Saturday evening's benefit for the Laguna Playhouse was a "Country Celebration" in every sense of the word--and a down-home departure for more than 400 guests, some of whom weren't quite sure what to make of the 6 p.m. barbecue buffet on the Festival of Arts grounds.
The paper-plate cookout and picnic-table accommodations contrasted with last season's black-tie restaurant dinner for Julie Harris when she was at the playhouse for a benefit performance of "The Belle of Amherst."
A calico-lettered invitation to the barbecue specified "country casual" attire, but that lent itself to several curious interpretations. The outfits ranged from '70s campy (flowing calico skirts, suede vests and Frye boots) to '80s scampy (a denim jacket and matching mini-miniskirt with tall white boots).
"Until about two hours ago, I thought this (party) was semiformal. I had my suit cleaned and everything," moaned Jim Walden of Belmont Shore. "Then I got a phone call and ended up having to drag this (a red-patterned shirt and blue jeans) out of my closet."
His date, Kathleen McGillis of Newport Beach, giggled. The look-alike younger sister of actress Kelly McGillis also had to change wardrobes, tossing together a last-minute outfit of stone-washed jeans, white cotton blouse and navy blue linen jacket. She "countrified" her look with a straw hat atop her wavy blond locks.
"Who cares about the clothes, anyway? This is a super party," said McGillis, 26, whose mother, Joan McGillis, is a playhouse board member. "And the clothing is really a continuity of the whole play."
The sold-out play, "Quilters," was performed for guests after dinner next door at the Moulton Theatre. A musical saga of seven frontier women, the Laguna production won top honors last summer in a national community theater competition.
As a result, it was selected to represent the United States at the 23rd annual international community theater festival at Dundalk, Ireland, on June 2.
The $45 admission fee to Saturday's preshow dinner, performance and post-play champagne-and-dessert reception will help underwrite the 23-member "Quilters" contingent's trip to Ireland. Benefit proceeds added $20,000 to the coffers, bringing the total raised by the week's run of "Quilters" to about $46,000--more than enough for the Ireland trip, general manager Jody Johnston Davidson said.
Dressed "Quilters"-style in a boot-length denim skirt, Western shirt and cowgirl hat, Davidson said casual attire was specified "so the men wouldn't have to wear tuxes and could have fun."
Daughter of the late entertainer Totie Fields, Davidson grew up in a world of lavish parties in New York and Las Vegas and decided to take a more kicked-back tack in organizing the outdoor soiree.
"We wanted everyone to relax and have a good time. People tend to be on their best behavior when they're in black tie," she said.
Board member Karen Krogius, in a pink sweater and denim skirt, said: "It's easier to find a date when the men don't have to get all dressed up."
Many men took advantage of the occasion to wear their jeans, leather boots and corduroy jackets. Among them was board president Vern Spitaleri, a self-avowed "rock hound" who makes his own jewelry and fashioned himself a fancy bolo tie out of a small geode to wear to the benefit.
"We usually have more formal affairs, but this seemed appropriate as a theme party for 'Quilters,' " Spitaleri said. "Besides, can you imagine trying to eat this food in a tuxedo?"
Slippery finger food was the order of the day, from barbecued chicken and ribs to corn on the cob. The all-you-can-eat buffet was catered by Tony Roma's.
A New Yorker--who was having trouble balancing a paper plate of ribs, beans and cole slaw on his lap while he sat in pinstriped suit and button-down-collar shirt on a park bench--put down his fork and harrumphed: "Look at me; I'm dressed completely wrong. I'm going home to change, but I don't know into what. What does 'country casual' mean, anyway?"
To Kathy Hurwitz and Susan Jahraus, benefit co-chairwomen, it meant different things. Jahraus was elegantly attired in a long black skirt and black sweater with sequins; Hurwitz was a Joan Collins look-alike, her raven hair pulled back in a gold lame band. She bought a stunning white blouse with beads, fringe and various Western appliques at Neiman Marcus in Fashion Island.
They were among the playhouse faithful who were out in force as volunteers--setting up before the event, signing guests in and attending to other details. Board treasurer Pat Kollenda, who had been on the grounds all day to set up the desserts, was still smiling during the waning hours of the barbecue. "This is a real labor of love for all of us," she said.
Playhouse foundation board member Constance Morthland, owner of Moss Point (the three-acre Laguna Beach estate that has housed presidents dating back to Woodrow Wilson), flitted about in a beige cotton dress accented with a bright red belt and a red paisley bandanna around her neck.
"Everyone looked so lovely at the formal dinner for Julie Harris," Morthland said, "but you know what? They all look great tonight too--and people seem so much more relaxed in Western clothes. After all, this is a celebration for 'Quilters.' "
To accentuate the prairie theme, a Southwestern art display sat amid the picnic tables. Created by Len Wood's Indian Territory of Laguna Beach, it featured a replica tepee that displayed American Indian clothing, blankets and dolls.
The only thing missing was the music--sort of. Although there was no band at the benefit, some rather disconcerting tunes wafted their way down from a wedding reception being held at the adjacent Tivoli Terrace, which was rented out.
The eclectic infiltration of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and assorted rock music lent an odd ambiance--and a note of surrealism--to the kicked-back Western affair.
Society columnist Ann Conway is on vacation.