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Determination, Access Smoothed Reeve's Visit

Charity: Volunteers worked hard to make actor's first trip to an equestrian event since last year's accident a memorable one. Orange County competition drums up support for spinal cord research.

September 17, 1996|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — There were ramps to be built. A mission to be altered. Medical care to be arranged. Celebrity schedules to be matched. A road to be closed.

Such measures were necessary so Christopher Reeve could deliver the message he seeks to sear into public consciousness: More must be done on behalf of those with spinal cord injuries.

"Just keeping people alive is not enough. It's the quality of their lives that matters," the actor told guests Saturday at a dinner in the courtyard at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Reeve, who has sounded his theme at the Democratic National Convention and the Academy Awards, spoke at events surrounding the Oaks International equestrian competition over the weekend. It was Reeve's first appearance at such an event since he was paralyzed in a horse jumping accident last year.

Accommodating Reeve--as well as the 13 other dinner guests in wheelchairs, including jockey Bill Shoemaker, and more than 500 other guests and celebrities--took event coordinators two months of intense planning, political machinations and physical labor.

"There was so much work to be done to make it seem really simple and seamless," said Janet Rosener Ridley, event coordinator.

To provide valet parking to both wheelchair users and able-bodied guests, organizers worked with police and San Juan Capistrano officials to close off El Camino Real.

Though the mission is accessible by wheelchairs at its main entrance off Ortega Highway, that entrance was closed because of traffic concerns; special ramps were built to create a temporary wheelchair entrance on Camino Capistrano.

Party planners also had to contend with the dinner's being held in the courtyard, a historic site that for preservation reasons could not be significantly altered. The courtyard was first examined by members of Reeve's security and medical staff, who suggested changes.

Workers covered the courtyard with 80 feet of flooring to create smooth passageways and installed an 8-foot-wide turning platform and a 24-foot ramp with a gentle rise so Reeve could move from his table to the stage.

Masons altered the stonework around the courtyard so people could move their wheelchairs around the grass areas--a permanent change that will make the mission more accessible to future visitors in wheelchairs, Ridley said.

"There was disabled access at the mission, but not to each courtyard quadrant," she said.

Reeve was accompanied at all times by his security and medical staff at the "Evening Under the Stars" dinner and at the jumping show, staged annually by Joan Irvine Smith. The weekend events were expected to gross $500,000, with the net proceeds to benefit the Reeve-Irvine Research Center for spinal cord injuries at UC Irvine.

At a luncheon during Sunday's jumping competition, held at the Oaks Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park, the 43-year-old actor and his wife, Dana, delivered the first Christopher Reeve Research Medal to Martin E. Schwab, a Swiss brain specialist. He also received a $50,000 prize.

Schwab discovered proteins that helped regenerate injured central nervous systems in laboratory rats.

At Saturday's dinner, Reeve told the crowd: "The days of individuals working in a laboratory, underfunded and unappreciated, are over. By taking advantage of our global village, we will achieve things that people thought were impossible five years ago."

Reeve proved he hasn't lost his sense of humor. After singer Renee Bondi, a quadriplegic, entertained the crowd with a medley of inspirational songs, he wheeled slowly onto the stage and quipped:

"With all that nice music, I couldn't help do a little dance."

Reeve joked about how Smith called his office after the accident saying she wanted to donate $1 million for spinal cord research.

"We filed that away under crazy people," he said. Later, the actor returned her call. "We talked horses and about the future."

Besides thanking Smith and UCI, Reeve praised "the person on my left,"--his wife. "She did more for me than any medication."

During the dinner, Reeve sat between his wife and an old friend, actress Jane Seymour, his co-star in "Somewhere in Time."

"Whenever I have a bad day, I just flash on Christopher," said Seymour, accompanied by her husband, actor James Keach. "I believe he has a passion and the ability to move mountains."

Seeing Reeve slowly make his way to the stage, Seymour brushed away tears with the edge of the white tablecloth.

"He has the strength to come all the way here," she said.

Guests, who paid $200 to $500 for tickets to the gala, dined by candlelight in the mission courtyard. "This couldn't be a better place--the whole ambience is just right," said Joan Rivers, who attended the dinner with her daughter Melissa.

Actor Robin Williams told reporters that everyone asks him about Reeve, a longtime friend.

"It's amazing. When you walk down the street, everyone asks, 'How's your pal, man?' "

Trent McGee, a 9-year-old quadriplegic from Irvine and the guest of gala co-chairs David and Laura Dukes, also found himself in the media limelight. McGee had come to meet his hero, Reeve.

He summed up the frustration of many in wheelchairs when he told reporters: "I want to get out."

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