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Theater Company's Ship Came in at Gala

November 20, 1996|BILL HIGGINS and BETTY GOODWIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's "Showboat" time.

For Saturday's gala celebrating its 30th anniversary, the Center Theatre Group had a setting almost as dramatic as the riverboat in the classic 1927 musical. A 100-by-150-foot white tent billowed on the Music Center plaza. Inside were six dozen tables done in black cloth with red slipcovered chairs, 10 trees wreathed in lights, and a selection of props and costumes from CTG productions as decor. The effect was so eye-catching that one guest remarked, "Maybe we should keep the tent and skip the Disney Hall."

However it wasn't the tent that made the evening a success. It was the turnout of 700 guests who gave more than $600,000, plus the generous underwriting by Infiniti. "This evening demonstrates how important quality theater is to Los Angeles," said gala chairwoman Louise Taper.

The black-tie event began early, at 5 p.m., to allow guests to enjoy a dinner prepared by five premier local chefs, honor six CTG supporters and then make an 8 p.m. curtain.

Though the evening celebrated the CTG, it also reflected well upon the new Music Center caterers, Restaurant Associates. For the past 30 years, fine dining was not something you would associate with the Music Center. "The way I looked at it," said board chairwoman Andrea Van de Kamp, "was I never got fat coming here."

This, however, was not a night to count calories. There were hors d'oeuvres by Citrus' Michel Richard, antipasto from Valentino's Piero Selvaggio, duck confit tamal salad by Xiomara's Patrick Healy, Wolfgang Puck's roast salmon and exotic desserts by Christopher Herrera.

John Lithgow and Joanna Gleason hosted the program in which the CTG's artistic director / producer Gordon Davidson spoke. Presentations were made by playwright August Wilson to Charles and Audrey Skirball-Kenis; by L.A. Councilman Joel Wachs to Lawrence Ramer; by Davidson to Barbara and director Garry Marshall (who got a big laugh when he said the evening celebrated "30 years of a great marriage between great art and great parking"); and, in a rare public appearance, by Jennifer Jones Simon to Nancy Olson Livingston.

Among those applauding were Gov. Pete Wilson, Zubin Mehta (who left to conduct Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 in the Pavilion), Annette and Peter O'Malley and Amanda Hennigan, who chaired the Young Associates party that followed the performance.

The official opening night of "Showboat" on Sunday brought out a congregation of current and former Joes, Julies and Parthys to the Ahmanson, whose onstage crop is (in correct order) Michel Bell, Valarie Pettiford and Cloris Leachman.

"I thought about the curtain going up and how nervous I would be," said Elaine Stritch, who played Parthy in the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival and is in town making a movie. Then I decided I was just as nervous being in the front. I get nervous for the other actors."

Marilyn McCoo, just returned home to Los Angeles after touring for a year as Julie, said, "I came to see friends, but it is sort of a busman's holiday, isn't it?"

And as Michel Bell--Joe--said of his encounter with another Joe: "Brock Peters sat right dead center in the front row and I thought, 'Oh Lord, please.' "

James Hammerstein, son of Oscar, who wrote the musical with Jerome Kern, looked ever so pleased. "I love this show," Hammerstein said. "This is the greatest musical written. It's the greatest score ever written. Ask any composer," he implored. "It's not just me."

Without any composers around, producer Garth Drabinsky was happily reporting the show is indeed booked through 2000. in the U.S. and throughout the world.

After the final curtain, the crowd--including Police Chief Willie L. Williams ("I guess I've seen this on TV a dozen times"), producer Gil Cates, David Hockney and the entire Spelling clan--was invited for a spread of Southern fare at the Regal Biltmore Hotel.

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