Friends and supporters of the Huntington Library Art Collections and Botanical Gardens came home Friday night. And were they glad they did.
Everyone agreed that it hadn't been the same last year when the annual Christmas party for trustees and major donors was held in another hall. Just a few months earlier, an "almost disastrous fire," as Stanton Avery, chairman of the board of trustees, called it, had left the main art gallery--a turn-of-the-century mansion built by railroad tycoon Henry Huntington--coated in a layer of soot and smoke.
But after a yearlong renovation, a trail of limousines was snaking past the cactus gardens and pulling up to Henry Huntington's front door once again.
Social stalwarts such as Terry and Dennis Stanfill, former Vatican envoy William Wilson and his wife, Betty, Carter Hawley Hale's Philip and Mary Hawley, and Bullock's President Allen Questrom and his wife, Kelli, mingled amid favorite paintings like Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" and gathered for cocktails beneath the grand staircase festooned with greenery and ribbons.
'Everybody Feels Happy'
"Everybody was very sad last year," noted Marion Jorgensen, chairman of the Huntington Overseers, a 35-member board that works closely with the trustees. "But here we are and everybody feels very happy."
"It's all totally cleaned up, and we're very much better than ever before," said Avery, who was greeting each and every guest in a receiving line with his wife Ernestine. "It looks just as it did, but of course much fresher."
Maggie Wetzel pointed out that it was "unfair to see it with so many people, because it's so beautiful. All the curtains have been cleaned, the wood's been polished and I think they're closer to the original colors."
Many of the guests strolling through the familiar rooms had attended other important events for the arts in recent weeks, including the opening of the Robert O. Anderson Building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art as well as the inaugural season of the Music Center Opera.
County museum trustee Nathan Smooke said that "never" has there been a social season for art patrons as busy as this. "You see the same people every place you go," one guest said.
'Most Exciting Time'
Esther Wachtell, executive vice president of the Music Center, remarked: "In terms of the arts, I think this is the most exciting time in the 25 years I've lived in Los Angeles."
For the Huntington, there was plenty of reason to celebrate. Before dinner began, Avery announced the near conclusion of a successful $1.35-million endowment fund campaign and proudly added that "after several years of deficits, the Huntington had a balanced budget."
Financially speaking, there was the added bonus of a mystery man identified only as "Santa Claus" who volunteered to pay for the cost of the entire evening. "He underwrote the party provided he remain anonymous," said Jorgensen. "However he is in your midst so applaud him."
A Huntington Tradition
Suffice to say, that bit of news kept tongues wagging throughout the entire first course (shrimp salad and honeydew) and on through the chicken pot pie.
The Chasen's-catered meal is a Huntington tradition which never fails to bring to mind President Reagan, a die-hard Chasen's chicken pot pie fan.
"Every year it's the same," said Georgie Erskine. "I think one year the Reagans should come here and eat their favorite food."
Party chairman Betty Adams, resplendent in a white gown by James Galanos, and among a contingent (including the Jorgensens) just back from the Kennedy Center honors in Washington, said that she could recall only once when the President and First Lady attended a fund-raiser for the Huntington. It was many years ago when he was governor--and it was in the summer.