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CENTER OF ATTENTION: A Decade at the O.C. Performing

As Hall Monitor, She's in Control : Connie Arrigo Keeps Backstage Humming


Call her Stage Door Connie.

Arms folded, she stands at the "pass door," an entryway off the orchestra pit by which fans travel to the inner sanctum of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, hoping to meet the stars.

Not just any fans, mind you.

Connie Arrigo, cultural bouncer, has an infallible antenna that detects the overzealous balletomane, the overworked opera buff. Not once since the center's opening a decade ago has she had to rescue the likes of Richard Chamberlain from somebody hoping to take home more than a simple autograph.

"On no, they'd have to get past me first," says Arrigo, with an accent recalling her New York City roots. "Don't let the gray feathers fool you; I'm tough, babe."

Chamberlain, Channing, Baryshnikov, Burns--Arrigo has watched out for the best. And yet the dance and music lovers who make it past her protective gaze aren't treated as persona non grata.

"She allows you a moment to be included," said former ballet dancer Thais Leavitt of Santa Monica, one of many backstage regulars who call Arrigo by name. "She makes you feel like [backstage] is part of your home."

Arrigo, 62, is more than just a gatekeeper. Often a figurative hostess hat crowns her silver ponytail. The Newport Beach resident who moved to Southern California 35 years ago recently greeted jazz musician Herbie Hancock at the center's stage door and showed him to dinner in a second-floor rehearsal hall. Like all good hostesses, she puts guests at ease. In the elevator they chatted like co-workers.

"I'm not star-struck," she said later at the center. "That's why I'm effective."

Effective at putting out fires too, according to center crew members, who call her "house mother."

When Jerry Lewis' family showed up needing seats--five minutes before Lewis went on--Arrigo contacted the box office. Unassigned house seats were quickly found.

"When [famed British conductor] Simon Rattle was here," she said, "he arrived without suspenders to keep up his britches. I went to Barbara [Poppa, the center's wardrobe supervisor] and said 'Barbara, you wouldn't have a pair of suspenders, would you?' " Fortunately, suspenders were found among some opera costumes.

The center's regional groups also receive Arrigo's assistance, practical or spiritual. She knows the names of all 85 Pacific Symphony members--plus the instruments each plays--and takes part in music director Carl St.Clair's private pre-show good-luck ritual, though she won't reveal details.

Arrigo is a link to the outside too; she once helped arrange a dance performance in the cancer ward at Children's Hospital of Orange County.

"I called a dance fan, an attorney I know," she said, "and he got the entire Kirov Ballet, who were dancing here, to go there."

Raised on MGM musicals, Arrigo fell in love with live theater when she saw her first "way off-Broadway play" at age 12. She worked as a real estate broker for years (and still does, part-time) and as an usher at South Coast Repertory in the early '80s.

At the center, she's never without a smile, colleagues say. She positively radiates when she summons up her most cherished memories of the last 10 years.

Aplomb in the face of star power "doesn't mean I'm not moved by greatness," she says, defining greatness as the artist with "gigantic talent" who has the humility to match. She has seen it from her privileged spot backstage, she says, in the late Ella Fitzgerald (at the center in 1990), in Mikhail Baryshnikov (who has visited with American Ballet Theatre in 1988 and the White Oak Dance Project in 1993) and in Tyne Daly.

After a 1989 performance of "Gypsy," one of the most demanding musicals, an exhausted Daly emerged after a shower from her dressing room, Arrigo recalled, "in a terry cloth robe, with a wet head wrapped up in a towel.

"She had come out to see a little girl in a wheelchair. And she kneels down and says 'Jeez, did I keep you waiting?' What a woman. That's greatness."

Then there was the time nobody could find crooner Mel Torme moments before he was due to go on. Arrigo finally spotted him in his car, parked at the center's loading dock, listening to jazz.

"I said 'It's your cue; you're on, Mel,' and he said, 'I'll be there.' He was so relaxed!"

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