It began as a party to watch the first televised Oscars and has progressed to become something bigger and more meaningful. The Diana Awards arrives on Saturday for a black tie affair with a cause. 

The buildup to Saturday's gala started last month with a jazzy kick-off cocktail party. But things get more serious – and more fun – with the main event. So we caught up with the organization's president, Tanner Williams (second photo), to discuss the shindig, this year's honorees and what else to expect from the festivities that raises funds for several Houston-area non-profits.

Tell us about how the Dianas came to be. 

It was 1953 and a group of friends in Houston got together to watch the first Academy Awards. They were watching and having a fun night. They decided to have their own awards, a spoof of the Academy Awards. It was purely a social event. The same group came together in 1954 and they started out with a roast of one of their friends. In their house, a roommate had brought a Roman statue of Diana. The friends felt she was partying along with them, so it became the Diana Foundation. The party grew so big, they broke away from the Academy Awards to do it on a Saturday night. The organization started making money off of the event and decided to give back to charities in Houston. We became a 501(c)3 foundation in 1976 and still continue to support local charities. The Diana Foundation is officially the oldest continuously running gay organization in the country.

What are some of the highlights over the years? 

I think one was the 30rd anniversary back in 1983. There was an elaborate set and opening number. At the time it was the gay thing to do. People came from all around the state to be part of it.

Who is being honored at the Dianas year? 

This year we will be presenting the Diana Award to the Honorable Ellen Cohen, who is a member of the Houston City Council and mayor pro temp. She is the 16th person to receive the award. She has served in the Texas Legislature. Houston tried another attempt to get an equal rights ordinance passed but there was a lot of opposition. It failed with voters because of the smear campaign that came up against it. She is a straight ally, but she was out there, trying to raise matching funds during the campaign. She is a no brainer to get the award. She is the featured honoree but the Golden Bow award will be given to a member of the foundation who has gone far and above as a volunteer. That is given every year, as a surprise. We will have four funny roasts as well.

Who are the beneficiaries? 

This year’s beneficiaries are AIDS Foundation Houston, Botts Collection: University of Houston Endowment, Homeless Gay Kids-Houston, Lesbian Health Initiative Houston, and University of Houston LGBTQ Resource Center. We have a process that starts in April to determine them. 

How long have you been president? 

It’s my second term, but this is my first full year as elected president.  I joined the organization as part of the 60th awards.

What does the foundation do outside of the awards dinner? 

Last year we hosted a big country weekend dinner and dance. It’s a three-day event in October, with a kickoff on a Friday night. Sunday is our Roundup Gospel brunch. Last year we hosted Steve Grand as our featured performer. He was fantastic. We are reviewing headliners for this year’s event. The awards show is black tie, more expensive, and the country weekend is much more casual and cheaper.  

So tell us what all makes the awards show worth attending.

Ketel One is a featured sponsor. There’s an open bar and a silent auction, as well as a dinner and a few surprises in terms of the videos and awards. The musical guests will be the Spazmatics, who will be playing at the after party. The awards will be hosted by radio personality Chad Pitt (top photo center) and drag performer Violet S’Arbleu will be there as well. It’s a great night. 

How many people do you expect this year?

We expect about 275 people for the awards show. Males are the majority but we do have men and women.

The 63rd Annual Diana Awards are Saturday, March 19 at 6:30 p.m. Learn more and purchases tickets.

Photos by Rob Martinez