt from way back then, you'll be disappointed. There is no dirt. Jackson deserves his reputation, and he's been very supportive of me. When I was grinding away as an architect in a big firm, and sick of it, Jackson convinced me I could make it on my own in graphics. He offered me projects and brought me lots of other accounts. My favorite definition of Jackson might strike you as strange: He's a family man. His friends are his family. His key employees become family to him. He honors his clients as family."

At the end of this conversation Layne dons a handsome voluminous, waist-length red suede jacket. When complimented on it he grins and says, "This was Jackson's. He passed it along to me. You know, Jackson has tremendous will power: A few years ago he decided to stop smoking and just did it, without wavering. Then in 1988 he decided to lose weight and just did it - quit eating meat and sugar, and cut out alcohol. And any clothes he couldn't have altered to fit his new, trim body, he gave to friends."

Hicks was born in Oklahoma City in 1946, and his most cherished childhood memories are of cooking and kitchens and dining tables. "I had two world-class grandmothers," he says proudly. "My maternal grandmother had a clapboard house on several acres in the Arkansas countryside. She fixed bounteous Southern meals from scratch, several times a day, and I adored watching her, and helping her when I got old enough. My paternal grandmother, who lived in Shawnee, Oklahoma, was a polished entertainer. Shopping with her, I learned to deal with butchers and produce vendors. Her table was set to a fare-thee-well, with scrolly silver flatware, Haviland rose-pattern dishes and bowls of fresh roses, because her name was Rose. Together, she and I would fold her starchy damask napkins, and if one of them didn't look right it got shaken loose, re-ironed and refolded."

While still in elementary school Hicks began assisting his parents with their parties. At age 13 he persuaded them to let him throw his own birthday celebration, for which he earned money at odd jobs, mailed 100 invitations, devised the decor and menu, cooked the food and cleaned up afterwards. At age 18 he hosted a party for 150 seniors from his high school on prom night. "I thought the prom would be too déclassé for words, and wanted to offer my friends something better."

As much as entertaining, Hick loved music. He started piano and voice lessons as a child and later sang in Oklahoma City's First Baptist Church choir and performed in high school musicals. While at Baylor University he studied voice and became a baritone soloist in the a capella choir. Early on, he vacated his college dormitory ("That place was cruel and unusual punishment") and took an apartment. "I gave really done-up, formal dinner parties. Pledges to my fraternity were pressed into service as waiters. I also began collecting wines. My cellar was modest, but decent, and quite a novelty at Baylor."

Between some party and its successor, Hicks abandoned his long-held dream of touring in operas. "I realized I wouldn't be good enough for lead roles and I had no desire to spend 20 years submerged in choruses." He completed a degree in psychology and then, "needing a break, but fully intending to return to Baylor and work toward a doctorate," he moved to Houston. Soon enough, Henry Kucharzyk, a winebuyer for the gourmet food department at Neiman-Marcus, hired Hicks: the dapper young bon vivant impressed Kucharzk, and Hicks was awestruck by Kucharzyk's seasoned worldliness. "Henry wouldn't put on airs, but he was incredibly knowledgeable about wines, and restaurants, and hotels, and every aspect of traditional, Continental service. He spoke eight languages and he'd traveled around the world, and could quote from every book in the library. I've never gotten over my great fortune at becoming his protégé."

To Hicks, Kucharzyk was mesmerizing. Other aspects of his work were ultimately not, and after two years at Neiman-Marcus, Hicks "took a break from what I'd thought would be a break form school." For six months or so he rattled around nightclubs in Houston and Galveston, playing the piano and singing show tunes. He made enough to cover food, and rent on a middle-aged north Montrose duplex apartment, but not cigarettes. These his neighbor, Peter Layne, occasionally purchased for him. Hicks eventually made a home of his duplex: bought it, turned it into a single dwelling and furnished it modishly. It now reigns supreme on its block.

While Hicks had his musical leave of absence, Kucharzyk signed on at the new Richard's Liquors and Fine Wines, on Richmond Avenue. Hicks re-joined Kucharzyk at "what was the most elaborate wine store in America, at a time when the maturation of the California wine industry sparked enthusiasm for good food and drink across the country." Fewer such sparks flew in Houston, Hicks observed, and he blamed much of this on local caterers. "Since I was involved in sales and service at Richard's I dropped in on dozens of parties and I was appalled by what I saw. Caterers ordered their bar supplies mindlessly, and as a rule ran out of everything. They seemed to bring only overcooked beef tenderloin ringed with wilted parsley, hockey-puck rolls, tin-foil platters of raw vegetables and canned cling peaches with vanilla ice cream. And their waiters! I can still picture the poor fellows, moonlighting after their regular country-club jobs, tired as hell, dressed in shiny, worn-out black acetate, and inching slowly from table to table."

Though he had neither worked in a commercial kitchen nor managed a business, Hicks believed he could K.O. Houston's moribund catering concerns with one manicured hand tied behind him. In 1981 he resigned from Richard's, added nine years' worth of profit-sharing money to his slim savings, and created Jackson and Company. Carol Maupin, formerly head of the Junior League Tea Room, teamed with Hicks recruited youthful, energetic waiters. He presented each new staff member with a custom-made pink silk bow tie, and requested that he learn to knot it correctly.

Jackson and Company suffered its only reversal of any significance November before last, near Thanksgiving. An electrical fault ignited a raging fire that reduced the kitchen to cinders. With a dinner for 150 Museum of Natural Science supporters scheduled the next night, and a teeming holiday calendar looming ahead, Hicks mustered his employees, moved into the then-unoccupied Decorative Center kitchen now used for Jags, and set about replacing 18,000 pounds of stored food. The dinner went off without a hitch, as did all the events contracted for that season. Hicks responded to the demoralizing, potentially devastating situation with his trademark steel aplomb: "No one was hurt, and our files and rolodexes survived. I felt the thing to do was restore our routine, quickly." Just completed on the old kitchen's site is a new 5,000-sqaure-foot kitchen, and a 4,000-sqaure-foot office building is going up next door.

Hicks means to use his hard-won expansion as a base for future galas around the state and the country. There are, he has noticed, an increasing number of conventions in Orlando, any of which could stand to be Jacksonized. There are, his fans whisper, certain ex-Houstonians in D.C. Before he's done, Hicks just might re-civilize the civilized world.