About 150 people will gather inside the Hawthorne Hotel across from Salem Common Friday for the annual Salem Snowball gala benefiting Globe Santa.
Revelers will be dressed to the nines in tuxedos and evening gowns, and many of them will not suspect the event’s humble origins 19 years ago in the Salem Knights of Columbus ballroom.
Bill Lynch, lead organizer for the event and one of its founders, said it began with “three poor 20-something-year-olds trying to have a house party and raise a couple of hundred dollars.”
Lynch, a longtime Salem resident, said he and his friends did not have enough space in their apartments for the event they imagined, so they each pitched in $200 to rent a hall and hire a disc jockey. To their surprise, they attracted 160 guests, each paying $15 for a ticket.
“We were shocked; we would have been happy with 80,” Lynch said.
When the friends realized how much money they raised, they were unsure what to do with it until Lynch remembered the Globe Santa stories he had read in the newspaper on his commute into Boston.
“I said, listen, Globe Santa does everything we can’t do,” Lynch recalled. “They donate their time and effort to make sure every dollar goes to the families, so why don’t we just give it to them?”
Thus began a partnership that has lasted almost two decades, benefiting hundreds of local children.
Lynch said that as the years have passed, he has been happy he chose to work with the program.
“People tell us, ‘I’m here because I like what Globe Santa does,’ which makes us feel good about the relationship,” he said.
The annual event has become a Salem tradition, with many attendees returning year after year, Lynch said.
It has grown up a bit, too, moving in recent years to the Hawthorne Hotel and incorporating live dance music from the Groove Authority, named one of the 15 best wedding bands in the nation by NBC News.
“We wanted it to be like a wedding without the wedding,” Lynch said, describing the festive mood at the event.
In recent years, the event has routinely sold out. Lynch said his biggest problem is not selling tickets, but letting people down easy after all are sold.
“I’ve been out a couple of times in the past few weeks, just out in Salem, and people say, ‘Are you still having that party?’ and I say, ‘Oh, gee, we’re all sold out,’ ” he said.
Those capacity crowds have helped the Salem Snowball raise $104,000 since 1995, and Lynch said the sold-out gala has a very good chance of reaching its goal for 2013: $10,000, the most it has ever raised.
He credited its success to the dedicated volunteers and to the loyal group that returns each year for another celebration.
“It’s a great group of people,” he said, “a very generous group, the kind you like to party with.”
For more information on the Salem Snowball gala, visit salemsnowball.com.