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Sparkling Bash at Birtcher Manse Redefines Galas

June 23, 1988|ANN CONWAY

Just when you think you have attended the county's most elegant gala (the glittering Orange Blossom Ball), along comes a soiree that redefines party-giving.

Opera Pacific's "The Phantom of the Opera"-themed bash held at the San Juan Capistrano estate of Art and Gaye Birtcher on Saturday began with a 6 p.m. reception for opera underwriters and ended with performed selections from the phantasmagoric musical.

What happened in between will keep telephone wires humming for months. For starters: Not only did the Birtchers welcome underwriters into their 17th-Century French style manse, they allowed them to explore it. Fully. No keep-out ribbons barred them from the grand staircase, a wrought-iron masterpiece flickering with encased votive candles. Not one piece of plastic protected the pricey carpets. And not one door was shut (including the glass one on Gaye's rose-marble shower.)

The host, gracious and debonair (hate to gush, but he has got to be Orange County's answer to David Niven) helped check fur coats and then led guests through rooms filled with furnishings that ranged from regence to empire.

"The house was built to imitate the Paris city houses the court used when they came from the Loire Valley to visit the Louvre," said Art Birtcher, a partner in Birtcher, one of the country's top 10 real estate developers. "Gaye and I fell in love with the architecture of France. It took us four years to build (the house)."

After guests received bubbly proffered on silver trays, they swept along a variety of antique floors (some were tile, some were parquet, some were rose-marble edged parquet) into rooms that included the Birtchers' master suite. "The bed was made to imitate the one that belonged to Diane de Poitiers (mistress to Henry II)," Art said, noting that its throw pillows were created from priests' vestments discovered at the Paris flea market.

A peek into the living room revealed two 4th-Century BC urns ("authenticated by the Getty Museum," Art said). And the open door on the guest room revealed an antique bed curtained to "keep out evil spirits," he said, adding that the headboard was carved with angels to guard whoever snoozed there.

Crucifixes were hung all over the Catholic couple's home. "Our faith is the fabric of our lives," Art explained. "What we do as individuals and what I do in the business is what we can facilitate for others."

Gaye, her golden hair pulled back for the occasion, said the house "really asks for something like this (gala). We were happy to open our doors."

But doors were locked on Chateau Tranquille precisely at 7 p.m. after underwriters, along with founders of Opera Pacific--who entered via gates beside the house--met in the formal gardens to sip wine among its towering trees and amble through the Birtcher stables (where they stroked red-silk blanketed horses with names such as Reality and Serenity). Kelly-green portable potties had been set up behind the stables for guests. "Now there's a picture!" piped Michael Sokolski.

Sitting at tables spread with pitch-black tablecloths and single-stem red rose centerpieces, guests dined on New Zealand spring lamb and pasta amid large replicas of the phantom's mask, created by decor chairwomen Mary Raymond and Isabelle Montupet.

Guests had been invited to dress formally or in theme attire. Joanne Sokolski wore hand-embroidered white linen (her cape was really a tablecloth, she said) embellished with bouquets of silk violets. Maxine Gibson, chairman of the event with her husband, Bob, wore ivory silk accented with rosettes and cascades of pearl and crystal.

Kathleen Rhynerson came as Christine, the object of the phantom's unrequited desire. "As she appears at the masquerade in the third act," said Rhynerson, whose costume featured a tulle skirt shot with silver sparkles and a tricorner chapeau hung with silk lilies of the valley. Rhynerson's underwriting co-chairwoman, Nancy Sorosky, wore a black velvet Valentino that she had cut away to add hip flounces of French lace.

After dessert--creme puffs--lights were dimmed and members of Opera Pacific's Overture Company began to entertain guests with selections from "The Phantom of the Opera."

And then it began to sprinkle. Pulling her mink around her bare shoulders (Art had tossed his sheared beaver over his tux), Gaye Birtcher hurried up the steps that led to the balcony and invited all 400 guests to go inside.

While most of them trotted quickly into the mansion's leafy Wintergarden room, Floss Schumacher--chairman of the Opera Pacific board--was among those who stayed put. "This is wonderful," she said. "This is just a little California storm we're having. I'm saying some prayers!"

Miraculously, the cloudburst stopped. In minutes, guests were outside again, and, after brushing raindrops off their chairs, entertainment continued.

Winners of the five live auction packages that included trips to New York to see "The Phantom of the Opera" were: Clair Higgins of Los Angeles; Dr. Gerald Wilks of Newport Beach; Drs. Eugene and Eleanor Saltzer of Orange; Herb and Millie Wieseneck (who, with Martha Greene, will co-chair the Opera Ball Nov. 19) and Ed McGrath, who anted up $4,500 for the package that included a stay at the Plaza hotel and dinner at 21. Proceeds, which will go into Opera Pacific's endowment fund, were estimated at $50,000.

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