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Mirthful Mystery Aboard the Monterey Express : Caper Helps Draw Attention to Cancer Support Group

July 24, 1986|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

MONTEREY — It was a murder mystery called "The Encounter," and it started in Los Angeles on a train heading north toward this quiet bay city.

It ended, two days later, at the elegant Monterey Plaza Hotel, after guests had run up and down Cannery Row looking for clues from shopkeepers in order to solve the whodunit. There even was a fake murder at the hotel after which real paramedics carted away the body. It was clever make-believe.

Pulled the Caper

But, in reality, everyone knew Selma Schimmel did it. She pulled this caper using a mystery train trip to Monterey to draw attention to and raise funds for Vital Options, a Los Angeles support group that she founded for young adults with cancer.

"More than anything, this allows people to know we exist," said Schimmel, who set up Vital Options in 1984, the year after she was diagnosed as having breast cancer and could find no support group for people her age. It is the first cancer support group of its kind for young adults from 17 to 40 in the United States. At 28, Schimmel, who was a respiratory therapist and student at UCLA, underwent a lumpectomy, followed by nine months of radiation and chemotherapy and a second operation to remove several lymph nodes. "I felt so battered by the whole thing," she recalled. "I decided to take it and create an organization that would be able to help others feeling that way."

During the weekend trip, Schimmel was so busy answering questions about Vital Options from television and print media reporters that she had no time to play "The Encounter" game.

But she didn't care. Her main purpose, she explained, was to tell why she started Vital Options, which has offered free support groups, counseling and related services to more than 400 young people with cancer, their families and friends. And with the money raised from charity events, Schimmel plans to expand services even more this year.

"All the other people (in cancer support groups) were considerably older than I and I couldn't relate to their issues," Schimmel said. "Having cancer, it's not enough just to lick it physically, but to learn to deal with the emotional components. It's my belief that attitude is a major component. What we're trying to do is demystify it. Being diagnosed with cancer does not mean death. It means you have to work a little bit harder at living."

For Schimmel, who has been "cancer free" for three years now, life is centered around Vital Options, headquartered in Studio City. Her first fund-raiser, "Dance for Life" at the Beverly Theater last October, brought in $60,000 for the nonprofit charity, and she expects another "Dance for Life," scheduled Nov. 16, to raise more than that. The fund-raising tally from the train trip has not yet been completed, but she expects to clear more than $30,000.

Drove Up in a Rolls-Royce

For the mystery train trip, Schimmel geared invitations toward representatives of corporations, rather than individuals. "But there were individual donors," she said. "One man drove up to my office in his Rolls-Royce, came in and gave me a check."

The weekend package cost $1,946 per couple, that particular figure chosen because the mystery that guests would have to solve began in 1946.

Once aboard the train--five vintage cars attached to the rear of an Amtrak train bound for Seattle--the 130 guests found the plot was intricate. "Encounter" character Cammy Sue Cadwilder already had been kidnaped from Union Station to start the mystery rolling.

Through an unending number of clues for the next two days, mystery puzzle participants had to determine what happened to a photojournalist named Gregory Braithwaite Murray and his young wife, Simone, who disappeared on their honeymoon July 18, 1946, in Monterey. They also would have to solve several attempted murders and a successful one as the story unfolded on the train and at the Cannery Row hotel.

"For a young charity, an event like this is gutsy," Schimmel said of the train trip. "When I first proposed it to the board, they thought I was out of my mind. But I just knew we could do it. As a new charity, for us to be able to make inroads with three major international corporations is incredible and wonderful."

As major sponsors of "The Encounter," Schimmel lined up Parfums Givenchy Inc., Lincoln-Mercury and 3M corporation, and a long list of smaller businesses to contribute services and items to the event.

Moving Out Across Country

"I wanted to do the train trip because the train is representative of moving out across the country, which is what we want to do now with Vital Options," she said. "We want to expand to Northern California and then across the country, setting up emotional support groups for young adults."

To mystery participants and volunteers from Vital Options, the train mystery was representative, too, of Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express."

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