SAN DIEGO — Being President of the United States just doesn't pay like it used to.
A mere five years ago, a set of plain white plaster of Paris Christmas ornaments bearing the signatures of the four living Presidents brought a whopping $10,000 at the "Having a Ball" gala, given at Neiman-Marcus as a benefit for the Children's Home Society.
Saturday, a set of ornaments autographed by the same four men--Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter--failed to raise a single hand when auctioneer Bob Arnhym set an opening price of $5,000. The four ornaments, ultimately sold as individual items, brought a total of $1,750.
But the apparent deflation in the value of chief executive memorabilia did nothing to deflate the spirits of gala chairman Nancy Hester and the committee that put together the 1987 version of "Having a Ball." Again given at Neiman-Marcus, the gala and auction raised about $60,000 for this year's beneficiary, the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation of San Diego County.
A total of 297 ornaments went on the block, mostly at silent auction, and the crowd of 400 proved finicky in its tastes. The ornament decorated by current television idol Bruce Willis sold for a mere $30, while a clown-faced decoration from comedian Red Skelton brought $1,100.
Gathering the ornaments from a globe-spanning list of notables sent Neiman-Marcus publicist Cheryl Ayers on a paper chase that lasted nine months and added much to the coffers of the U.S. Postal Service, since the plaster balls were mailed in double boxes that included postage-paid return containers.
Simply discovering addresses was an adventure, said Ayers, who despite her best efforts was unable to locate Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. She also mailed the ornament intended for Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, whence it never returned.
Still, Ayers said the return rate was nothing short of astonishing.
"Contributors from all around the world said they really lauded our goal of helping children," she said, noting that while the government of Taiwan did not return an ornament, it did send a check for $200. But Philippines President Corazon Aquino, in the midst of coup attempts and general national unrest, managed to send back a ball decorated with a dove and the word "Peace"; it fetched $350.
Many Lent a Hand
Walter Cronkite sent one, as did such other busy folk as William F. Buckley Jr., Jerry Falwell, Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Martin and horror novelist Stephen King. (King's bore the message that child abuse is more horrifying than any of the vampires or werewolves that populate his books.)
Among local contributors were a few sports stars, as well as authors Ted (Dr. Seuss) Geisel and Russell Forester. Forester covered his ornament with red tongue depressors and crowned it with a miniature white chair, which Forester said symbolized loneliness.
Besides gamboling among display cases filled with glittering ornaments, the guests kicked up their heels to Harvey and the 52nd Street Jive band and dug into buffets spread by caterer John Baylin. The fare included freshly carved roast turkey, in keeping with the holiday theme, as well as Christmas cookies and a very contemporary tourtiere-- a double-crusted savory pie filled with minced pork and veal.
Gala chairman Hester, who has presented several fund-raisers for child abuse prevention, said that the fact that nearly 300 well-known, busy people from around the world took the trouble to decorate and return the ornaments proved that "everybody believes in our cause." She added that after looking at the ornaments for so many months, her husband, architect Henry Hester, warned her that if she stared at them any longer, she would wear them out.
Party co-chairman Barbara Christensen, founder of the St. Germaine Auxiliary to the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation, said that she particularly liked the party's draw.
"There are a lot of people here who have not been aware that there's a problem with child abuse," she said. "But the money they're donating is going to do a lot to assist children who really do need help."
The gala committee also included Carolyn Hooper, Carol Yorston, Lynn Kuerbis, Jeanne Larson, Jane Murphy, Maggie Coleman, Vicki Eddy, Mimi Groom, Mac Canty, Norma Hirsh, Berneice Copeland, Jacque Powell and Fran Golden.
Among the guests were Jack and Mary Goodall, popcorn potentate Orville Redenbacher, Griffith and Barbara Haynes, John and Laura Robbins, Larry and Junko Cushman, Manny and Joyce Funtall, Phyllis and Stephen Pfeiffer, Michael and Janice Batter, Frank and Linda Alessio, Melanie Cohrs, and Jeanne Jones with her son, David Beek. (Jeanne spent the day at Hollywood Park watching the various installments of the race track's $10-million Breeders' Cup. She suffered sharp pangs of disappointment when her namesake, Jeanne Jones, a 2-year-old filly entered by John and Betty Mabee, lost by a nose in a photo-finish.)