SAN DIEGO — Quite a few of the city's more frolicsome party animals stampeded over to the Santa Fe Depot on Saturday for the fourth annual Orient Express Gala, a party that, most guests agreed, turned out to be both a hoot and a howl.
Irving the indigo snake, a sinuous, slinky, slithering six-foot segment of serpentine sinew and scale, made the scene. So did Wahuhie the great horned owl, and Anna the dog (Anna rather rudely slept through the proceedings, while the amiable Wahuhie proved to be quite the night owl). Among others out prowling the social jungle were Rolf Benirschke, Rep. Duncan Hunter (serving his fourth term as Orient Express honorary chairman), Gordon and Karon Luce, Paul and Jinx Ecke, Dan and Pat Pegg, and David and Joan Ward.
Not all of the 325 guests brought their party manners with them. Arusha the cheetah wound up spending most of the evening in her cage after she made some rather unfortunate advances upon gala co-chairman Michael Corrigan.
"Arusha chewed my boutonniere right off," complained Corrigan. While posing for the camera with the cat, Corrigan was most surprised when the cheetah reared against his shoulder and bit the rose from his lapel. "And the handler had just fed that cat a fish, too," added the aggrieved Corrigan, who was quickly brought another blossom by a party aide. (It must be mentioned in Arusha's defense that she may have been acting in accordance with the gastronomic convention that suggests eating a palate-cleanser after the fish course.)
Actually, the animals were imported from the San Diego Zoo merely as an accent to the fantasy created by the Orient Express committee. The idea was simple but fun: Guests were to imagine themselves to be travelers embarking on a journey aboard the famous Orient Express, the train that once carried the fashionable from London to Istanbul and now, in a modified version, elegantly plies the rails between London and Venice. The San Diego Regional Board of the National Kidney Foundation of Southern California presented the party, which raised more than $55,000 for foundation programs.
This mood of international travel was fostered by a variety of devices. When guests arrived at the railroad station, they had to pick up passports and have passport photos taken before they could be admitted to the party. Once admitted to the Santa Fe waiting room (dubbed Folkstone Vestibule in honor of the London waiting room whence departs the Orient Express), they found themselves in the midst of the extravagant world of the 1920s.
White-jacketed waiters moved smoothly through the crowd with trays of champagne, itinerant diplomats displayed chests covered with medals (fancy dress was encouraged; the cautious wore black tie), and flappers of various degrees of respectability tugged restlessly at the arms of the millionaires and aristocrats who were carrying them off to points East. The zoo critters and their handlers added glamour to a corner of the room; they were supposed to be a traveling animal act that had booked passage in the baggage car.
The scene, in short, was one of hustle, bustle and general intrigue, a mix lent both drama and gaiety by the casino that had been set up in the middle of the room. Here, revelers of a romantic turn of mind could fancy themselves countesses who were about to trade their last diamonds for a final shot at the roulette wheel. The more circumspect merely considered themselves to be legally gambling in the heart of downtown San Diego, a pleasant-enough pursuit that ended even more pleasantly when those in the chips found their luck rewarded with prizes at the end of the evening.
Master of ceremonies Ron Reina ventured into the midst of all this diversion to invite the guests to board the dining car (or at least to retreat to the station's tented platform, where a seated dinner was to be served). First, however, he introduced what he called "a little pre-dinner floor show that comes to you straight from Paris, France, and Chula Vista." With that, a trio of beaded and fringed flappers burst upon the dance floor and captivated the crowd with a spicy Black Bottom that ended entirely too soon.
The entertainment over, the guests retired to the platform and began to search for their tables which, rather than being numbered, were named after stops along the Orient Express route. Chairman Don McVay found himself at a table named for the city of Nimes, France, and proceeded to explain why none of the tables were named for cities in Germany or Austria.
"The present path of the Orient Express is mandated by the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919 at the conclusion of World War I. The signatories did not trust Germany and Austria, and kept the train from crossing those countries," said McVay, who had done his homework. "Just one of those fun little facts to know and tell."