Those gentlemen in Arab headdress running around the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel ballroom Saturday night weren't visiting sheiks. They spoke Spanish, not Arabic, and instead of debating oil prices, they were smiling and serving champagne to guests at the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Orange County's annual Arabian Fantasy ball.
The hotel staff's attire was only one detail of the event's Mideast theme, chosen because "we wanted to come up with something different," said Mimi Crosson, wife of event co-chairman Tom Crosson. Over the years, what was once a novelty has become traditional.
This year's variation on the theme included a live auction featuring a purebred Arabian colt and a 10-week-old Shar-pei puppy, as well as a silent auction including jewelry, customized T-shirts and, for those who prefer low-maintenance pets, a Shar-pei stuffed animal.
Another part of the tradition is that many of the key participants are battling the crippling, non-contagious central nervous system disease on two fronts, not only as active contributors of time and money, but as MS victims as well.
Claire McNair, vice chairwoman of the society's Orange County chapter and co-chairwoman of Saturday's event, steered her motorized cart through the crowd, stopping frequently to greet friends. She became involved with the MS society and served on its board of directors for six years before an illness was diagnosed as MS.
"I always felt I was meant to take care of other people," she said. "I was a nurse; I should have recognized the symptoms. Actually, I'm glad I didn't know I had it--I probably wouldn't have gotten involved in as many things as I did."
Richard Hausman, also attending the event on wheels, is chairman emeritus of the group's board of trustees. "When I was diagnosed 18 years ago, my first reaction was to get angry. But I decided to get involved and see what I could do about it."
Shirlee Guggenheim, whose illness was diagnosed as MS shortly after Hausman's, said her husband's prior involvement as an MS volunteer was helpful when she became ill.
"Before we were married, he (Robert Guggenheim) did a telethon for MS. We were married in 1970, and I was diagnosed in 1971. I didn't even know what it was but because of his close association, he picked up on the symptoms before I ever went to the doctor."
That doctor was Stanley van den Noort, a neurologist at UC Irvine and chairman of the Orange County MS Society. "This tends to be a disease of people who grew up in nice suburban homes," he said. "It's less common in people who grew up in extreme poverty."
Van den Noort said researchers theorize that exposure to fewer diseases may trigger the inappropriate immune response that causes MS. The disease strikes about 1 in 1,000 people, usually those between the ages of 20 and 40.
But Shirlee Guggenheim said she tries not to let her own illness make her feel any differently about her charitable work with MS. "I don't think it makes a difference, just because I have this problem. There are lots of causes besides MS that I am very close to."
Another county MS victim in attendance was Louis Unser, older brother of racing stars Bobby and Al Unser. McNair said: "He wanted me to have a race, but I didn't want to race an Unser."
Honorary event chairman James Roosevelt, who has Parkinson's disease, said he agreed to lend his name to the cause because "my father (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) had polio, and I try to help with anything to do with polio or related crippling diseases."
More than 300 attended the $150-per-person event, which raised more than $60,000, including a $2,600 bid by Don Christy for the horse and $1,000 for the dog by Kevin Haden, Crosson said.
After dining on roast crown of lamb, roulade of sole stuffed with salmon mousse and a "fantasy in fruit" dessert in bittersweet white chocolate sauce, the guests were entertained by singer John Adair, whose albums include "Israel Is My Home," and comedian Red Buttons.