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Letdown at a Music Center Fund-Raiser

January 14, 1985|DAVID JOHNSTON | Times Staff Writer

Imagine paying $100 for a feast, only to leave famished.

That's what happened to about 250 people at the first Music Center New Year's Eve fund-raising gala. The event was planned to draw a new crowd to the Music Center, including young professionals whose rising incomes might make them regular donors.

Instead, the event, while a smashing success for some, apparently has alienated other potential supporters. Michael Newton, president of the Music Center Performing Arts Council, said an "extensive post mortem" is under way to figure out what went wrong.

No decision has been made on whether to hold another gala next New Year's Eve, added Newton, who conceived the idea.

A Delight for Some For the 750 to 825 people who did eat, and for another 250 people at a $350-per-plate sit-down dinner backstage, it was a delightful experience capped by an abbreviated Herbie Hancock concert as George Orwell's least favorite year passed into history.

But for several hundred people there was no pasta salad, vegetables and sliced-to-order roast beef. Even as people inside were waiting for food that did not exist, dozens of $100 tickets were being sold to latecomers at the Pavilion box office.

One hungry man got so angry he grabbed a waiter, shook him and demanded dinner, according to Robert Kissinger, general manager of the Music Center restaurants, which are operated by Hungry Tiger Inc. The operation Kissinger directs has a long-term exclusive contract to provide all food service at the Music Center.

Veteran fund-raising professionals at other organizations said they cannot imagine staging an event where anyone, much less 25% of the guests, went hungry. These professionals said that if such a situation did arise they would handle it much differently than did the Performing Arts Council, the Music Center's umbrella fund-raising group.

The buffet dinner, mix of jazz, swing and juke box music and strolling entertainment in the Grand Hall of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion drew either 970 or 1,100 people, depending on which Music Center official is speaking.

Tickets were sold at the door because "when we opened those doors we did not have cash in hand from ticket sales for the number of dinners we had guaranteed the Hungry Tiger," said Esther Wachtell, vice chair of the Music Center Unified Fund, who manages the fund-raising campaign on a day-to-day basis.

Many of these people, including the press and some Music Center employees, attended free. Newton declined to say just how many free tickets were handed out, but did say it was fewer than 300 tickets, as one Music Center insider reported.

The morning of the gala, the order for meals was increased from 650 to 750.

The afternoon of the gala, more than 100 people called to inquire about buying tickets. But this outpouring of last-minute interest did not prompt any move to further increase the food order, Wachtell said, because it was not known how many of the callers would show up.

"We misjudged it. There's no question about it," Wachtell said.

As to why ticket sales were not stopped at 825, the maximum number of meals that could be served, Wachtell said:

"I don't think anybody realized it was happening . . . how do you know how many are coming through that door unless they are sitting there counting 1,000 tickets at the door, like an airline does?"

Lack of food was not the only problem. Guests were forced to stand in one line, some for an hour, to get fed, according to those in the line, Wachtell, Newton and observers. Kissinger said that there were four separate feeding lines.

Upstairs in the Pavilion restaurant, where a dance floor was installed for a nightclub atmosphere, many chairs were not in place and some of the linen-covered tables were dirty. Wachtell said she had to clean her table off before she and guests could sit down for some post-midnight conversation.

And while the Performing Arts Council bought white wine and champagne--which guests were to receive without additional charge--some bartenders at the impromptu nightclub charged $1.50 for each glass of white wine they served.

Experts at staging such events, such as Nate Zack of the City of Hope's fund-raising office, said a separate feeding line should be formed for every 100 or so guests, with three different feeding areas for a crowd of 750 to 1,000.

"For 250 people not to get fed you have to have to be pretty casual about what you are doing," observed Jack Schwartz, executive director of the American Assn. of Fund Raising Counsel, an organization of 30 of the nation's leading fund-raising firms.

"Something like that just doesn't happen if you are competent," Schwartz said.

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