In a glittering celebration that commemorated the gaiety of Paris before the first World War, 500 guests gathered at "La Belle Epoch, Bal Masque" to raise a smashing $125,000 for Interval House, an Orange County shelter for survivors of domestic violence.
Arriving at the posh Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel on Saturday night, richly gowned and mask-clad guests descended the hotel's grand staircase to enjoy a lively cocktail reception and silent auction before entering a ballroom hung with six massive Waterford crystal chandeliers.
After a formal dinner of veal with marsala sauce, guests settled back to hear five graduates of Interval House share stories of their personal transformations:
"I was the PTA lady who drove the van filled with everybody's kids," said one woman, perched on a stool under a spotlight. "I was the room mother, the committee chairman. And my husband was the engineer with the major aircraft company."
But her husband was dependent on alcohol, she added. "Heavily dependent for 20 years. And, when our son began to mimic his father's (abusive) behavior by verbally and physically insulting his sister, I made that difficult decision to call Interval House."
"When women come to us, they're usually wearing the mask of denial," said Dixie Demoe, Interval House child specialist, during the pre-dinner cocktail reception. "Then the mask turns to grief . . . over losing everything.
"But at the end of their four-to-six-week stay, they're not wearing masks anymore. They're being honest with themselves and others, maybe for the first time in years."
Carol Williams, associate executive director of Interval House, said women come to the shelter harboring a feeling of selflessness and low self-esteem. "We can liken victims of domestic violence to people who have lived in concentration camps," she said. "People who live in oppressive situations lose themselves, little by little."
While the staff of Interval House understands it cannot completely change life patterns, Williams said, the staff knows it can help women understand that violence is "not their fault."
"And we can show them their options in the community, set them up with a support system that helps them survive on their own," she said.
Before telling her story on stage, Tammy, an Interval House graduate in her mid-20s, said the shelter had helped her "go from someone who was easily manipulated and controlled to someone in control of my own life--from feeling dead to feeling alive."
During a VIP champagne reception staged for donors and the gala committee, singer-actress Florence Henderson, sporting an exotic mask created and donated by Xavier of Newport Beach, said she decided to appear at the event after receiving a letter from Williams. "It was so beautiful and explained so perfectly what Interval House was about, I thought: 'Well, we do all of those extravaganzas in Beverly Hills that get so much attention, why not do this one?' "
After greeting guests, Henderson sang "Tomorrow" from the musical "Annie," a fitting anthem for a shelter that helps provide hopeful futures for its residents.
A spirited auction followed a program that included addresses by Bernard Miyet, consul general of France, who elaborated on the Belle Epoque era; Oklahoman Mike Turpen, a national victims' rights advocate, who commended guests for attending the benefit, citing a quote by Woody Allen--"95% of life is showing up"; former California Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, substituting for honorary gala chairman, Gov. George Deukmejian ("This is probably the first time Deukmejian has had a Democrat substitute for him in Orange County," he piped); Skip Courtney, president of the Interval House board, and Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder.
Williams co-chaired the event with Cynthia Courtney, Isa Smashey Rogers and Mary L. Walton, Interval House executive director. Assisting were Harlene Goodrich, Kathy Elliott and Charlene Robinson. Stan Freese, --talent director for Disneyland, was master of ceremonies.