Perhaps it should come as no surprise that someone who is deeply inspired by butterflies and has penned a best-selling book called Box of Butterflies should fit the bill as a butterfly herself—of the gracious, social kind. Actress Roma Downey, who played the beloved angel Monica on the popular television series, “Touched by an Angel,” is also well known in Los Angeles for being one of the city’s friendliest, warmest, and kindest party hosts. Ironically, those who’ve attended her fêtes—which are usually held beneath a large tree at the Malibu home she shares with her husband, producer Mark Burnett—say it’s as if her parties have been “touched by an angel” because they’re so full of benevolence and purpose. Listen in as Downey reveals everything from her best entertaining tips and her thoughts about why parties matter to the reason she cherishes guests who listen and laugh.
How would you describe your entertaining style?
Casual yet elegant.
You host most of your parties at your beautiful Malibu home, “The Sanctuary.” Did you design it with entertaining in mind?
Peace and gratitude are very intentional thoughts in my life, so it’s important to me that my home radiates these qualities. I want guests to walk into my home and feel comfortable, as though they’ve stepped out of the city and into a place that is magical, special, and romantic. We are blessed to have a beautiful property right on the bluff in Malibu, so guests always have a beautiful view. The sound of the ocean, the feeling of the ocean breeze, and the light from the sunsets help to create an incomparable and serene atmosphere. And my garden is home only to white flowers with a hint of purple, which adds to the sense of calm and serenity.
The table is set for a beautiful party at The Sanctuary.
What is your preferred way to entertain at home?
Most of our entertaining takes place outdoors where we can enjoy the stars overhead and the beautiful ocean breeze. When night falls, the candles get lit. I love candles, and I put votives—hundreds of them—everywhere, and they’re pure magic! And I always make sure that I have enough heaters and a basket full of pashminas so the ladies can take the chill of the evening off their shoulders.
I’ve heard so much about the beautiful tree in your garden and the fact that you love to gather your guests beneath it. Tell us about it.
When we bought our home from [the late talent manager] Sandy Gallin, it came with a truly extraordinary tree in the garden. The tree is like “the giving tree.” It provides cool shade on the sunny days and captures the heat during our evening dinners. It is the perfect setting to inspire meaningful conversations.
Roma Downey at home with her husband, television producer Mark Burnett
What are your favorite kinds of parties to host?
We throw all kinds of parties, from intimate dinners to large charity events and fundraisers. And we have entertained actors and adventurers, royalty and rock stars, politicians and pastors, and soccer moms and dads. While we enjoy hosting large parties where we mix up the guest list and watch everyone mingle, my favorite parties are probably the smaller, more intimate gatherings under the tree. Because L.A. is an industry town, it’s easy for the conversation to end up focused on one thing, so when I can, I like to mix things up and get creative with the guest list. I always like to say grace before our meal, giving thanks for the food and all our blessings. My guests always respond positively. Even if they don’t share my faith, they share my grateful heart.
In your view, what makes a great party guest?
I like to create a loving table and encourage real connections, so I love guests who arrive ready to be fully present with one another. We’ve all seen people at parties who are just waiting to speak instead of listening to one another—they’re not really caring or connecting. Everyone enjoys a raconteur, of course, but good listeners are just as important. It’s like my old Irish Dad used to say, “You never learned anything by talking!” I also love guests who have a sense of humor. Laughter is so good for us, and a joyful guest is always good to have at the table to add some lightheartedness.
Roma Downey with friends, Alana Stewart, Linda Thompson, Lisa Russell, and Brooke Burke
Irena Medavoy, a 2018 Salonniere 100 honoree, has called you one of the best party hosts in Los Angeles. What is your secret to being a great host?
Well, coming from Irena, that is high praise indeed since she is the queen of entertaining. She is naturally warm and welcoming and joyful and has a generous heart, loving nature, and extraordinary taste! Like Irena, I always want to create a warm welcome for my guests. If they are going to take on the LA traffic and make that long drive to my home in Malibu, I want them to feel it was worth it.
What are your three party must-haves?
Lots of candles, great food and wine, and beautiful flowers.
And your party pet-peeves?
Guests who cancel at the last minute! When I have thoughtfully put together a seating plan, and a guest cancels on the day of the party, it can really ruin the flow of the table.
Are there any topics that you won’t touch at a party?
When people engage respectfully with each other, all topics can be discussed, even politics and religion!
