LA JOLLA — Mercedes McCambridge, the actress whose nearly bottomless voice rasped out the voice of the demon in the movie "The Exorcist," is not one to mince words. She tends to express herself . . . well, forcefully.
And McCambridge made one heck of a statement to the 150 guests who gathered May 7 at the James S. Copley Library to help launch the monthlong 1986 San Diego Festival of the Arts.
"I do not like green eggs and ham," she growled, and there wasn't a soul present who doubted her sincerity.
But there were a few (more than a few, really) who giggled when she made this statement of culinary preference, and even one or two who grinned at the thought of not liking green eggs and ham. After all, everyone likes green eggs and ham, right?
Ted Geisel has been served this dish more than once, and he likes it just fine. But then he should, since he invented it when he wrote "Green Eggs and Ham," the Dr. Seuss book that along with so many others remains a children's favorite. And it was Theodor Seuss Geisel, a man who remains a San Diego favorite, who was the star of the show at this lively reception.
Geisel is honorary chairman of this year's festival, and major figures from almost every arts organization in the city turned out to applaud his receipt that evening of the 1986 San Diego Living Treasure award. This designation, which is modeled on the Japanese practice of honoring great artists during their lifetimes, is of recent vintage and is given to only one person each year.
Quite a bit of Seussian gaiety and frivolity led up to the presentation of the award, which in terms of the party came rather like the cherry on top of the cupcake. Much of the activity simply involved taking on sustenance (classy hors d' oeuvres catered by Somerset) and discussing the latest developments on the local arts scene, which has been threatening to explode.
"We're working toward the creation of the image of San Diego as a center of the arts, which it is rapidly becoming," explained a beaming Jack Borchers, whose position as president of the festival permits him to do a bit of civic boosting. "We have a schedule of arts events that many cities would envy."
Borchers had no need to sell the guests on his point of view, since they all agreed with him. In the crowd were Charles Deane, after whom a new theater in the Gaslamp Quarter is being named; COMBO patrons Virginia and Jack Monday; Suzanne Townsend of the San Diego Arts Foundation; Starlight Opera President Amy Krulak; noted photographer Tony di Gesu; San Diego Museum of Art supporters Ingrid and Joseph Hibben; Old Globe Theatre benefactors Mary and Walter Smyk, and many others who have labored in the vineyard of the arts.
The formalities (if one may use this word to describe a program filled with whimsy and nonsense) began when longtime Geisel crony Dick Duffy introduced McCambridge to the crowd.
"How long has it been since the child in any one of us has been delighted?" asked the actress, who then proceeded to induce just such a delight in the audience.
After rumbling through "Green Eggs and Ham," she continued with readings from Geisel's latest book, "You're Only Old Once!" a chronicle of Geisel's own experiences with modern medicine. The audience tittered and squeaked and giggled and guffawed, while through it all, the cat who put the feline in the hat stood grinning like an exceptionally pleased Cheshire.
Then Craig Noel, the recipient of the Living Treasure award in 1985, stepped forward to make the presentation to Geisel.
"Ted makes me think of the 'Three A's--artist, author and adventurer,' " Noel said. "He is our most illustrious citizen in the arts, and has been for a long time. We love him."
Geisel accepted the award with typical brevity and wit, explaining that he had considered three different ways of demonstrating his gratitude.
"My first option was to face Mecca and whistle Beethoven's Fifth," he deadpanned, adding that a second potential course would have called for him to face Chula Vista, prostrate himself, and do 12,000 push-ups. "My third option was to face Scripps Clinic" (the locale of much of the poking and probing that inspired "You're Only Old Once!") "But having considered these three options, I said, 'To hell with it,' and I'm just going to say thank you."
The speech concluded, Audrey Geisel rushed to her husband's side so quickly that one might have thought she had seen something on Mulberry Street; she arrived there just a split second in advance of the first chorus of applause.
The crowd included Jeanne Jones, Dolly Maw, Susan and Charles Edwards, Lois and Don Roon, Kit Goldman, David Copley, Hugh Davies, Kathi and John Howard, Alice Cramer, Richard Brooks, Bill Purves, Betty and John Mabee, Detty June and Philip Klauber, Alan Ziter (the newly named executive director of the San Diego Theater League), Geoff Brooks, George Gafford, and Marge and Author Hughes.