Clem Connolly: Raising Money for National Jewish Health
Making events special is his mission, and with a background in media and a passion for physical fitness and sports, he brings energy to each production
He’d no doubt wince at the title, but anyone who has been to a National Jewish Health fundraiser knows that Clem Connolly is Denver’s greatest showman. Connolly, the organization’s national director of special events for the Western region, is known for his themed and theatric productions, including NJH’s signature gala, the Beaux Arts Ball.
Event production wasn’t even a blip on his radar when he was a young man growing up in London, England. “My whole background was in physical education,” he said.
He became a personal trainer and made connections with people who catered to a celebrity clientele in restaurants, nightclubs and health clubs. In 1989, restaurateur and businessman Mark Birley hired him to work at The Bath and Racquets club in London’s Mayfair district. Connolly had American clients at the club who told him about the fitness scene in California, and Connolly soon moved to the states. “Mark Birley made some incredible introductions for me in Southern California. George Hamilton was first to lend me a hand, by opening the door to his Brentwood gym,”
Connolly said of the club, where he developed a celebrity clientele. He also managed Bel Air Fitness, a Beverly Hills health club frequented by such celebrities as Cindy Crawford, Raquel Welch and Donny Osmond. Los Angeles is where Connolly met his wife, Tammy. The couple moved back to Colorado, Tammy’s home state, in 1993, where they would marry and raise a family.
Denver received its first taste of Connolly’s flair for putting together spectacular events when he added a VIP lounge to the Heart Ball, American Heart Association’s key fundraiser. Connolly was at the association from 2003-2006, and he also had his own advertising agency before joining National Jewish in 2012.
Connolly has also been a field producer and marketing department staffer for KWGN-TV (now FOX-31 Denver) and worked in the business development department of CBS Radio. He’s also host of the Colorado Rapids’ Summit Club, and joins his close friend, National Soccer Hall of Fame member Marcelo Balboa, in what he describes as “an old man’s competitive soccer league” that plays on Sunday mornings.
Where do you call home today? Westminster.
How do people describe you? Loyal, compassionate, generous, fun, creative and energetic.
What is a surprising ‘fun fact’ about you? I was a celebrity fitness trainer for several years in London and Los Angeles.
Who do you most admire? My late mother. The most generous, caring, loyal and loving person.
What’s your favorite Colorado restaurant? Shanahan’s Steakhouse.
What was the last great book you read? David McCullough’s 1776.
What is your biggest fashion faux pas? Socks and sandals.
What is one thing that you absolutely can’t live without? The gym. Exercise has always been a big part of my life.
What was your last major purchase? I would like to say something exciting, but sadly, it is a costly leak below the concrete floor in my basement, which has led to an unplanned remodel.
What gadget can you not live without? My phone. Cliché, but everything is on my phone.
What are your hobbies? Soccer, playing my guitar, song and screenplay writing, exercising.
What is your most memorable Colorado experience? Being assigned as a field producer for KWGN-TV during the Denver Broncos back-to-back Super Bowl wins. I was fairly new to Colorado and found myself in the thick of all the action, orchestrating interviews for our anchors during the downtown parade and celebrations. My first taste of true Broncos mania. Brilliant!
What one word describes Coloradans to you? Friendly.
What is your favorite spot in Colorado to visit? Steamboat Springs.
Where do you want to go when it’s safe to travel again? Home to see family in London and Ireland.
Are you involved with any charities other than National Jewish Health? I like to support Children’s Diabetes Foundation, A Precious Child and Craig Hospital, among others, by attending their events.
What did you do prior to joining National Jewish? I owned a small ad agency for several years, GPS Advertising. I created measurable online marketing and media strategies for clients locally and nationally.
What inspired you to become an event planner? At KWGN-TV, I was invited to many events through the McCormick Tribune Foundation. I was intrigued with all the moving parts of an event and observed what was happening out of the spotlight and behind the scenes. My friends who worked on charitable events felt immensely fulfilled knowing they were making a positive impact on people’s lives. This really inspired and motivated me to look into it further.
