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A Star-Studded Night to Remember

David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

Millions of people stay up at night to watch "The Sopranos" on TV. For one magical night this spring, an intimate group of about 200 cigar smokers joined "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini and several other members of the cast for a night of premium cigars, fine wines and a charity auction that raised more than $1.4 million for the Prostate Cancer Research Foundation. It was Cigar Aficionado's 14th annual Night to Remember, drawing business icons, celebrities and many of the world's greatest cigarmakers to Manhattan's Four Seasons on March 28. Since the inaugural dinner in 1993, Cigar Aficionado Nights to Remember have raised nearly $13 million for the prostate cancer foundation.

The evening began with the guests in black tie mingling and sampling dozens of cigar brands on display in the Grill Room. Dom Pèrignon 1996 was the featured drink. A buzz accompanied the arrival of the first of the "Sopranos" stars—Dominic Chianese, the actor who portrays Tony Soprano's uncle, Junior, who stole the show in the season opener by nearly killing his nephew with a shot to his stomach. Chianese joked with attendees, then it was time for dinner in the Pool Room, which was decorated with spring trees in full bloom.

Chianese and the other "Sopranos" stars sat at a large, rectangular table by the bubbling waters of the pool. Joining him were the lead player of the series, Gandolfini, who plays Tony Soprano; Steven Van Zandt, who first gained fame playing guitar with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and now is known as the consigliere Silvio Dante; Tony Sirico, a.k.a. Paulie Walnuts; Vincent Curatola, who portrays incarcerated New York mob boss Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni; John Ventimiglia, who plays chef Artie Bucco; and others. The TV mobsters came with Tim and Aylin Ozgener of C.A.O. International Inc. A cherry red box of C.A.O. The Sopranos Editionsm cigars adorned each table. Other TV personalities joined the dinner. Joel Surnow, the co-creator of the thriller "24," which was recently featured on the cover of Cigar Aficionado, was there, along with his cocreator Howard Gordon and the actor Peter Weller, a federal agent on the series. A walk-on role on the show would become one of the prized gems put on the block later that evening.

Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine, was the host of the evening. He greeted the crowd, then added a note of regret about the prevalence of smoking bans. "We started this 14 years ago when cigar smokers were welcome. When we were part of society. When people treated us with respect," he said. "Today, we are unwanted, but we celebrate together." The featured speakers included evening cohost Rush Limbaugh, Michael Milken, the founder of the Prostate Cancer Research Foundation, CNN's Jeff Greenfield and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a frequent Night to Remember attendee, who spoke about his love of cigars and shared tales of going up against one of his former foils, the real-life gangster "Fat Tony" Salerno. Giuliani shared his personal interest in the event: he had prostate cancer, a disease that claimed his father. "If people had done this 30, 40 years ago, my father would have lived, and probably died of something else," he said.

Star chef Emeril Lagasse said a few words. John Salley, the former Chicago Bull and Detroit Piston and a star of "Best Damn Sports Show Period," joked about meeting Limbaugh, listening to him, then becoming a Republican. "I thought I was going to be able to save some money," he said. Bo Dietl, the renowned former police officer, was there, along with a who's who of American business leaders, including Facundo Bacardi, chairman of Bacardi & Co.; Ed Rabin, former president of Hyatt Hotels Corp.; Richard P. Torykian Sr., director of Lazard Frères & Co.; Jim Taylor of Cadillac and Mike Jackson of General Motors; Philip Geier Jr., chairman emeritus of Interpublic Group of Cos.; restaurateur Drew Nieporent; and wine store magnates Don Zacharia and Michael Goldstein.

The cigar stars in attendance included Cooper Gardiner, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, Benjamin Menendez, Sherwin Seltzer, Whit Beebe, Mike Giannini, Bill Chilian and Victoria McKee of General Cigar Co.; Carlos Fuente Jr. and Wayne Suarez of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia.; Jose Orlando Padrón and Jorge Padrón, makers of Padrón Cigars; Robert Levin of Ashton; Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana; Tim Ozgener, Aylin Ozgener and Mike Conder of C.A.O. International Inc.; Peter Baenninger of Davidoff of Geneva; Julio and Christian Eiroa of Camacho Cigars; Eric Newman of J.C. Newman Cigar Co.; Charlie Toraño of Toraño Cigars; Ernesto Padilla of Padilla Cigars; Daniel Miranda of Miami Cigar & Co.; Peter Arnell of Zino Platinum; Les Mann of Colibri; Matt Arcella, owner of the Davidoff stores in Las Vegas; and Stan Shuster, owner of the Grand Havana Rooms in New York City and Beverly Hills.

Limbaugh, the radio celebrity, came to dinner decked out in a "24" smoking jacket-cum-tuxedo jacket. He congratulated Shanken and the Four Seasons for standing up to the "health nazis" by holding the event. Shanken congratulated Limbaugh on his loyalty to the dinner, which he has never missed.

"Fourteen years ago, Rush said to me, 'This is the greatest evening of the year,'" said Shanken from the dais. "'As long as I'm alive, I'll never miss this dinner.'"

Greenfield used his time at the podium to lightly roast Giuliani, speaking of the challenges he faces if he decides to run for the presidency. "He has problems," said Greenfield. "He has a four-syllable name, and we've only had one four-syllable president." Greenfield joked that Giuliani, if elected, would most certainly end the U.S. embargo on Cuba and be sworn in "with one hand on the Bible, and one hand clutching a now legal Romeo y Julieta. It is often said there are no atheists in foxholes. Well, there are no principled anticommunists in a humidor."

Unlike his on-screen persona, the real-life Gandolfini was reserved. It took some convincing by Shanken to get him to briefly take the stage. When he spoke, it was from the heart. "I came from a blue-collar family," he said. "I look around this room and I'm amazed by the amount of generosity and power that is here. I think we have to remember those who are less fortunate, and what a great country this is."

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