What comes to mind as one of your most memorable party moments?
I love Van Morrison and have been a fan of his music since I was a young girl. Van came to dinner at The Sanctuary one night, and we all sat under the tree with the full moon shining down on us. My husband Mark loves to create the playlists for our dinners, and, of course, that night we played Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” Van laughed, and I could not believe it. There we were sitting under a full moon with Van Morrison, listening to him sing “Moondance.” It was dreamy!
Downey welcoming guests to her “girls-only” birthday party
What’s the best party you’ve ever been to and why?
I throw a “girls-only” birthday party for myself each year. I love women and believe we have to support, celebrate, and encourage each other, and this is a great way for me to honor all the incredible women in my life. It’s also a chance for me to introduce all these incredible women to each other, and I love to see new friendships and business relationships being formed. My birthday is on May 6, but I always have the party on May 5, because Cinco de Mayo is a much more fun date to celebrate. This year, almost 200 ladies attended, and it was filled with laughter and joy. We had margaritas, a mariachi band, and a piñata filled with lip gloss!
What’s the one party in history you wish you could go back in time to attend?
I’ve always loved the idea of going to a masked ball! I know they do one in Venice, and that has always sounded fun to me. I did have a great time at a wig party recently hosted by Ken Fulk. He provided wigs for everyone, and it was so funny to see how all the colorful and daring hairstyles liberated the partygoers on the dance floor. I found some new moves that night with my wig on—my inner disco dancer emerged!
What’s the best hostess gift you’ve ever received?
I can never get too many candles! Let your light shine, I say. It’s always better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
A representative from MyIntent makes bracelets for Downey’s party guests
What about party favors?
I love working with the team at MyIntent, a company that creates custom-made bracelets engraved with the inspirational words of your choice. Every time I have set this up at my parties, my guests have loved them. They are a great conversation starter and make great gifts.
Some of the décor elements at a party for Roma’s book, Box of Butterflies.
Photo: Los Angeles Times
You’ve been attending a lot of parties lately to celebrate the publication of your New York Times best-selling book, Box of Butterflies. Tell us about a few of your favorite moments.
When you write a book with the word “butterflies” in the title, as you can imagine, it sparks the imagination and creativity of your book-party hosts. At one beautiful party hosted by our friends Kelly and Alec Gores, there were beautiful, handmade, silk butterflies on the serving plates and in the floral displays. My girlfriend Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley hosted a party at her Washington, D.C. home, where she had a giant butterfly on the front door and butterfly-themed napkins. At a party in Dallas hosted by sisters Dr. Dane Hoang and Thanh Hoang and benefiting Operation Smile, they released real butterflies into the air to celebrate the release of my book! All of these beautiful details were so loving and touched me and made the book parties so special. I really appreciated the thought and attention to detail that went into all of the parties.
Tell us about the significance of butterflies in your life.
Butterflies have always been incredibly significant to me. I love them because they represent our ability to transform and change and grow. If you ever come to my home, you will spot decorative butterfly elements woven throughout each room.
And finally, why do you believe parties matter?
Parties are a wonderful opportunity to bring people together and make connections—a chance to spend time with old friends and get to know new friends, to share stories, joy, and laughter. They also provide the space to make real and meaningful connections with people—for business or purely for friendship—and give us a chance to meet those you may otherwise never mingle with, so it keeps your mind broad and your heart open. The late, great Maya Angelou used to say, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” For a dinner party to be truly memorable, it has to be about the feelings and ambiance. When an evening has been born out of intention and brings warmth, laughter, and kindness to others, it can really elevate the experience for everyone.
Some of Roma Downey’s favorite things
Playing Favorites with Roma Downey
Who or what is your favorite…
Dinnerware brand: Heath Ceramics
Stemware brand: Riedel or Zalto
Flatware brand: Georg Jensen
Tabletop shopping resource: TableArt
Powder room candle: LAFCO candles in Rosemary Eucalyptus and Fresh Cut Gardenia
L.A. florist: David Mark of Designs by David
L.A. caterer: Nobu and Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo at Caramelized Productions
Party drink: Casamigos Tequila, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and Napa Valley Chardonnay
Quick-and-easy hors d’oeuvre: Blinis and caviar
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Are social butterflies born or bred?
A profile of Valerie von Sobel, one of L.A.’s most enchanting party guests
Fall picnic parties: expert tips and treats