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Moments of Comfort and Joy : Amid the frantic rush and crush of the holidays, Times staff writer Beverly Beyettewent in search of people and places that are often lost in the bright lights and the tinsel. She spent the month of December visiting a shopping mall where a 79-year-old Santa posed with pets for charity, a community auction where Johnny Carson's golf shoes were sold (and Elvira's wig wasn't) to benefit the homeless, and a dance at a senior citizens center, where music filled the air and the hearts of yesterday's Fred Astaires. During her search for those special scenes of the season, Beyette found that in this sometimes impersonal city, there are still those who try to make sure that the holidays will have at least a few . . .

December 24, 1990|Beverly Beyette | Times staff writer

"Ho-ho-ho!" said Santa. "Gr-r-r-r-r-r!" replied Merv the terrier, straining at his red leash and planting his paws firmly on the carpet as he backed off from jolly old St. Nick.

"C'mon, sweetheart," coaxed Carolyn Diliberto of Marina del Rey, who had brought the fuzzy, brown and white Jack Russell terrier to be photographed with Santa. She had rescued him 18 months ago from an abusive kennel and now, she said, "He's going to be a portrait." She winced. "A portrait in lack of cooperation. His real name is Willowall Merlin of Runamuck. Well named."

Merv, still sizing Santa up, tried to wiggle off his knee. "He doesn't like men," Diliberto explained. Merv barked.

"A lot of them are afraid of Santa's outfit," said volunteer photographer Mildred Traeger.

"Ho-ho-ho! Hello, Lucy, that's a good girl," said Santa, encouraging a shepherd-akita mix with a red and green ribbon around her neck to settle down between his booted feet. "She does a 'Stay,' " suggested Lucy's owner, Denise Pearlman. Do a 'Stay,' sharply. . . ."

Denise and Ron Pearlman took their places on either side of Santa's throne and smiled for the camera. As Traeger snapped the portrait, one of Santa's helpers got Lucy's attention with a squeaking rubber cabbage.

"This is our baby," said Denise, stroking the dog's head. "She had a bath for this." Denise, a gymnastics coach, and Ron, a firefighter, had brought Lucy from Burbank for the photo shoot. As a family, they will be a Christmas card.

Throughout the day, the pet parade (by appointment only) continued at Petco in Santa Monica, which lent a hand to the nonprofit Friends of Animals Foundation for its sixth "Picture Your Pet With Santa" project. The basic photo cost $25, with the money helping the group to rescue and place abandoned dogs and cats.

Over three weekends, about 300 animal lovers brought their pets to pose with Santa. Among the immortalized were a bearded collie named Earnest and Gloria, an aged, one-toothed Siamese cat.

As a shivering Chihuahua wearing a rhinestone collar came into view, Traeger smiled. "I can imagine what they think," she said. "That we're all crazy and they're humoring us."

But it was for a good cause. Friends of Animals Foundation (P.O. Box 34-1230, Los Angeles, Calif. 90034) has lost its West L.A. shelter lease. With about 100 animals in its care, the group needs $25,000 to establish another.

"These are the lucky dogs and cats," said Traeger, a Friends volunteer, of the groomed and beribboned mutts and purebreds. "This is the one happy time of the year for us."

Nearby, volunteer Martha Wyss was signing in Maximilian, a scene-stealing blonde cocker pup. "Martha is the Mother Teresa of dogdom," Traeger said.

"Santa" Sherman Figland is paid to pose with pampered children at such lofty locales as the Bel-Air Bay Club, but this stint was free, "for the girls." Besides, he has birds, a dog and two rabbits at home.

Figland, who will turn 80 on Christmas Day, has been playing Santa for 27 years, six for Friends of Animals. He has yet to encounter a pet that made a social error on his Santa suit, but he said: "I've had babies puddle on me."

Lane Karsh of Brentwood and daughter Dawn arrived with the odd couple, a sheepdog-springer spaniel mix called Patches and Bo, a Yorkshire terrier. Another couple brought a rabbit, a dog and two parrots, one of which kept trying to hide in Santa's beard.

Santa was there to oblige all--well, almost all. "I won't sit with a snake," Figland said firmly. "I've never been able to warm up to a snake. One of those hippies brought in a great big python last year. I said, 'Get out of here!' "OK, Higgins, ho, ho, ho!" said Santa to a large, and very wary, German shepherd. Higgins' owner, J.P. Miller of Playa del Rey, explained: "He thinks he's going to the hospital."

The parade continued. "Hello, sweethearts, Santa loves you . . . "

"What are they?" a puzzled Santa asked of one pair of mid-sized brownish dogs. They were Shiba Inus, a Japanese breed.

A dog of dubious lineage and friendly bearing snuggled at Santa's feet. Traeger peered through her lens. The dog's owner admonished her pet: "Don't look so fat!"

About 150 of the star-struck, the curious and the charitable turned up at the World Cafe in Santa Monica one evening to nibble spinach pancakes, pesto pizza and brownies and to bid on clothing that once hung in star wardrobes. It was the first celebrity auction sponsored by Ocean Park Community Center as a fund-raiser for Turning Point, its shelter for homeless adults.

Up for bid was an eclectic bag of goods, including a dressing robe that had belonged to Joan Rivers, a "Moonstruck" script autographed by Cher, a hat that had been Willie Nelson's and a "Fatal Attraction" poster signed by Michael Douglas.

"Bid with your heart tonight," auctioneer Tom Herreid cajoled. Vivian Rothstein, executive director of the Community Center, reminded everyone that every $15 raised means one night's shelter for a homeless person.

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