A surprise $500,000 pledge from Bettie J. and Robert Girling, announced by architect Gregory Free at a premium auction at the Saturday night benefit for the Brownwood Lyric Theatre, got the party started.

And by the time the last bid was taken some 45 minutes later, another $110,000 had been raised in pledges for the downtown theater’s restoration, nearly half the amount needed to reach the $1.3 million goal.

The pledge from the Girlings was a complete surprise to the board, and the nearly 150 attending the gala “Night in Casablanca.” The significant amount raised will show the good faith required for numerous grant applications which, if received, would put the project near its goal amount.

Free showed a brief slide presentation of how the 400-seat, mulitple-stage theater would be restored, then called the Lyric Performing Arts Company’s board to the room’s center to announce the Girlings’ pledge.

While the James Davis Orchestra played a fanfare, board members hugged, cried, clapped and cheered.

“How awesome. How incredible. How wonderful. This is a night to remember,” said LPAC board member Priscilla Monson, wiping tears from her eyes, as she returned to her seat. “This is such a thrilling thing — what an incredibly generous gift, from the Girlings for our community.”

The premium auction was to “name” items in the theater, and bidders pledged $1,000 for seats, and, Monson said, numerous donors pledged several thousand dollars for several seats. Bidders also promised significant amounts toward the “green room;” money for the decor, the popcorn machine and lighting.

Ed Golden pledged $31,000 with the promise for providing an oak floor for the stage.

Dale Wheelis, who apparently had his knife “pick-pocketed” by Casablanca’s resident pickpocket bid $1,050 to buy his knife back.

Edda Ratliff, representing Citizens National Bank, bid $15,000 toward the restoration of the ticket booth. Barr Fabrication pledged $10,000, as did Stan and Debbie Cavett, and $6,000 and $5,000 pledges came from Everett McCrum and David and Peggy Morales, respectively.

The “Night in Casablanca” event which featured a three-course dinner provided by Casey Rowlett, dancing to the James Allen Davis Orchestra and gaming for fun was fully underwritten. Garry Eoff donated his services for the Rick’s Cafe Americain decor, which included a round bar built by LPAC board members and volunteers. Of each $125 meal, $90 was a donation to the Lyric restoration and the $35 covered the cost of the meal.

“It was fun and energetic — people had a great time,” Monson said. “This is a great community and it came through supporting the event and the project, and we are truly thankful.”