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ANN CONWAY

Celebrities Give as Good as They Get at Benefits

November 07, 1994|ANN CONWAY

The Newport Beach charity bash seemed like a fantasy: There was pop crooner Michael Bolton singing at the piano bar and baseball great Barry Bonds joking with guests. Across the room, silver screen stars Virginia Mayo and Margaret O'Brien signed autographs.

But it was reality, all right. Celebrity-studded events have become the norm in benefit country. They haul in big bucks here and around the world.

At $100 to $1,000 per ticket, such functions offer everything from a round of golf with "Naked Gun" star Leslie Nielsen to a reception with Academy Award-winner Anthony Hopkins.

Charities hire celebrity-event gurus who charge $10,000 and up to contract with the big names who add spark to an event.

Mostly the celebrities donate their time. But they get more than the opportunity to do a good turn. They receive a wealth of perks--such as complimentary tickets to galas and special activities, courtesy of the charity. Occasionally, a hotel picks up the tab for lodging.

David Gest's Los Angeles-area production company has been masterminding star turns for more than a decade. It was Gest who put together the recent Newport Beach dinner and auction at the Villa Nova restaurant that netted about $100,000 for foundations supported by Bolton and Bonds.

"Mingling with famous people gives people a feeling of fantasy," Gest explains with enthusiasm. "Everybody needs fantasy in their life. It's like being a child again. It's fun to grow up, but there are things you keep in the back of your mind from your childhood that keep you young. Famous people, especially stars, are one of them."

Gest even takes his star-studded road shows abroad. In one of his biggest productions, Gest will stage the London benefit on Dec. 18 for Princess Di's favorite charity, the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital Fund. It will honor Diana Rigg and Petula Clark and be attended by celebrities from around the world.

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Guests at these events sometimes wonder why the stars are there. Don't they have bigger, better things to do?

At the Newport Beach event arranged by Gest, Bolton explained why he offers his talents for charities such as the juvenile diabetes, cystic fibrosis and leukemia foundations: "I have learned that if I just show up and sing a few songs, people can make thousands of dollars in one evening.

"There are people who basically dedicate their lives to being a volunteer, or work at low-paying jobs, just to help others. So, if you're a celebrity, and all you have to do is show up to give these people tools, you get to give something back. I try mostly to help children's organizations."

Bonds says he likes to make public appearances to help raise money for impoverished children. "It's my way of helping them hold onto their chance for the American dream," he says.

Comedian Buddy Hackett is a regular on the circuit of David Mirisch, whose David Mirisch Enterprises in La Costa has organized everything from a celebrity balloon ride in the Bahamas to the September dinner and concert--attended by a slew of sports and TV celebs--at the Hyatt Regency Irvine for Drug Use Is Life Abuse/Project: No Gangs.

"Whenever David calls me and asks me to appear, I know it's going to be entertaining for me and useful to a charity organization," says Hackett, who still performs on the Las Vegas showroom circuit. "David's a straight-shooter. And he treats us with respect."

Jane Withers, who co-starred in "Giant" with Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, loves being part of a celebrity crush because, she says, she is "flattered that people remember my work. Plus, I like helping raise funds for a cause. And I guess you never stop wanting to be around your fans."

O'Brien enjoys the celeb circuit because it gives her a chance to see her friends and do a kind turn. "It's great fun to be with pals like Virginia Mayo," says O'Brien, who starred with Judy Garland in "Meet Me in St. Louis." "And there are so many causes today. It's nice to help."

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Not all of the charity celebrities have the status of a Bonds or a Bolton. Some had their careers during the golden age of film. Some are or were popular television stars. Many are known more for the name of their TV character than their own.

"You don't get a Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Sally Field or a Robert De Niro to these events," says Mirisch, whose specialty is celebrity sporting events. "When you become a super motion-picture star, the amount of freedom you have is minimal.

"Big stars realize their attendance will probably create more confusion than the charity wants. You can't run an event properly when everyone is going nuts."

For a fee of $5,000, Mirisch will provide 10 to 15 celebrities at a charity event. Another $10,000 gets you a two-day, celebrity-packed event and show.

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