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ORANGE COUNTY STYLE : THE PLEASURE OF THEIR COMPANY : A report on five convivial hosts whose stylized events have helped put Orange County on the map as one of the nation's upbeat, upscale scenes for entertaining

October 04, 1987|ANN CONWAY | Conway is a Times society writer.

New York throws glitzy, anonymous bashes in downtown clubs and uptown town houses. Los Angeles fusses over blue books and A-list celebrity guests. But Orange County entertains with a different style.

Here, party givers take advantage of the area's natural resources--rich ranchlands, vast waterways and easy-going people--to hold gatherings with a friendly, intimate atmosphere, even when the guests number in the hundreds.

Unencumbered by Old World etiquette, such parties are un-neurotic, wide-eyed, nouveau--and fun. They're stylized events that have put Orange County on the map as one of the nation's upbeat, upscale party scenes.

Five convivial hosts who are helping to establish the area's reputation for entertaining are land heiress Joan Irvine Smith--who for the past two years has given a fete champetre on her oak-studded San Juan Capistrano ranch; Len and Mary Ann Miller--a Gatsby-esque Newport Beach couple who are building a reputation for theme cruises on Newport Bay; conductor Micah Levy--who prepares gourmet Chinese dinners for friends in their homes, and Neven Hulsey--an executive who infuses business with pleasure in his firm's Anaheim Stadium suite.

Combining pomp with casual outdoor fun is a lavish luncheon co-hosted by Joan Irvine Smith and her mother, Athalie Clark, on the final day of the Oaks Classic equestrian competition at her ranch.

"The only thing that can ruin the party is rain," says Smith, whose grandfather founded the mammoth Irvine Co. "Everything else is under control."

And indeed it is, from valet parking to the champagne toast saluting the winner of the $50,000 Grand Prix purse.

Smith's posh springtime event rivals England's Ascot for elegance and grace. Upon entering the grounds of The Oaks, her 20-acre ranch, 900 richly attired guests who pay $100 each to feast and watch the horses jump are serenaded by jazz piped over a public-address system.

Emerald green Astro Turf is rolled out to control the ranch dust, and white tables and chairs are set up under a block-long white canopy. Electric fans cool sun-warmed brows.

Open bars pepper the country landscape, as do pots of ruby-red geraniums, hibiscus and bougainvillea. Oils by artist Maria del Carmen Calvo add slashes of color to canopy walls.

But it's the food--redolent and glamorously arrayed--that gets the Sunday set sighing as they queue up for an eclectic buffet offering everything from Old California cuisine and baron of beef to fix-your-own-sundaes--all perfectly presented on snow-white china.

Smith says her party giving, now infrequent, always begins with congenial people and the best food and drink. "It doesn't always have to be caviar and champagne," she says. "Hamburgers will do; but they'd better be the best hamburgers."

Never mind the debonair bartender they hire, the one who used to pour at Sardi's in New York. Never mind the three-story house with the Art Deco bar and step-up, rooftop Jacuzzi. And never mind the 51-foot Bayliner that waits, squeaky clean, at the end of the 50-foot dock. These are merely accouterments.

For Len and Mary Ann Miller of Newport Beach, a bash makes no splash without a theme.

While the rest of Newport's yacht set simply cruises along sun-dappled Newport Bay, the Millers transform their living room and yacht into a circus atmosphere in the name of fun. Forty friends--some in circus costume--sip bubbly, Perrier on Mary Ann's favorite: "a tummy soother that combines Kahlua, brandy and low-fat milk."

The Miller have dubbed the party "Brodie & Brodie--Circus Afloat," after special guests Sandra and Dr. Jerry Brodie of Tustin. The Brodies won the opportunity to be feted by the Millers whey they bid $1,500 for the party at a charity benefit earlier this year. "Len and I frequently put a party up for bid," says Mary Ann Miller. "It's one of the ways we try to help."

Moments before the expected first knock at the door, the Millers turn on a tape of calliope music and change into their rented circus-star costumes: Mary Ann becomes a trapeze artist in a whirling black-satin cape, and Len, an insurance broker, becomes a lion tamer with a whip.

The Brodies arrive in ringmaster get-ups. Betty Belden, a friend, shows up as a snack hawker with a makeshift paper tray loaded with bags of popcorn. "My favorite food," she says, offering her host a handful.

Those interested in more than popcorn serve themselves from a table whose centerpiece features silk flowers and boxes of animal crackers. Sushi, caviar pie, lox and bagels, baby ribs, stuffed pea pods and other treats abound.

At sunset, guests descend the stairs from the living room and move out to the dock. Before boarding LaMour for a cruise, they poke their heads through a circus board painted with flexing muscle men to pose for souvenir Polaroid photos. As they board the yacht, party goers are greeted by a larger-than-life stuffed clown.

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