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Benefit Gives Scleroderma Battle a Boost of $125,000


Times may be tough, but a benefit for an obscure and hard-to-pronounce disease--scleroderma--drew 420 people paying $250 apiece to Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel Sunday night.

The fifth annual fund-raiser, entitled "Cool Comedy--Hot Cuisine," has become known for its lineup of top comedians, a culinary feast prepared by City restaurant and the courage and energy of its founder, Sharon Monsky, who does battle with scleroderma herself. The estimated $125,000 raised for the Scleroderma Research Foundation in Santa Barbara supports research grants in treatment and diagnosis.

Scleroderma is known as a disease of young women because it primarily affects women of child-bearing age. It is a painful, disfiguring and potentially fatal affliction that hardens the skin and internal organs. It has been in the news recently because of speculation that silicone breast implants can be a cause, although this is not proven.

"If Jerry Lewis didn't have a telethon, how many people would have heard of muscular dystrophy?" asked Dr. Neal Birnbaum, a rheumatologist with a special interest in scleroderma. "It's like a lot of 'orphan diseases,' " he added--not as common or well known as heart disease, but afflicting substantial numbers; no one knows how many people suffer with some form of it. Estimates range from 20,000 to several hundred thousand in the United States.

"My agent's cousin was diagnosed with the disease," said comedian Rosie O'Donnell, the emcee. "It's scary. I'd never heard of it. I thought it was this rare disease. But it affects mostly women, and because women's health care in the U.S. is in a shabby state, I thought it was a good cause to lend my support to."

Many people came out of a fondness for the chefs and owners of City and Border Grill restaurants, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Millikin. Both women have adopted the scleroderma cause, as have many of their staff, who volunteered their time.

"Sharon and I were best friends in college," said Feniger of her former Pitzer College house mate. "I knew her when she was healthy. Sharon's spirit is so mind-boggling. She's inspiring. For me, it makes all the work for the event worth doing."

Feniger, along with American Airlines, which donated several trips to be auctioned off, were special honorees.

Between comedy sets, which were led off by Bob Saget, O'Donnell took charge of the auction. She not only proved to be skillful and entertaining, but she invented a new form of salesmanship not yet tried by Sotheby's--call it ambush auctioneer.

O'Donnell would call on people--some of them well-known--by name and harass them--to much laughter from the audience--until they relented and made bids. Only a few of her prey held their ground. Larry Hagman and Linda Gray of "Dallas" fame both said they weren't interested in a weekend in Acapulco.

By evening's end, O'Donnell had raised $50,000 and managed to secure additional donations for the auction of four pairs of round-trip tickets, plus one first-class upgrade, from a bemused Brad Jersey, vice president of American Airlines.

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