If you're feeling a bit stressed about your holiday entertaining plans, listening to Chris Giftos talk about his experiences should calm you.
There was the time that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton was coming for a dinner at the
. Giftos had heard about a dye that could turn the water that evokes the Nile in the Temple of Dendur exhibit into a gorgeous aqua.
Problem was, the water turned blood red.
"That was not acceptable," Giftos says, in bemused understatement. "We had to drain it!"
Then there was the dinner for 600 people attended by the emperor of Japan.
, then mayor of
, got up to give a speech and remarked that he was so pleased the relations between the United States and
were going so well. "I'm not Italian!" the startled emperor said to Giftos.
As master floral designer and special events planner at the museum for 33 years, Giftos also attempted such daring effects as inflating hot-air balloons in one of the museum's courtyards. "They thought I was crazy!" He lighted 2,000 candles down the staircase. And every week until he retired in 2003, he created the five spectacular, massive bouquets at the museum's entrance.
"Flowers set the tone," he says. "I wanted people to come in and feel that it says, 'Welcome, we've been expecting you.' "
While there may have been a mishap or two over the years, Giftos doesn't let on. His advice for anyone who's entertaining: "Never acknowledge that there was a disaster. If the custard fell, whatever; they won't know. Even if something drastic happened to the meal, just bypass it. Don't ever mention a disaster. Just stay cool."
This time of year, Giftos' decorating feats are somewhat simpler. He puts up 28 wreaths at his 1750-era home in Woodbury and candles in each window, and he forces about a dozen amaryllis. And on
, he and his partner of more than four decades, Richard Albano, also will line their driveway with scores of luminaria, as do many Woodbury residents. "We've learned the traditions of this town."
Seven years ago, Giftos and Albano bought the 3-acre property, and after a lifetime of living in the city, Giftos, 70, clearly relishes the country life. He takes an exhilirating Zumba class three or four days a week. He also serves on the board of the Glebe House and the
Garden in Woodbury and recently was asked to join the board of the Mattatuck Museum in
The house has a central chimney with three fireplaces, wide-board floors and built-in cabinets that hold collections of pewter and dishes.
Giftos says they furnished the home on jaunts to garage sales, estate sales, Brimfield and consignment shops. Albano runs an antiques business in a small out-building on the property, but it's just a pasttime, "nothing serious," Giftos says, and is only open occasionally.
And in the house there are lots of vases, but they're usually empty.
"Plants are really what I love, green plants," Giftos says. "Arranging is work!
"I bought flowers my whole life," he adds. "I spent millions of dollars on flowers."
Even for Thanksgiving, he says, their centerpiece is usually just an arrangement of different breads. "People say, 'Where are the flowers?' "
Giftos travels extensively to give talks — "I think I've been to 38 states lecturing; I can't remember where I've been!" — and in May he was named an honorary member of the Garden Club of America, a high honor accorded to only a few dozen people of distinction, with support required from garden clubs around the country.
In his lectures, Giftos says, he encourages people to keep it simple. He likes to use tropicals, in part because they last longer; just a few big ginger, heliconia and bird-of-paradise blooms "make a very big show for very little money."
He also advises people to use flowers "that will live together and die together," explaining, for example, that autumn's chrysanthemums and spring-blooming tulips shouldn't be used in the same arrangement.
As for color, he says five colors generally work well together, and the biggest flower has to set the tone. But then the eye will want to wander.
Giftos grew up in
, Queens. His mother was born in Turkey of
parents, and his father was born in Greece; both moved with their families to the United States when they were in their teens. The authorities at
couldn't spell "Giftopoulos" and shortened the family's name to "Giftos," which Giftos notes means "gypsy."
His father ran a diner, and his mother worked with a furrier, and by age 13 he started working at a flower shop, delivering bouquets. He went to night school to become an accountant and, after a stint in the Army (where he played the French horn), Giftos started working for an insurance company.
He realized he had to become a florist. A family friend who was being drafted contacted him about taking his job at the Paris Flower Shop on the
. He felt out of his league.
"I knew gladiolus, carnation, pompon and baby's breath," Giftos says. But many of the 30 or so employees were Greeks, he says, "and they all took me under their wings."
The first time he waited on a customer, it was
, "way up there in age" and wearing a cloth coat and a babushka. He didn't recognize her. He later did flowers for a veritable who's-who of clients, including Bess Truman,
, Patricia Nixon,
The shop did flowers for the museum, and after one job completing 100 centerpieces for a party there, Giftos boldly asked Richard Morsches, then the vice president of operations, to hire him. That same gutsy approach landed him the self-created position of banquet manager. "Sure, my father was a chef — 'cheeseburger, cheeseburger' — I remember walking up the stairs and my heart beating."
'I Was Not Lucky'
Giftos says he had to "mature instantly" and had great advisers.
"But I was not 'lucky.' I worked hard — 18, 19 hours a day, never a holiday off." He often came home from the museum at 2 or 3 a.m. and figures his 33 years at the museum were "more like 45 years because of the hours I put in."
As the museum expanded, so did the events schedule, led by such chairs as
, Liz Tiberis, Pat Buckley, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and
. Giftos regularly handled arrangements for sit-down dinners for 800 people.
"It was a wonderful experience," he says. "I met everyone I ever wanted to meet," including presidents, royalty,
Eventually he had to get someone to help him do the centerpieces, Giftos says, "but I could always tell which ones were mine."