It was a heady cocktail of dramatic setting, high fashion glitz, big name celebrities and deep sadness that made Tuesday's Fire & Ice Ball the black-tie gala of the season. All that and water, too. A million gallons of it.
The scene that greeted arriving guests was a white tent, almost as long and wide as a football field, centered above a lagoon. From the curving ramp entryway, the 1,100-strong crowd passed by fountains that spewed fire and water and hundreds of candles floating on the tank Paramount Studios has used for everything from "The Ten Commandments" to "Patriot Games."
"I've never seen anything like this before," said Caroline Ahmanson. "It's like something you'd see in an old Hollywood musical."
The ramp led into the tent's reception area where one wall was made from 15,000 pounds of ice flanked on each side by giant video screens projecting aquarium scenes in which huge tropical fish stared down at the crowd. Across the area was a 100-foot-long "rain curtain" that sent down a fine sheet of water that opened to allow guests, including Dustin and Lisa Hoffman, Anjelica Huston and Robert Graham, Sidney Poitier, Steve Tisch, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, John Burnham, Pierce Brosnan, Cindy Crawford, Jaclyn Smith, Christian Slater and Gina Gershon, to enter the dining area.
The setting led Jennifer Tilly to say, "When I go to something like this, I really feel like I'm part of Hollywood. This is like the Oscars without the angst."
As the rain curtain parted, guests stepped onto the tent's center runway, which stretched its length and split the room in half. They trod upon a clear plexiglass floor that allowed them to look down into the water, which was lit from below and strewn with enough mirror fragments to bring a million years of bad luck.
It was 8:30 before the guests were seated and the evening's program began with a short speech from hosts Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson. They had stepped in for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who are still in England filming "Eyes Wide Shut," but appeared via a short video.
They were followed by Paramount's Sherry Lansing, who thanked Saks Fifth Avenue for its support and her co-chairs Jonathan Dolgen, Philip B. Miller, Jane Semel and Revlon's Ronald Perelman, who said he figured "something north of $2 million" was raised for the Revlon / UCLA Women's Cancer Research Program.
The keynote speech came from Harper's Bazaar Editor Liz Tilberis who spoke of her own "extraordinary adventure" with ovarian cancer. She was followed by Dr. Dennis Slamon of the Revlon / UCLA program.
The evening's emotional high point came when the event's founder, Lilly Tartikoff, got up to speak. Her involvement with cancer fund-raising began 20 years ago when her husband, Brandon, the almost universally well-liked former head of NBC Entertainment and Paramount Pictures, contracted Hodgkin's disease. It appeared he was cured, but there was a recurrence and he died this summer at age 48.
After a standing ovation, Tartikoff began by saying she "wasn't quite sure I could be here tonight. But I was reminded by Denny Slamon that it was because of clinical trials Brandon was granted 15 extra years of life. I had to be reminded that science improving is our only hope."
She went on to describe her late husband's fight against cancer, and even got the audience to laugh when she recounted how one of his NBC bosses said, "He never complained about cancer. He only complained about everything else." She left the podium in tears, and sobs could be heard from the audience.
The evening then took a 180-degree turn when the lights came up and models came down the runway showing Isaac Mizrahi's spring collection. This came to a dramatic climax when models in underwear passed through another rain curtain. "A wet figure is almost so sexy you can't look at it," said Mizrahi.
After that, the evening entered into a free-form party mode. Penny Marshall described the scene in one word: "recess."
Among those in the room were Ron Meyer, Peter Chernin, Jim Wiatt, Lou Pitt, Frank Biondi, Joel Silver, Herb Ritts, Rob Friedman, Kelsey Grammer, Marisa O'Neil and Fran Drescher.
Tartikoff watched the crowd mingle and said the plan was to leave the late part of the evening unstructured. "We raised a lot of money, we entertained them and then we let them do what they like to do best--schmooze."