SAN DIEGO — There are many who would be content to toss a shiny quarter to the porter and, as the Andrews Sisters suggested, shuffle off to Buffalo. Not so the patrons of the annual Orient Express Gala, a group that over the years has come to insist on more exotic destinations and more cosmopolitan pleasures.
Nearly 400 supporters of the National Kidney Foundation of Southern California (San Diego Region, no less--how's that for a mouthful?) turned out Saturday at the Omni San Diego Hotel for the sixth in the organization's yearly journeys back in time.
As always, the Orient Express pulled out of the station on schedule and bore its passengers, at breakneck speed, on a fantasy trip aboard the fabled train that in the 1920s provided stylish passage from London to Istanbul (or Stamboul, as the English style it), and currently carries the well-heeled on a nifty overnight journey from London to Venice.
The idea behind the event is so fanciful that the gala, at least as of this year, has become engraved quite impregnably upon the annual calendar. It is very much make-believe for adults, the pretense a carefully orchestrated travel adventure that begins with the issuance of passports at Folkestone Station (actual photos are taken on the spot, and affixed to the passport-programs), and continues with casino gambling, amusing entertainment and a dinner chosen to reflect the cuisines of the countries along the express train's route. The dinner tables, usually named for railway stations in European cities so obscure as to panic the geographically insecure, this year borrowed monikers from the bistros and boits de nuit that gave Paris its enviable reputation during the Fitzgerald-Hemingway era.
The evening's final destination traditionally has been Istanbul's fabled souk , the Marrakesh Market, but chairman Christi Faires this year chose to concentrate upon the London-Paris leg of the route, a choice that allowed for plenty of 1920s Gallic bacchanalia as exemplified by the Can-Can and le jazz hot .
Much of this was offered by the Karizma Dance Company, which during a surprise dinner show first sent its members on the floor as jazz-crazed flappers, and later returned for a leggy can-can that enlightened some of the younger guests as to why "great gams" used to be a favorite expression. The exhibition dance team of Felix Chavez and Sandi Renee stole the show with a sizzling post-entree tango so hot that it threatened to melt the baked Alaska desserts. Later, the San Diego Zoo's Joan Embery, who was honorary dinner chairman, showed up with a black-and-white ruffled lemur in tow, an amiable critter that was altogether much more tame than the cheetah Embery brought to a previous Orient Express gala.
The dinner itself supposedly was modeled on actual recipes served aboard the express in its heyday; the Omni interpreted these into a menu that commenced with salad in a dilled dressing, and a novel surf 'n' turf of fish filet and filet mignon. (Alice Toklas, the doyenne of 1920s gastronomes who knew the French cuisine of the era like few other Americans, once asked quite plaintively if railway meals were cooked in the locomotives.)
Dinner aside, the guests largely alternated between dancing to the Bill Green Orchestra (which frankly outdid itself that evening) and roulette and blackjack in the casino. The casino draw, beyond the allure of chance itself, was the opportunity to win chances on a handsome array of prizes. The party's major drawing, however, was separate and limited to 200 tickets; this was for a trip for two aboard the modern Venice Simplon-Orient Express. This prize is awarded annually by Keith Rennison, a representative of the railway company, who said: "Everyone's been so delighted by our participation in this party each year that we've just kept going right along with it. It's an important event to support."
That the event has great import (it raised about $65,000 for Kidney Foundation research, educational and patient services programs) was a thought stressed by chairman Faires, who repeated a role she played in 1985. "Orient Express has become a standard in this town," she said. "Not all parties are fun, but people always have a good time at this one knowing that their support helps so many others."
San Diego Charger Eric Sievers, who with his wife, Diana, is honorary chairman of the local Kidney Foundation, offered a simpler appreciation of the gala.
"I always have as much fun at this party Express as I have at a golf tournament, and I like golf tournaments," he said--which was a nice way of saying that the Orient Express chugged through its course well under par.