YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Marylouise Oates

Pianist's Pet Project Falls Short


Society's darling, Bobby Short, came to Beverly Hills this week. For theme music, don't imagine "Puttin' on the Ritz." Instead, try "Pennies From Heaven" or "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

The celebrated pianist came up short when he announced that tickets for his Sept. 15 birthday party and fund-raiser for the New York Duke Ellington Memorial would be priced up, up to $400. The three tables at the private luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire, filled with Short's friends, erupted in a polite version of Charity Star Wars as the ability to raise money for a New York charity plus the very ticket price got debated.

Following the salmon and before any questions, Short said he felt that raising money for a non-L.A. project was fine and cited charities like Save Venice, which successfully raises funds here. He had "offered myself and my birthday as allure" to raise the money to erect the Robert Graham statue of Ellington just outside the northeast edge of Central Park, "where uptown meets downtown," as one person put it. "To make this all come true," Short said the party would raise part of the still-needed $750,000 of the $1 million cost, "and have a good time while we are at it." Graham described the project, and then the questions flew.

What, came a quick first query, made some tickets cost $400?

"You will sit closer to the cabaret artist," explained Short (who is the cabaret artist).

Pam Korman, who with SHARE and other charities is a fund-raising veteran, said such a zoned event would "embarrass" the $250-ticket buyers. "They don't want to sit in the back," she added.

"We are all here to learn the custom of the country," the husky-voiced pianist said--perhaps purposefully quoting the title of one of Edith Wharton's piercing novels about New York in the early part of this century.

A few more questions: Art-collector Marcia Weisman tried to settle the debate by suggesting that the group rely on the expertise of Lucille Polachek, the professional party organizer from Events Unlimited. In multi-tier events, Polachek said, "We always end up selling the more expensive tickets."

"When I come to California to perform," Short added, "the more expensive tickets always go well."

Wendy Stark--a Hollywood product, being the child of film producer Ray and Fran Stark and the grandchild of "Funny Girl" Fanny Brice--was clear that the party being an out-of-town project would cause problems. She suggested that perhaps the ticket price be lowered to $200 a person--exactly half of what Short wanted the top price to be. That was countered with a rhetorical question: "$250 too high--for 'Bobby's Group'?"

Joan Benny (right, Jack and Mary's daughter and an expert in fund-raisers on both coasts because she lives here and in New York) suggested that everyone work backward, figuring out what they want to make and pricing the tickets toward that goal. She made her points carefully, occasionally emphasizing a sentence with a slight movement from her left hand, on which perches the extraordinary Mary Livingston diamond.

Events Unlimited's Linda Levin (and this luncheon certainly showed how hard professional fund-raisers work for their money) analyzed why it would be difficult to bring in big money: "It's not an illness. That's what we're saying."

Short then went on to explain that in New York, $250 gets a rather humdrum evening-- "I can't see the harm in making it $300 here."

Graham then took the floor to explain that this private funding was how "Rodin got Balzac in the park." Nonetheless, Korman replied, "In this town, it is hard to raise money if it (the charity) is not an illness."

Joe Smith, vice chairman and CEO of Capitol Industries-EMI Inc., who is one of the evening's co-chairs, then wondered if the black-tie evening should start at 6:30. No, no, came the replies. Dancing was also crossed out.

Then came a suggestion from Marcia Weisman, who said "I would lay a bet" that Graham had a maquette (a small model) of the life-size proposed sculpture that will show Ellington and his piano high above columns. "Because I know this kid, I'll bet he'll give it to us to auction off," she said, with a nod at Graham at the next table.

"No, no, no," came his reply.

Another chorus of "no's" came when "black-tie optional" was suggested. So the plan was $250 a ticket, Sept. 15, starting at 7:30 at the Beverly Wilshire, with no dancing and Ellington being played on tape by Ellington.

Now how hard will it be to sell those tickets?

It's a rough week, with two openings from the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, the Los Angeles festival, several big charity dinners--and, of course, the Pope.

We're not sure if he's one of "Bobby's group."

Los Angeles Times Articles