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Center 500 Puts Focus on the Arts and Fun--Not Just Getting Dates

August 18, 1989|SUSAN CHRISTIAN

It looked like a scene out of "The Great Gatsby."

Sunday afternoon, under a sky as hot as it was blue, an elegant crowd strolled lazily about a manicured lawn stretching on a bluff overlooking the aqua ocean. Like the fictitious inhabitants of West Egg, they wore crisp whites, sipped icy drinks, patted their foreheads while discussing the heat and challenged one another to games of croquet.

"I keep expecting F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda to come gliding down the stairs," said Costa Mesa resident Eileen McDonnell, one of 300 guests who attended the "White Linen Jazz Picnic" at the Dana Point Resort.

The chic affair--with jazz provided by saxophonist Eric Marienthal--was presented by Center 500, a group that supports the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Although the 5-year-old organization--still about 150 short of meeting its goal of 500 members--is not a singles club, at least half its participants are unmarried. "We're 50-50-50-50: 50% married, 50% single, 50% male, 50% female," said Ken Sethney, vice president of communications for the group.

Sure, they pay their $250-a-year dues to further the arts. But singles cannot deny the social benefits of membership in Center 500.

"I just moved here last April from San Diego, so my initial purpose for joining was to make new friends," said Deborah Erger, a Costa Mesa resident who sells medical equipment. "I like the fact that (Center 500) is not a singles group, even though that makes it a little harder to meet other singles--you have to figure out who's married and who's not. But because there's a mix, you're not under pressure to make getting dates your main goal.

"I've found that a great way to meet other members is to work on the committees. We generally go out to eat together in a group after committee meetings, which has helped me to get acquainted with restaurants in Orange County."

Erger, 36, added that she has "outgrown the bar scene" as a social avenue. "Center 500 members are sophisticated and professional," she said. "It's nice to be around people who are in my age range."

Tom Hicks of Newport Beach agreed that Center 500's preponderance of yuppies could be an attraction to such "thirtysomething" lawyers as himself: "Most members are between the ages of 30 and 45; it's a mature bunch."

While Hicks said he enlisted in the organization "primarily to make business contacts," he admitted: "I find myself enjoying it more for its social aspects."

Center 500 has given John Coute an education in music appreciation as well an enhanced social life.

"I was a performing arts illiterate," said the 38-year-old Costa Mesa resident, an art director for an ad firm. "It used to be that the only live music I listened to was rock 'n' roll, in underground clubs in L.A. I thought opera was a just bunch of fat women wearing helmets. Since joining Center 500 a year ago, I've been to the opera a few times, and it blows me away."

So far, Coute has not gotten around to asking out any fellow members. "Negative on that, but there are several possibilities," he said.

Romance does occasionally blossom among members. Mark Matthess of San Clemente and Jo-Ann Caronna of Irvine met three months ago at a Center 500 mixer. Last Sunday, they mixed only with each other. The affectionate couple sat in a shady corner, apart from the party's hubbub.

Matthess, 43, a real estate broker, did not waste much time in getting what he came for out of Center 500. "I joined four months ago to meet some nice people and because I liked the cause," he said. "And, well, here's the nice person I met."

Caronna, 41, who owns a clothing boutique, offered this advice: "The key to meeting people in this organization is to become really active in it."

Another happy Center 500 couple who first crossed paths at a mixer last summer are engaged to be married in October. "I saw her and I saw stars," Paul Schmidt said of his fiancee, Rossana Rodriguez.

Schmidt, 41, a computer salesman in Newport Beach, said an appealing feature of the organization is that it "de-emphasizes the singles aspect."

"The purpose of the group stands on its own," he said. "The parties are fun whether or not you have come to meet someone, and whether or not you do meet someone."

"If you're interested only in meeting other singles," said Rodriguez, 31, a Newport Beach teacher, "you might be better off in another organization. In most singles clubs, people are strictly focused on making dates. Center 500 is more well rounded."

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