An event planner wears many hats. Please briefly describe what they are. Basically, you are responsible for everything. From the moment guests arrive at your event to the moment they leave, you are responsible for delivering a memorable, feel-good experience. Everything a guest or attendee is seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and feeling should be planned and accounted for.
What part of event planning brings you the most satisfaction? Collaboration with my colleagues on our special events team. Witnessing everyone’s ideas, commitment, hard work, and meticulous planning coming to fruition is enormously gratifying. I love brainstorming with the team to bring new events to life.
What presents the biggest challenge? Relying on things to happen that are completely out of my control.
How long does it take to produce an annual event of such grand scale as the Beaux Arts Ball? Several months. Recruitment of honorees, co-chairs and executive committee, fundraising through sponsorship and ticket sales, and planning and executing the event is a long process.
Can you share a fun, moving or near-disaster story from behind the scenes of an event you had planned? At a formal event in New Mexico, I was assisting the speaker presenting awards. Moments before inviting the award recipients to join us on stage, I took a short step backwards to make way for them. What followed was flailing arms in an attempt to save myself. I made a very dramatic and epic exit, falling off the back of the stage, nearly taking the awards table with me. I reenacted the whole scene for my work colleagues to enjoy once guests had exited the event.
The Beaux Arts Ball is known for its timely—and fun— themes. What goes into the theme selection? It’s a creative and collaborative process. Ultimately, we look for an idea that is topical and timely, like when we did Gatsby, Wicked, Hamilton and The Greatest Showman. Our special events team researches what’s trending on Broadway or in the movies, including new releases. In addition, we research black-tie formal events around the world to make sure we aren’t missing anything. Thirty-plus ideas are quickly whittled down to 10. Our ultimate goal is to transport our patrons to another time and place, so it is critical that we capture their imagination, and deliver a theme that is visually, emotionally and musically captivating through great décor and entertainment. We dissect the top 10 ideas to make sure they fit our formula. Once we have it down to the top three ideas, we seek counsel from our décor and entertainment partners to see which idea rises to the top.
The pandemic has had a major impact on charitable fundraising. How has National Jewish coped or adjusted? In regard to our events, I feel we re-acted and adjusted very quickly and effectively. Naturally, a lot of events were postponed to a later date but we were quick to create new and profitable events.
Like a lot of Denver nonprofits, National Jewish hosted several virtual events in 2020. What were they and how were they received? Back in April 2020, we launched a virtual concert titled, “Together We Breathe Hope.” We had a fantastic lineup with One Republic, Michael Franti, Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers and Clare Bowen, a Nashville TV and country star. More than 60,000 viewers in 57 countries tuned in to see the concert and we raised nearly $110,000. Over the summer, we partnered with chef Troy Guard to offer a virtual cooking class series to benefit Morgridge Academy for chronically
ill children at National Jewish Health. Each of the three classes was designed to be an interactive, casual cook-along experience with Chef Troy. He generously opened his home, restaurants and heart, sharing personal family stories, his culinary journey thus far and future aspirations. In the fall, we launched Driving Hope, an auto show and brunch set on the immaculate greens of the beautiful Sanctuary Golf Course. We showcased some of Denver’s most prized exotic, vintage and collectible cars.
Can you see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, the day when in-person events can resume? Realistically, I don’t see major ball-room events for the remainder of 2021, but they will make a comeback in 2022, with a new set of guidelines addressing social distancing and safety parameters. Outdoor events will be very appealing this summer and fall.
Name: Clem Connolly
Marital status: Married 28 years
Children: Megan, 25, Kieran, 23
Current job title: National director, special events, National Jewish Health, Western region
Hometown: London, England
Joanne Davidson is a frequent contributor to Colorado Expression.