St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis turned a quarter-century old in grand style over the weekend, but all the hoopla took place in Los Angeles where the entertainment crowd turned out for a celebrity-packed black-tie celebration.
"I never dreamed this 25th-anniversary party would come to pass," Danny Thomas told a packed audience at the Century Plaza hotel. But it did, of course, and the fund-raiser (tickets were $500 a couple) drew more than a thousand people Saturday night.
The majority of the crowd seemed to be crammed into an early cocktail reception and photo opportunity, where the ratio of celebrities to paparazzi was three to one.
Cameras recorded Thomas, the hospital's founder, and wife, Rose Marie, greeting guests such as Ruth and Milton Berle, Bob and Delores Hope, Joey Bishop, restaurateurs Marilyn and Harry Lewis (she's a former St. Jude's Woman of the Year), Jan Murray, Buzz Aldrin, L.A. County Sheriff Sherman Block, Fred Hayman, Carol Channing, Norm Crosby, Mayor Tom Bradley and his wife, Ethel, Gov. George Deukmejian and his wife, Gloria, Ruta Lee (who did pirouettes in her gold lame gown for photographers), George Burns and Thomas children Terre and Tony (Marlo and her husband, Phil Donahue, couldn't make it because of work commitments).
"Everything's just marvelous--God--I can't complain, you know?" Rose Marie said to Delores Hope as she crossed herself.
The Thomases have been affiliated with St. Jude's since before its doors opened in 1962. The research facility and hospital have treated more than 7,000 children with life-threatening diseases and continues to do research into catastrophic childhood illnesses.
It was the night of Big Gowns and Big Jewels as women sought to outdo one another with acres of tulle, feather boas, yards of sequins and rhinestones--and real rocks.
Ruth Berle, when asked where her pouf skirt came from, quipped, "It's Milton's."
Actress Jean Kasem won the Big Gown battle hands down with her skin-tight violet tube dress with so much exploding tulle no one could get within a few yards. "She looks so much better without me there," husband Casey said to photographers who wanted them to pose together.
Also in the crowd were the evening's honorees: sweater designer Nanell Levine, who received the Woman of the Year award; businessman Henry Plitt, who received the Man of the Year award, and Albert Joseph, president of Hunter Publishing Co., who received the Founder's Award.
"I'm so excited I'm just going to die tonight!" said Levine, wrapped in a tiered black Scaasi dotted with gold sequins. "I got involved (with St. Jude's) because I care about children and Danny and Rose Marie are friends. My husband and I are going to visit the hospital this year for the first time. I know it's something I'll always remember."
The photographers continued to have a field day with the celebrities until the lights flashed and guests filtered into the ballroom, which was decorated with circus clowns and plastic-wrap angels that hung from the ceiling. Two video screens had been installed on either side of the ballroom so those on the fringes could see the speakers and the entertainers.
Thomas, who always acts as emcee for these dinners, promised the speeches would be short and, for the most part, they were. He announced a $100-million expansion program for the hospital, expected to begin in November, and vowed that no additional beds would be added to keep the facility from becoming "a warehouse of bodies."
Entertainment was provided by Peggy Lee, who wore matching white dress and hair and coordinating rhinestone glasses and cane, Helen O'Connell and George Burns.