When Julie Harris plays "The Belle of Amherst," her fans head for the theater, no matter the distance.
At her special benefit performance at the Laguna Moulton Playhouse Saturday night, the play's author, Bill Luce, ventured to Laguna Beach from his home in Yosemite. He said he wouldn't miss seeing Harris in her Tony award-winning role as Emily Dickinson.
At an Amherst College reunion in Massachusetts, Dick Billings of Laguna Beach had invited all his classmates to the performance. So Amherst grads Bob Bartholomew drove in from La Jolla and Lamar Christy traveled from Ohio for the event.
More than 100 theater supporters joined Harris after the performance Saturday at a black-tie supper at Ron's in laguna restaurant. A similar benefit for 36 additional supporters had been planned for Sunday night, but because Harris was unable to join the group at the restaurant, a champagne reception was held on stage instead.
At $100 per person for the performance plus reception and $250 per person for patron status, estimated proceeds of $25,000 will go toward the theater's refurbishing and expansion campaigns.
Harris said she had been pleased to donate her time to the Laguna Moulton Playhouse. "The theater (in general) has given me so much. When I was asked to do the play, it was an opportunity to give something back," she said. "I love this play. It has a remarkable spiritual presence, and it's always a great thrill going back to it again."
At the restaurant, few could stop talking about Harris and the play.
Dr. Mark Johnston said: "I don't think I've seen anyone of that caliber in a long time, no matter where--New York, Los Angeles, anywhere."
Orange County Superior Court Judge Don Smallwood said: "I want to go out now and buy a volume of Emily Dickinson's poems."
Ed Gazich--one of the original producers of the Broadway play--borrowed a phrase from Dickinson. "Paradise is no journey for me," he said, adding that he had found his own heaven since moving to Laguna Beach seven years ago.
But Gazich didn't leave the theater behind him. As a Playhouse board member, he had been instrumental in bringing Harris to the theater for the weekend.
Board member and patron Bunny Pero said she had been looking forward to seeing the play ever since she heard critic Gene Shalit call "Amherst" the best play ever produced.
"But having it here seemed too much to hope for," Pero said.
The Laguna Moulton Playhouse, in existence since 1920, boasts a tradition of having fine performers on its stage. "Starting with Bette Davis," reminded Vern Spitaleri, board president and patron of the play. Spitaleri also named Mike Farrell of TV's MASH and Harrison Ford as distinguished alumni of the theater.
Board member Dr. Eugene Levin said he and his wife, Vivian, have been going to the Playhouse for 30 years.
During the post-theater supper, former "Supreme" Lynda Lawrence entertained, while guests chose from tournedos of beef Helder, halibut in strawberry meuniere sauce and curried chicken. Gazich, who attended with his wife, Barbara, said that starting in June, because of Harris' work on behalf of the Playhouse, the board of directors will grant an annual Julie Harris Award to the two most outstanding acting students at Laguna Beach High School.
The play's patrons also included Mervyn and Sharon Phelan, Nick and Barbara Williams, Shirley Garibaldi, Robert Granafei, Dr. Sheldon Lippe and Constance Morthland.