The famous guests made their way through the rain into the warmth of Joanne Carson's candle-lit Bel-Air home. Just beyond the door, they found a small registration table. Esther Williams, Patti Davis, Jon Voight, Bruce Davison and other luminaries dutifully signed in.
The guest of honor--a tall intense-looking man in his 70s--waited in the kitchen. Everyone had heard about him, but few had met him. As they filed by to shake his hand, Dr. Henry Heimlich nodded and smiled. "Thanks for coming. Thank you for your support."
It was spring, 1993, and Heimlich, bold inventor of the anti-choking maneuver, had come to Los Angeles with a bold pitch: To end the scourge AIDS by 1994.
The room fell silent.
"We were awe-struck," recalled Carson. "We all said, 'This is hot. This could be it!' "
Heimlich's prescription for AIDS? Give the patient malaria.
With no shortage of malaria in the world--or of desperate AIDS patients--all he needed was the money. And from Hollywood's best and brightest, he would get it.
"People were so moved by his presentations, that at the end of the evening, everybody went home and sent their checks in," recalled Carson, who hosted three fund-raising dinners last year.
Actress Amy Irving gave $50,000. Other major supporters included actress Estelle Getty, high-powered agent Sandy Bresler and ventriloquist Paul Winchell, according to Heimlich's foundation and other sources.
Fueled by hundreds of thousands of dollars from such celebrity donations, Heimlich researchers have begun injecting a small group of HIV-positive men in China with malaria-infected blood.
At best, warn infectious disease experts, the treatment will cause no harm. At worst, they say, it can kill.
"Heimlich's life-saving maneuver for people who aspirate food doesn't qualify one as an HIV expert," said leading AIDS researcher Dr. Anthony Fauci, who called malaria therapy "quite dangerous and scientifically unsound."
In an interview this month Heimlich dismissed criticism of his plan. He said no one has been harmed by the treatment and that the first two patients were already "feeling better." Still, he cautioned against "false hopes."
"We have a long way to go," said Heimlich, who expects no final results for another year or two. Nevertheless, he added, "we could always benefit by having more funds."
This is not the first time the 74-year-old Heimlich's headstrong approach to medicine has shocked, even outraged the Establishment. "I don't do ordinary things. I don't follow all the rules if there's a better, faster way to do it," he boasts.
Induced malaria therapy--IMT, as he calls it--consists of "inoculating" patients with blood teeming with malaria parasites. Citing the use of a similar therapy for neurosyphilis in the 1920s, Heimlich believes malaria induces production of immune substances that could help patients overcome HIV.
The tiny pathogen that causes malaria--the protozoan Plasmodium-- flourishes in the human body, growing inside red blood cells until the cells burst. Without enough red cells to carry oxygen, even patients with the most benign strains can suffer severe anemia and die from renal failure or convulsions from 106-degree fevers.
Citing concerns for the safety of human subjects, a group of 20 scientists and physicians from the United States and Mexico have petitioned top U.S. regulatory agencies to investigate Heimlich's Hollywood fund-raising campaign and the touted treatment of HIV.
"This exploits the AIDS crisis, exploits the generous and caring entertainment community, and it exploits the good that Heimlich himself has done in the past," said Dr. Paul Bronston, national ethics chair of the American College of Medical Quality and a petition supporter.
"(That petition) is an annoying and painful thing," Heimlich said. "But this happens. It's very common in my life. Some people think if they attack a famous person, they can become as famous as the assassin . . . Just as the Kennedy assassins became famous.
"And our work takes time. Look, it took the Red Cross 12 1/2 years to (endorse) the Heimlich maneuver."
In the absence of a cure for AIDS, underground trafficking in unproven, experimental therapies is thriving here and abroad.
Desperate for even a crumb of hope, patients have ingested photographic chemicals, been sealed in hyperbaric chambers and taken injections of everything from snake venom to hydrogen peroxide.
What stands out about the malaria treatment is that, like the anti-choking maneuver, it carries the imprimatur of Heimlich.
"His name carries a lot of weight," said one loyal Hollywood supporter. "For many of us in the entertainment industry, meeting him was like meeting Albert Schweitzer. And sure, that affected our generosity."
"There's something about making movies that makes you believe in miracles," said actress Esther Williams.
"No question he's one of the great geniuses of our time. I expect he will receive a Nobel prize," said Carson, ex-wife of former "Tonight" show host Johnny Carson.