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David Nelson / Society

Primates Put on the RITZ at Zoo : SAN DIEGO COUNTY

June 22, 1989|David Nelson

SAN DIEGO — Saturday's RITZ (Rendezvous in the Zoo) gala may have been for the birds, but it also was for the chimpanzees, the duck-billed platypuses, the hangnailed sloths and the other creatures who have come to call the San Diego Zoo their home away from the jungle, veld and rain forest.

More than 850 primates paid well to take a gander at the wild geese, timid toucans and cocky cockatoos that have made the zoo one of the planet's prime entrepots for man and beast, with the result that more than $150,000 was raised toward the construction of a new enclosure for the zoo's pygmy chimpanzees. RITZ also officially opened the summer social season, and was widely appreciated as a sort of festive monsoon that relieved the long dry spell of second-rate celebrations that had left circuit regulars gasping for a refresher course in how to party in high style.

RITZ specifically honored King Tut, the salmon-crested cockatoo who had been, until the previous day, the zoo's official greeter since his arrival on March 25, 1925. Zoo officials claimed that the above-average avian has welcomed more than 100 million visitors to the park, which may explain why, in its first taste of retirement, the bird turned his back on the black-tie crowd and callously crunched bird seed when he should have been issuing caws of greeting.

Even so, the San Diego crowd proved that it has room in its heart for a cockatoo or two by clustering around Tut both during the cocktail hour and later, when the bird was given a triumphal parade through the open-air ballroom.

In its sixth annual incarnation, RITZ provided (as it always does) the opportunity for rare meetings between man and beast. The wandering Dorothies in the crowd chanted rather pointlessly for lions, tigers and bears--all these were kept at bay--but it was possible to have close encounters with llamas, camels, elephants, Clydesdales and miniature horses, since the zoo was determined to show its treasures at close range. Except during the first course of the dinner, fish were excluded from the proceedings.

RITZ opened in traditional fashion with a cocktail-hour meander through Primate Mesa, where man and monkey had the opportunity to observe one another at leisure and draw appropriate conclusions. The formally dressed participants in this annual stand-off had the better deal, though, because champagne was passed liberally and the hors d'oeuvres buffets yielded such notable tidbits as smoked oyster canapes and sizzling conch fritters. While monkeys have been known to ape mankind, none of these refreshments enjoy great repute on the simian table d'hote .

The dress code somewhat needlessly encouraged "jungle elegance," which resulted in so many women in leopard prints that spots seemed to swim before one's eyes; the invitations also, in honor of Tut, invited Egyptian garb, with the result that many Cleopatras and even several Rameses held center stage.

Dinner was announced separately by chairwoman Alison Tibbitts, who summoned the faithful to table from atop Walter the camel, a domesticated dromedary, and by the deep brass tones of a Japanese gong, which a zoo staffer pounded with unfettered delight. The meal was served al fresco in a starlit space engagingly decorated by design chiefs Dick Ford and Liz Smith to resemble an ancient Egyptian boit de nuit . Giant, lighted standards of cockatoo Tut in Pharaonic garb rose high above the tables and defined the ballroom. Best of all, if utterly unplanned, was a triumphant full moon that, in the sudden absence of June gloom, rode high above the party through the night.

The Wayne Foster Orchestra and a subsidiary Foster rock band called Sparkle alternated on two dance floors for the duration.

Guests had barely had time to dig into their interesting first course of vegetable terrine when master of ceremonies Rolf Benirschke announced the traditional parade of animals. Led by the zoo's good-will ambassador Joan Embery, the parade commenced rather tamely with Embery driving a Clydesdale-drawn shay, but picked up when a zebra, a cheetah and a lemur joined the procession.

The parade reached its peak when Tibbitts and zoo board President Al Anderson careened into the ballroom atop Carol the elephant, who wore a double necklace of bells and jingled grandly as she sashayed among the tables. (Carol used her trunk to pick the winning ticket in the raffle for a 1989 Mercury Cougar, which led Benirschke, who shortly will leave his job as daytime host of a television game show, to wisecrack, "It's just like 'Wheel of Fortune,' we're giving away a car." Gordon Bell of El Cajon held the winning ticket.)

A clever dessert of meringue cockatoos followed the cabbage-leaf-wrapped filet mignon entrees, and released the guests to alternately contemplate King Tut's long career and to step out gamely to Foster's stylish Big Band interpretations.

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