+ By Desiree Smith-Daughety + Photos by Bridgett Rheam
The trajectory of a person’s life can, like light, refract and traverse in a new, unplanned direction, compelled by the most unexpected events.
Even by a surprise birthday party.
Raoul Graves traces his start in event planning and promotions to a joyous occasion when someone threw a surprise party for him 15 years ago. What that person couldn’t know was how this act became a pivot point in his life. When 500 people showed up for the party, the venue owner suggested that Graves throw parties more often, and Graves responded, “You know what? I’ll do that.”
The next summer, Graves followed through, hosting a party just for fun to which 500 people again flocked. Next BIG Thing Productions grew organically from there. People would approach Graves and ask if he could work on various events for various occasions after seeing his staging and use of props such as searchlights, military and first responder vehicles, and other background staging to go with the theme, such as a haunted beer garden for Halloween. He began receiving requests for weddings and then for nonprofit events.
Graves is no stranger to the art of showmanship. In his early years, he got his first bartending gig at Rams Head Tavern, which he credits as being the venue where he first got to know and love what he refers to as his Annapolis family—the community of friends he’s developed. He learned to bartend and then took it a step beyond, becoming a “flair” bartender after teaching himself some tricks. Next BIG Thing Productions may soon benefit from this area of expertise by incorporating server and bartender training for personnel to use at private events.
Graves brings his talent and an all-embracing enthusiasm for people to planning, production, and promotions for nonprofit causes. His illustrious client list includes Eastport a Rockin’, The Bernie House Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, and food and clothing drives for Lighthouse Shelter, to name a few.
One annual charitable event—the Eastport vs. Annapolis Tug of War—allows him to exchange his clipboard for a section of rope to hold while helping to raise money for charities. Graves modestly claims bragging rights for being a member of a tug team made up of bars on the Eastport side, which so far has gone undefeated for five years straight.
For an event, Graves may be called to handle any and all facets, from planning to promotions, to service provision to the whole shebang. Other events only require him backing up others to facilitate what they’re doing. “I’m the ‘fix-it’ of events—the event doctor. They call me when there’s a problem.”
Graves comes by this type of work naturally, maybe even genetically. He hails from a large family, with elders who had lots of siblings that grew the family tree. All who are still living are local. Graves’ grandmother used to put on an annual family cookout attended by hundreds of people. When she passed, Graves stepped into her role, now heading up his family reunion committee but with one sanity saving tweak: it’s now a biennial event.
The most novel event he’s ever produced was also one of the many he’s launched. Bykes 4 Tykes provides bikes to children whose families otherwise don’t have means to provide them. Just two years ago, Graves set a goal of making sure 100 children each year receive a bike. Sponsorships always get snapped up, so he plans to keep raising the ante.
he weekend before Christmas, 100 children are invited to a local restaurant (to date, it’s been at the Greene Turtle—he produces all of the company’s events). The lucky 100 are chosen by nonprofit children’s programs that work with the city and county school systems. The children think they’re only being rewarded with a free lunch for doing well at school. They do enjoy a complimentary meal, but they also meet Santa and hear carolers from such programs as Naptown Sings. With the help of a community leader, they each make a Christmas ornament kit for a child who must stay in the hospital over the holidays, and they make an ornament to give to their parents or someone else. The children then get up, thinking they’re leaving. Lined up along the patio, they say “cheese” for what they believe is a group photo. When the time is right, they are asked to turn around and are greeted by each sponsor, lined up with a bike, calling out “Merry Christmas!”
“It’s a tear jerker—I cried ‘mission accomplished,’” says Graves, recalling how appreciative the children and parents are. “That’s my favorite event. My family has a thing: Give us our flowers while we’re still here. Whenever someone’s in need, we were taught to help them,” he says, “not turn our back—help encourage them to get through.”
While he finds himself especially drawn to nonprofit work, a recent pivotal moment, his own wedding, has inspired him to set course in that direction as well. “You can get paid in many different ways, but it’s gratifying work, and that’s payment. I love people, period,” Graves says. “I’m a man for the people and for family, God, and positivity in the community.” █