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Getting Two Is a Trial : Quest for opening-night seats goes on and on and . . .

September 21, 1986|ELLEN APPEL | Ellen Appel is a writer and publicist. Her latest book, "A Needlepoint Scrapbook," co-authored with actress Loretta Swit, will be released by Doubleday in October. Editor's note: Just before Center Stage went to press, Appel learned that an unspecified number of seats had gone unclaimed by major donors. Jim Feichtmann, who disclosed the news if not the numbers, told her that on Aug. 12, 5,000 letters would go out--to all support group members and remaining donors--giving them an opportunity to purchase these seats on a first-come, first-serve basis. On Aug. 13, when Appel last telephoned The Times, she was camped by her mailbox, checkbook in hand and car aimed toward the Performing Arts Center.

It all started over a Cobb salad at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach. Bonnie and I were having our usual (without the avocado), with the usual talk (my impending divorce and her last date), when the subject of the Performing Arts Center came up. On that particular day, the notion of an arts center in Orange County intrigued us even more than my departing husband's last words or Bonnie's previous evening.

As record-holders for multiple viewings of musicals (I hold the title for "Pippin," Bonnie for "A Chorus Line"), we found exciting the thought of having musicals, concerts, opera, ballet and all manner of live performances a mere 10 minutes' drive away.

We figured that celebrating the center's opening would be a once-in-a-lifetime joy. With 3,000 seats in the theater, surely there would be room for us.

How naive! Good intentions, coupled with a love of the arts, do not necessarily get you a ticket. That lunch took place more than two years ago, in the innocent days before we knew how many high-rolling arts lovers there were in Orange County.

Certainly we didn't expect to find opening-night tickets at Ticketron. Logic dictated that those who helped build the center would be the chosen ones.

Back then, I figured that helping the center was a fine idea anyway. So I set about looking for a guild to join. I knew about the guilds because I had already sipped margaritas at the Cabaret chapter's Cinco de Mayo festival.

The Cabaret chapter was among the community guilds formed to raise funds for the center. Some guilds had a broad membership base, others a narrow one. The South Pacific chapter, for example, consisted of female bridge players only. Something for everyone.

The Cabaret chapter took in persons of both sexes, primarily of the younger, unattached variety. Perhaps I was too close to divorce to appreciate Cabaret. At Cinco de Mayo, it seemed as though all the singles bars in the county had emptied onto Lido Plaza for a night.

On a friend's recommendation, I joined the Sound of Music chapter. Composed mainly of coastal socialites, Sound of Music looked like the magazine Newport Beach (714) come to life. My problem with Sound of Music was the morning meetings. Given my work schedule, active membership would have been impossible.

So I moved on to the other center support groups.

One support group, Angels of the Arts, raised funds through a $10,000 initiation fee (that amount was raised to $12,500 last year) and substantial annual dues. That group was easy for me to eliminate. I'm no angel--at least not one with $10,000 or more to donate.

I joined the Center 500, designated for young professionals. But I soon learned that the group's chances of getting in were pretty slim. The center's opening-night committee, which determines who gets into the big event, declared the opening night a fund-raiser and gave none but major donors the opportunity to warm the center seats on Sept. 29.

Here's how it works: Center Founders and $10,000 donors had the option to buy two tickets; $50,000 donors, four; $100,000 donors, six, and $1 million-plus donors, eight.

The first invitational letter went out to donors in May. For a price, according to Henry Segerstrom, chairman of the center trustees, a donor could enjoy Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, then attend an "unforgettable" post-performance gala.

That price was $2,000 per ticket, or $1,000 if one didn't mind a view from the rear of the theater. For dollar-wise donors, leftovers would be clearance-priced at $250 and $500.

Although Segerstrom wrote that "we do not expect the entire theater will be subscribed" at $1,000 and $2,000 levels, he warned that "we have no way of guaranteeing the availability of tickets" after the first rights of priority have been exercised.

Immediately, 680 donors purchased the four-figure seats, according to Jim Feichtmann, special projects administrator. Donors who waited had 1,820 seats left to divvy up at all four price levels (91 seats were removed to accommodate the orchestra; 409 were reserved for the press and assorted VIPs).

Support groups were next in line, but opening-night committee chairman Gary Hunt said he doubted that any tickets would be available. As far as I could see, I seemed as likely to go to opening night as to ascend the podium should Zubin Mehta get caught in traffic en route.

Suddenly, 3,000 turned out to be a small number of seats.

For all us guild and group members who missed the $10,000 mark, the center has designated "opening season" events. The Guilds get Leontyne Price; other support groups, Isaac Stern. Not exactly opening night, Henry, but a nice try.

Still, I decided not to give up hope. Perhaps a major donor needed a date for opening night.

A chance, though a razor-slim one. When I wrote a story a few years ago in a local newspaper about the center's $50,000-and-up donors, I noticed precious few bachelors in the bunch.

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