Gowns, glorious gowns, 250 of them--beaded, bustled and bowed--dangled near guests who dined on the second floor of Neiman-Marcus in Newport Beach on Tuesday night.
"Many of them were purchased with the Orange County woman in mind," said Lee Goodier, international buyer for Neiman-Marcus and a guest at Optical Illusions, a chic $150-per-person fashion show and dinner staged on behalf of Pacific Chorale and the Orange County Philharmonic Society.
"The Orange County woman is more exciting, daring and glamorous than women in New York or Dallas," Goodier said with a delighted giggle. "She loves to be different, have fun, make a statement."
Indeed. Bunny Pero arrived wearing flounced ecru lace with matching Juliet cap. Pearls dotted her bodice and swung from her bonnet. "Isn't it wonderful to party in a department store?" asked a grinning Pero, who co-chaired the affair with her husband, Jeff, and Joann and Edward Halvajian. "Usually, I'm here with my credit card, scaring Jeff to death."
Pacesetter Kathryn Thompson's fashion statement was absinthe-green and bead-encrusted, the same dazzling Gildas design she wore to the Performing Arts Center opening. Diamonds and Brazilian emeralds gleamed about her neck.
What is Thompson's criterion when making a pricey purchase? (The gowns in the collection topped out at around $10,000.) "The individual, the unique," she said.
Guest Elle Rice didn't need to peruse the racks between dreamy dinner courses of sashimi Napoleon (raw fish alternated with brittle crust), stuffed veal, and berries served up with apricot mousse. She had stumbled on the collection, which is making a national tour of Neiman stores, earlier in the day.
"I came by for lunch and happened on the gowns," Rice said. "And I ordered a beautiful one--a white velvet and taffeta with tiny rosettes and pearls, very Victorian. I plan to wear it during the Christmas season."
Even the men were planning ahead. After cocktails and a fashion show on the first floor that showcased the oomphiest bathing suits and most bewitching gowns, Edward Halvajian said his wife could purchase two if she wished. "You can't wait until the occasion," he said in earnest. "You have to plan ahead."
Joann Halvajian already had done some planning. "I've been shopping here for the past six months," said the soprano with Pacific Chorale who also is a Philharmonic Society volunteer. "We've had all of our Optical Illusions meetings here. I bought this dress, this hat; Ed is going to kill me. . . ."
Patricia Vollmer, wife of Erich Vollmer, executive director of the Philharmonic Society, remembered the last time she had attended a benefit at Neiman-Marcus: "I couldn't resist a lavender gown--gorgeous! Wore it to the opening of the Arts Center."
Vollmer was pleased, he said, to see arts groups begin to conduct a symbiotic fund-raising effort in Orange County. "The regional groups--the Pacific Chorale, Master Chorale, Pacific Symphony and Opera Pacific--used to go their own way. But now that we have the Performing Arts Center, we see there are great advantages to working together."
Proceeds, estimated at $20,000, will be divided between the two groups, Vollmer said.
Finally. A party that one can say was attended by "1,300 of her closest friends" and mean it.
Virginia Knott Bender's friends came in droves--arms outstretched for hugs and kisses--to her country bash staged in Knott's Berry Farm's Gold Rush Camp Friday night. And the daughter of Knott's Berry Farm founders Walter and Cordelia Knott welcomed them all, each and every one, kissed them hard until her pink lipstick smudged, smeared, then disappeared.
At a mere $75 per ticket, the benefit that brought proceeds of $50,000 to the Orange County Trauma Society was the charity bargain of the year. Not only did guests--country-casual in hoedown finery--dine on crispy fried chicken and oozing boysenberry pie, they danced to the boot-stompin' beat of the Western Union Band, witnessed the premiere performance of the farm's new "Spellbound" illusion show and took a spin on the "Kingdom of the Dinosaurs" ride.
"Ahhhh, this is my life!" said Bender, gazing up at the farm's replica of Independence Hall. "My whole life! A friend sent a limousine to pick Paul (her husband) and me up tonight, and I thought, 'What would father think of me coming to the farm in a limousine to greet 1,300 people?' "
Among those to receive Bender's dancing-eyed welcome--"Father taught us to treat people at the farm the same way you treat them at home," she explained--was Dr. John West, who founded the Trauma Society in 1981. "Take a look at these," West said, lifting his jeans to reveal some cream-colored cowboy boots. "They belonged to Gene Autry. He donated them to our first auction and I bought them for $400."
Bender said it was West's dedication to preventing traumatic injury that prompted her to found the Associates, the support group that staged the benefit. "John is a dear friend," Bender said. "And I had thought to myself, 'What do doctors and businessmen know about doing these charity things?' So I said to John: 'What you need is a ladies' support group, and if you want me to help you, I will.' "
Frank Bryant, Trauma Society president, said the Associates had brought the society "a visibility that is invaluable."
Foremost on the society's list for summer trauma prevention is Protect Our Kids--a drowning prevention program. "Last year, 17 children drowned in Orange County," Bryant said. Another tragedy is the children who almost drown and are left comatose. We see 12 or 13 of those per year."
Bryant's advice to pool owners: "Pay close attention to your children."
"And when your telephone rings, secure your child, then answer it."