SAN DIEGO — Quite like ticket-holders of first-class passage on Noah's Ark, 830 party animals strolled into the San Diego Zoo on Saturday to boogie at Rendezvous In The Zoo (RITZ), the annual jungle hoedown that despite its youth (this was but the fourth) has come to be considered one of the top five galas of the year.
Held on the very eve of summer, RITZ for many of the guests was a kind of full-dress rehearsal for the seasonal rush of major events (opening day at the Del Mar track, the Jewel Ball, A Night in Monte Carlo, to name a few) that always makes the arrival of September seem ridiculously premature.
It was a party for people who like animals, of course (and very much a party for people who simply like parties), but it was not for those who dislike peacocks. Decor honchos Dick Ford and Liz Smith chose the vainglorious beasts as the RITZ emblem, and turned the party site into Peacock Alley. In the open-air ballroom, five-foot-high, hand-crafted peacocks rose above every table, and above them, strings of lights were twisted into fancy shapes that looked like peacocks with spreading tails. Peacock feather fans spread out at every woman's place, to be taken home as party favors.
By fortuitous coincidence, one of the zoo's resident peacocks chose to station itself in a tree just inside the main entrance, where it helped RITZ chairman Betty DeBakcsy and zoo President Betty Jo Williams welcome arriving guests. It also shrieked, in the peculiarly piercing way these birds are wont to do, whenever the nearby Dixieland quartet swung into a particularly lively number.
Williams said the peacock gilded what for her was an already-perfect evening. "We hope RITZ just goes on forever--it's so special to be able to have a party in the zoo," she said. "After all, where else do you get to have cocktails with the golden monkeys and dinner with the peacocks?"
Where else, indeed, a fact of which the guests seemed utterly cognizant as they ventured, like so many Livingstons and Stanleys, into the heart of darkest Balboa Park. The cocktail reception was given in the bird and primate mesa. Ken Allen, the orangutan noted for making numerous escapes from his enclosure, gave every indication of wishing to join the goings on. He certainly would have enjoyed himself, since it was a swinging party.
There was no way of telling what the animals really thought of the guests, but they surely must have been startled by some of the costumes. The invitations suggested "jungle elegance" as an alternative to black tie, a suggestion interpreted liberally and enthusiastically by many. Leopard spots and zebra stripes abounded (but despite the coolness of the evening, furs were few, no one wishing to give offense to the zoo denizens), and several couples dressed themselves as Tarzan and Jane. A woman in leopard-print hot pants was described as "the cat's pajamas" by more than one guest.
Chairman DeBakcsy and her co-chair, Joanne Warren, chose a method unique in the annals of local party-giving to summon guests to the ballroom for dinner. The pair rode up to the cocktail area atop Katy the elephant, a kindly-looking beast of great size who seemed quite pleased to be of service. (The zoo employees who followed with shovel and broom were not redundant.)
Parade of Animals
DeBakcsy said efforts to mount the pachyderm in the usual manner failed, so she and Warren simply climbed to the top of a parapet, removed their shoes, and jumped upon the animal's back, as blithely as if they were tigers in the jungle. Both waved enthusiastically from their hairy perch, but neither thought to call out "Howdah do!" to passing friends, and thus missed quite an opportunity.
Ballroom tables were grouped into three islands, separated by wide alleys whose function became obvious shortly before the guests dug into their first course of Congolese vegetable pate. As soon as everyone had been seated, a fanfare sounded and in marched Carol the elephant, peacock feathers painted on her haunches, bells jangling on ankle bracelets and zoo good will ambassador Joan Embery grasped firmly in her trunk. A parade of festive animals followed, including a pair of llamas in formal black ties; miniature horses; a black and white lemur, one of the endangered species the zoo is attempting to preserve through its breeding programs; an unusually well-behaved dromedary, and, draped around Liz Smith's shoulders, a very lively and sinuous boa. Smith seemed quite as comfortable as she would have were the boa of the feathered variety.
Zoo executive director Doug Myers liked the parade as much for its educational as its entertainment value--the procession of critters did indeed give a clear example of where the party proceeds would be going.