Nina Palleson Craig Richardson is hard pressed to choose the most memorable Bal de Tete she's attended for the Rowayton Arts Center.

"They were all memorable. They are all mixed up in my mind," the founder member said with a laugh during a recent interview with the Citizen.

"But what was always such a fascinating thing to me, was the artists of course came out with all these wonderful headdresses, but it was non-artists who often really had the winners. They would just throw themselves into things not knowing how hard it was to do it. There was some hysterical stuff."

She recalls the time when Pop Art was all the rage. She made her late husband, Don Craig -- who along with Arno Scheiding, a painter and industrial designer, and William Gray Schaefer, head of a noted decorating firm, originated the idea for RAC -- a hug potato headdress for the Bal de Tete that year.

"He wore this gigantic potato on his head with a big yellow pat of butter in the middle of it.

"I had a giant carrot on my head. It was huge with the grassy stems hanging down in my face," she said with a laugh.

Last Saturday, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, RAC held a gala evening in the spirit of the irreverent parties held by founding Arts Center members during the 1960s and 70's with a Bal de Tete.

Bal de Tête co-chairs Laura Bickmeyer and Andrea Letters designed a fun-filled evening with live music, retro specialty cocktails, gourmet food stations and art.

The co-chairs are excited that Richardson has agreed to share some of the whimsical vintage sets that she created for RAC parties to enhance the ambiance at the Tokeneke Club. Live music is on tap from two New York City bands -- Art Sfumato and the Honorable Mentions plus Winsor Newton and his All-Media Stompers.

"Creative people like to have a good time," said Bickmeyer in a statement, "and RAC members have invented wild and crazy parties through the years. Headdress parties were especially popular because they allowed free reign to the imagination. One Bal de Tête invitation described a headdress as -- "a hat, a creation, a wig, a mask, a hairdo" and urged guests to "make it topical, historical, artistic, loony, showy, newsworthy ... anything goes."

Although a headdress isn't required, Bickmeyer and Letters hope that guests on get into the spirit of "this fabulous dance at which some guests will wear crazy concoctions. It can be a funny hat, or something you've made -- a birdcage, a flowerpot, an ashtray. We're aiming to tip everything on its head so that this isn't a typical gala evening."

Instead of a traditional silent auction, 50 artworks by award-winning RAC members will be wrapped and sold for a set price.

The co-chairs expect the Bal de Tête to be a memorable salute to RAC festivities during its early years and a joyous beginning to the RAC's next 50 years.

The first 50 years

Rowayton Arts Center, originally located at 101 Rowayton Ave., got its start in January, 1960, when a group of artists and authors gathered at the Bell Island home of Scheiding to discuss the idea of an arts center. Rowayton was home to a number of exhibiting artists who showed at the village fair and in nearby towns, but had no central base.

A month later, the plan was formed. Scheiding, Schaefer and Craig, who owned a local liquor store at the time, signed the Articles of Association, marking the legal start of the new group. Its purpose was "to provide a community cultural center for the study, creation and appreciation of the arts," according to the RAC website.

Today RAC is located at 145 Rowayton Ave., in a small yellow building that was built in 1905 by Reliance Hook and Ladder Company. In 1926, the building was bought by the library association and housed the library until 1966. The building had undergone a number of renovations, the most recent being completed September 2003.

Upstairs is a studio used for classes, workshops and demonstrations. Downstairs offers two galleries: the main gallery, which brings a new show each month to its members and the little gallery, a retail center for prints, small artworks, crafts and cards. A favorite spot among members is the open porch overlooking the river. Each new monthly show is launched with a reception, which gives members and non-members an opportunity to see the show, meet the artists and make new friends. Directed by a board, the RAC has three part-time staffers. Volunteers augment the staff.

Craig Richardson believes the reason RAC has reached its 50-year milestone with such success--RAC now boasts 450 members--is that its rules for operation were never carved in stone so each person that flowed in to help, enter shows or take classes, added and subtracted ideas.

"Key to keeping the life in an organization like this, which is mostly all volunteer....is having rules that are flexible. Volunteers come in and don't always want to follow someone else's path," she said.

" They want to put their own ideas into the organization and initiate things....People here are allowed to use their imagination and their excitement about the organization. They don't have someone saying this isn't the way we do it, this is the way we do it or. I think it's a very important reason why it's kept going."

In commemoration of its 50th anniversary, the RAC is also hosting a special invitational exhibition of 56 works in all media by outstanding artists from RAC's first decade. The exhibition is on view through Oct. 3 at the Arts Center Gallery, which is open from 12 -5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 1-4 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free.

Jessica Huse, an early RAC educator and co-chair of the anniversary exhibition, said recently, "I believe RAC is a very important influence in the community. It is important for retired people who want to try their hand at painting and for children to learn about art and be exposed to its important impact on all of us...and for everyone in between."

She joined RAC in 1961 when her children were at the Community Cooperative Nursery School having learned about it from some of the other moms who were involved or were artists.

"It was great getting to know some of the other people in the area with whom I had so much in common. RAC was a fun place with lots of parties and showings of work from local talented sculptors and painters. Everyone was eager and enthusiastic and urged me to start up art classes for children. It was an immediate success and was always filled with area children, which in turn drew their parents into our purpose and activities," Huse said.

In those days the Bal de Tete was held outdoors on the terrace of the then "pink house" on the water in Belle Island.

"It was a truly magical event for many years. Crowds of residents would gather outside, upon our arrival to cheer us on."

In 1968 Huse moved out west for two years. Upon her return she continued to be involved.

"The year after I returned I chaired a great party, the "Masterpiece Ball." Everyone came dressed as a character from a famous painting. One whole neighborhood came dressed as the "Last Supper," complete with backdrop painted in detail. Large paintings were reproduced with funny twists. It was a wonderful and memorable event."

Photographer Gillian Marshall joined Rowayton Arts Center in 1994, having moved to Connecticut from Manhattan.

She fondly remembers her first visit to the gallery. She was with friends who were visiting for the weekend and they were exploring her new surroundings.

"They both suggested I become a member of RAC. And so I did. I'd always enjoyed photography, but never looked upon it other than as a hobby -- a camera was always with me when on vacation," Marshall said.

"My involvement with Rowayton Arts Center awoke the passion within me, to go deeper into this medium, and, as my eye developed, I grew to see photography in an entirely new light. I submitted my work for shows, occasionally won awards, joined other local art organizations and delighted in gaining broad recognition as a photographer, as an artist.

"I'm proud that my photography is in private collections in the U.S., India and Europe. Sixteen years later, photo-journaling my annual travels in South Asia, I'm doing what I truly believe is my life's work."

Favorite RAC events for Susan Leggitt of Norwalk include being involved in the holiday show elf workshops, the "unveiling" of the renovation in 2000, bringing the holiday show to a new level and implementing the annual fund to have RAC operating in the black.

"I think the thing I love about RAC the most is the sense of it being a community arts organization. A place for local artists to show their work, take classes, learn and team up together," Leggitt said. "So many things stand out, but I think for me, I have had great joy in seeing the organization flourish and grow over the years I have been involved. Our holiday show is outstanding, we continue to accept more and more accomplished artists as exhibiting members and as we are about to celebrate our 50th year, I feel so fortunate to be a part of this vibrant organization. I have made friends for life, and sadly said goodbye to a few."