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Keeping Company With O.C.'s Movers and Shakers

September 02, 1996|ANN CONWAY

The Orange County Performing Arts Center-- marking its 10th anniversary this month--has become one of the area's most important places not just to be entertained, but also to be seen. And not only in Segerstrom Hall, where audiences catch the latest musicals, but also at the dozens of parties staged annually by members of the center's support groups.

In fact, center society has become one of the county's most powerful social forces.

While that social scene may seem from the outside like so-much black-tie, look-at-us glitz and glitter, much of it is plain old hard work, say those who have organized the events that have raised millions on behalf of the center.

The center has 2,700 members serving its seven support groups: the Guilds, the Angels of the Arts, Founders Plus, Center Docents, Center 500, Center Stars and the Performing Arts Business Alliance.

Together on behalf of the center they have raised $14 million, half by the Guilds.

And, when the $73-million center was built 10 years ago, it was with private funds and the help of hundreds who united for the fund-raising effort.

The social whirl around the center is designed to benefit the community at large, says center Chairman Mark Johnson. "When center supporters interact, at benefits and through their volunteer efforts, they give thousands of others the chance to experience the life-changing effect of the performing arts."

Which isn't to say that the social opportunities the center provides--preconcert receptions, post-performance hobnobs with headliners, entertainment-packed benefits--aren't also great fun, says Johnson, a longtime supporter of the facility.

"Before the push for the center in the early '70s, there was really no social focus in Orange County," said center visionary Elaine Redfield of Fullerton. "Orange County was like Gaul, divided into three parts: There was the north, central and the beach. Each community took care of itself.

"The goal of creating the center created the society. It meant every community pulled itself together to raise funds."

During the '50s, there was "orange grove society," Redfield observes. "Many of [the landowners] were jet-setters who just spent time here."

As the county's population increased and its communities developed, social service groups such as the Assistance League were formed. There were benefit luncheons and a few balls staged by hospitals in those days, Redfield remembers.

And while the Orange County Philharmonic Society (founded in 1954) did its best to fill the performing arts void--staging classical concerts at public halls around the county in the '50s and '60s--Los Angeles was where you went to see the shows that had just come out of New York, Redfield said.

"There were no freeways then; it was a two-hour journey to L.A. We'd take Pioneer Boulevard, and on the way, we'd see animals grazing in the pastures."

Having an Orange County Performing Arts Center has opened a whole new audience for the arts, Redfield says. "Not everybody can get in a car and head to L.A. People who would have had no opportunity in the world to be exposed otherwise can go to the center.

"It is a beautiful venue that could be standing where Carnegie Hall is. It just happens that it's in Costa Mesa."


On Sunday, about 1,200 are expected to attend the center's black-tie, 10th anniversary gala, which includes a champagne reception and classical concert in Segerstrom Hall and a post-show dinner outdoors in the Carriage Circle.

The Four Seasons hotel is catering the affair, bringing in four Southland hotel chefs: Urs Balmer of Beverly Hills, Eric Brennan of Santa Barbara, Michel Piepon of Newport Beach and Donald Russell of Los Angeles.

The formal gathering is a long way from the center's first fund-raising gala--a candlelight concert in the early '70s held outdoors in a shopping center; the next year it was held at a vacant five-and-dime store.

"That was when we had the idea we were really going to have a center," said Floss Schumacher, who chaired seven of the candlelight concerts, which became an annual event.

Schumacher, who now lives in La Quinta, chaired the center's opening night gala in 1986. "I think about that night frequently," she said. "And I feel a little tug. Without the center, Orange County would be nothing. It would just be perking along."

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