SAN DIEGO — Audiences at productions of the popular musical "Mame" usually can find a memorable line or two to take home and chew on for a while.
One of the most popular is Mame Dennis' coyly exasperated utterance, "Life is a banquet, and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!"
And while Mame's lament may carry a modicum of truth, it would be incorrect to suggest that any of the 160 guests at last Thursday's dinner staged by the Starlight Society, before the opening night performance of the San Diego Civic Light Opera Assn.'s production of "Mame," went home hungry. A few may have taken along doggy bags containing the remnants of veal cordon bleu and berries in cream.
Event chairmen Marilyn and Vince Benstead designed the dinner as a breezy prelude to what surely ranks as one of Broadway's frothiest plays. Held in the expansive court of the Aerospace Museum, as are all Starlight Society pre-performance frolics, the sunset-hour entertainment included the jazzy piano playing of Charlie Cannon. Cannon, one of Starlight's four founders, sang while he played, delighting his audience with a medley of the tunes he has offered up in a career of Starlight Bowl appearances that commenced in 1946. Perhaps in deference to his venerable talents, relatively few airplanes--the accepted bane of Starlight productions--swooped overhead during the dinner.
A few of the faces in the crowd displayed signs of opening-night jitters. These belonged to Starlight principals who attend these dinners as habitually as they do the cast parties that follow the first-night performances. Among those whose visages betrayed a trace of anxiousness to get the show on the road, as it were, were "Mame" director Ole Kittelson, choreographer Dom Salinaro, executive producer Leon Drew and artistic co-directors Don and Bonnie Ward.
The guest list also included Civic Light Opera Assn. board chairman Reba Brophy and her daughter, Rebecca; Starlight Society President Nell Swanson and her husband, Cal; Bill Seaton; Chris and Kathy Hamilos; Jean Rauchle; John and Chris McLean; Leni Arnhym; Jim and Cindy Ingham; Robert and Melanie Dean; Marilyn Johns with Bill Purves; Gil and Jane Mombach; Patti Milligan; Dale and Alice Saare; Rich and Margaret Darby, and Kent and Nancy Thompson.
Imagine a ballroom filled with guests--nearly 200 of them--but completely empty of sound, so hushed, in fact, that one could almost hear the whir of a rose petal gently spiraling from blossom to linen tablecloth.
It sounds as if last Thursday's luncheon at the San Diego Hilton was a meeting of the International Society of Somnambulists, but of course it wasn't, and the crowd in fact included some of San Diego's leading chatterboxes.
Following the example set by Howard Craig and his daughter and son-in-law, Stephanie and Don Starks, the guests kept their mouths shut for a simple, good reason: The luncheon was mounted as a surprise birthday tribute to community activist Leonor Craig.
Leonor Craig thought she was coming to the Hilton for a photography session to be used as publicity for an event to be given by the California Ballet, of which she is president. She was escorted by ballet buddies Diane Metzler, Carol Schraeder and Virginia Chasey, all of whom played a role in the deception, as did the Hilton catering department. The hotel staff kept the guests apprised of Leonor's movements from the moment she arrived until the moment she stood at the ballroom door, which amusingly declined to open on the first few tries and made the guests struggle to suppress giggles of delight.
When the door did open, it revealed Leonor in a state of some shock, the result of the crowd's massive roar of "Surprise!" She stood beaming through her tears while everyone crowded around and sang "Happy Birthday."
Since it was her day, Leonor was led to a throne on the stage, where more surprises lay in store for her, including the appearance of her son Flavio de la Vega, who flew up from Mexico City for the event. Later, a group of preschoolers from the Salvation Army's Door of Hope, the auxiliary of which Leonor long served as president, marched in to sing songs and offer flowers to their benefactress.
Although this was a birthday party, Leonor showed some reluctance to discuss just which birthday it celebrated. But even though a lady never will tell her age, her friends always will, and master of ceremonies Bob Arnhym informed the crowd on this important point by welcoming it to, as he said, the "49th anniversary of Leonor's 21st birthday."