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MAKING CONTACT : A High-Tech Executive and His Friend Use Software Money to Form Upscale Social Club

February 03, 1989|SUSAN CHRISTIAN | Susan Christian is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

A few summers back, Newport Beach resident Michael Liacko was sorting through two major changes in his life style.

First, his 11-year marriage had just come to an end. Second, he had left his job as a vice president of Bell & Howell computer company to open his own high-tech business--or so he thought.

One evening at dusk, the disoriented bachelor and his friend, Bessie Baskin, took a pitcher of margaritas to the beach to contemplate the murky future. Liacko complained that he had looked into joining various Orange County singles clubs but found them all lacking.

"I said to Bessie, 'I've got an idea--why don't we start a dating service?' " Liacko recalled. "She said, 'You're crazy.' "

But with little persuasion, Baskin--then a marketing consultant for a telecommunications firm--agreed to venture into the adventure. Together, the buddies went about harnessing their dream with money Liacko originally had intended for a software company.

"Most singles clubs are single-dimensioned," Liacko said. "My philosophy is that there is more to single life than just dating. I wanted to devise a multidimensioned organization where people could make sports and business contacts as well as social contacts."

Lifestyles International, the fruition of his scheme, opened in an Irvine office building at the end of 1987. Just 14 months later, its membership list boasts more than 1,500 names.

Already, the yearling business has expanded to Washington, and a branch is soon to open in West Los Angeles. Plans are under way for outposts around the country and, eventually, the world--fulfilling the title's claim of internationality. Baskin will head the Orange County office, while Liacko oversees the entire operation.

All this and high fees, too. A one-year membership in Lifestyles costs $1,250--a price tag that has not deterred hundreds of customers.

For another $525, participants can buy a lifetime membership. However, member Gary Turnau, 37--who is considering the second option--pointed out: "There's something kind of funny about a lifetime membership in a singles club, isn't there? It makes it sound as if I have no expectations of ever meeting someone."

An all-encompassing organization, Lifestyles offers mate-seeking singles a video-dating service, mixers every Friday night in its plush clubhouse and occasional theme parties.

Though probably mere icing on the cake to most, Lifestyles also provides avenues for participants to meet sports partners and business clients.

Biographies of members are cross-referenced in various notebooks according to interests--from tennis to chess, cross-country skiing to horseshoes. A community bulletin board allows a format for roommate-hunters, car-sellers and whatnot; a display room gives entrepreneurs a place to promote their businesses.

"My goal is that someday soon a person from Orange County who is on a trip can go to the Lifestyles in Chicago to hook up with a squash partner or a CPA," Liacko said.

In the meantime, local members seem content with home base. Last week's after-work mixer attracted about 150 thank-goodness-it's-Friday revelers. Men and women, still dressed in business attire, cheerfully chatted over cocktails to the background music of a piano player.

"I love it," said Kellee Goodlett, 27, who teaches second grade in Long Beach. "At work, I don't meet any men except for my students' fathers--and obviously, they're already taken."

Brad Bernstein, 37, a mortgage broker in Costa Mesa, said that he "joined for the business aspect of the organization.

"But I have to admit that so far I haven't made any business contacts, although my social life is keeping me more busy than ever before."

"I work too hard to go out to bars to meet people," said attorney Gail McIntosh, 40, of Huntington Beach. "Besides, you do not meet normal people in bars. I've been very impressed by the quality of people" in Lifestyles. "The price of joining sort of weeds people out," McIntosh suggested. "Plus, it makes people maintain their involvement in the club instead of getting lazy. It's like my health club--I pay so much money to belong that I'm darned sure going to show up."

Off in a corner, Bob Avants, 48, was attempting to persuade Barbara Joe Tinker, 39, to have dinner with him. "B.J. came here because she wanted to meet me," teased the real estate broker. "We're going to get married."

Irvine resident Tinker recently relocated from Portland, Ore. "I thought this would be a good place to make new friends," she said.

Debbie Ferris, 35, was also transplanted to Orange County from out of state. "I joined Lifestyles in July, and it's the best thing I've done since I came to California 3 years ago," said the Huntington Beach resident, a systems analyst at Northrop.

"I was so isolated before. I got up every morning and went to work, came home every evening and went to bed--that was my entire life," Ferris said. "Now I have somewhere to come to depressurize. I've made some of my best friends here."

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