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The Place at the Center : Arts Complex Benefactors Sip Bubbly With Chums in an Ambiance of Elegance

March 12, 1987|ANN CONWAY | Times Society Writer

Relishing a moment in the Center Room at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, John Gurney swirls some topaz liquid in a Zwiesel crystal glass. "Isn't that beautiful?" he says, holding the tumbler to the light.

Indeed. The deeply etched glass is washed in rainbows. "Not the glass, " Gurney pipes. "The Scotch! " In the Center Room, the chic, for-donors-only watering hole where Third-Century Syrian mosaics line the walls, a gaze of admiration is just as apt to befall a splash of Scotch as it is refracting German crystal.

This is a room where heads are not easily turned. This is a room where people such as Gurney--once an opera star at the New York Met--chat sotto voce with people such as Henry Segerstrom, chairman of the Center's board of trustees. This is a room where donors of $100,000 or more to the Center (previously $50,000 up until Dec. 31, 1985) are proving that, for theatergoing at least, giving well is the best revenge.

On a recent night, while thousands of others queue up at lobby bars to sip from plastic, members of the Center Room perch on fat sofas and toss down champagne from crystal chosen by committee. They drink coffee, unavailable anywhere else in the Center, from white Hutschenreuther cups. They pick at salted nuts and pillow mints, the only fare allowed in the Center.

And while their lobby neighbors must pay cash, Center Room members can buy their $6.50 tulips of Perrier-Jouet bubbly and their $4.50 snifters of Napoleon cognac--labels unseen in the lobby--with a flash of a gold-metallic membership card.

"All major arts centers have a room like this," says Timothy Strader, president and chief executive officer of the Center board of directors. "A place for donors to meet before the show and between acts."

Exactly 208 of the Center's 400 major donors have paid the $1,000 annual fee required for membership, says Tom Pascoe, the Center's director of development. "And that has exceeded our projections. We expected only 75 or 100 donors to have joined by the first of the year because many of our major donors are foundations. And many are from out of town. And many have joined the Center Club across the street."

At present, members are spending approximately $30 per month on beverages, says Joshua Lavender, Center beverage manager. And their most popular choices are the room's $4 California champagne and its $2 Swedish mineral water--both available at the same price in the lobby.

Ambiance and privilege notwithstanding, opening nights and personal entertaining seem to be what the Center Room is all about. Opening nights draw the most people, Pascoe said. "Approximately 90 to 100 members come and bring along their theater guests. That's when the room is most exciting."

Thomas Kendrick, Center executive director, said: "The same was true of the Golden Circle, the donor room at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., (where Kendrick was director of operations before coming to Orange County in 1985). Members paid $1,250 annually, and the room functioned as part of the excitement. Members loved the crush. The jam. The feeling everyone was there. And here, as in Washington, the room will be used in the same way--primarily for the excitement of opening nights and for business and personal entertaining."

Appointing the room's 2,500-square-foot interior was a challenge, says its designer, Armin Trattmann of Los Angeles. "The room is really too small. A room like that needs a large stand-up area. People want to walk in, order a drink and have a quick conversation." So Trattmann, who also designed the interior of the Center Club across the street, created a central, uncluttered stand-up area and lined the perimeters of the mocha mauve room with overstuffed sofa groupings. Silver-glinted marble tables complement the sitting areas, and geodes, split and polished, are among its accessories.

"It's a $250,000 interior, Trattmann said. "Excluding the five priceless mosaics on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum. It may look like a $2-million job, but it didn't cost that. It was economically done."

Among the scores breezing into the Center Room along with Strader and wife Susan on a recent opening night were Gurney--father of race-car builder Dan Gurney--arriving with wife Roma, importer Harry Esayian with wife Shari, and socialite Lois Cannon with fiancee Buzz Aldrin and guests Donna and John Crean.

Each group claims a cushy territory. In order to watch for their son's arrival, the Gurneys opt for a sofa near the door. The Esayians sip white wine with business friends on the room's balcony. Cannon and Aldrin, the former astronaut, choose a grouping at the center of the room. The Straders remain near the entrance to greet friends.

Harry Esayian adores the Center Room, he says, "because of the quiet. The comfort. The elegance. And the vista from this balcony, the chance to see the people streaming into the center."

Aldrin says he likes the chance to sit down, enjoy refreshment "and some good conversation."

While Timothy Strader says the room's greatest advantage is that it allows major donors a chance to get together, Kendrick sums it up in headier terms:

"It's a room the President of the United States may very well use."

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