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ANN CONWAY

Entertaining Knack Will Help Kirwans' Arts Efforts

July 28, 1999|ANN CONWAY

Arts activists Roger and Gail Kirwan of Newport Coast are gaining a reputation for stylish entertaining.

She's a great cook; he's a master at mixing drinks.

But when it comes to their food and drink preferences, they go their separate ways: She prefers Evian, straight up. He likes Scotch on the rocks.

Restaurant fare? French in a refined atmosphere for her. Italian in a casual environment for him, thank you.

"We're opposites," Gail Kirwan said.

"But we have a marriage made for entertaining," said Roger Kirwan, new chairman of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. "She's in charge of the kitchen--and she's Italian. I'm in charge of the bar--and I'm Irish. We've always enjoyed entertaining; we've done it for 28 years."

With Roger Kirwan heading a board aiming to raise $200 million for the center's proposed concert-hall complex, the couple's entertaining skills are going to be put to good use: There's the traditional Chairman's Dinner for center board members and their spouses the Kirwans will host this fall at their home on Pelican Hill. The intimate suppers they will arrange for potential donors. The parties for supporters.

Not to mention the mingling they will do at the whirlwind of events dotting the theater season. Or the fund-raisers they will attend for the center and its regional artistic partners: Pacific Symphony, Philharmonic Society, Opera Pacific, Master Chorale and Pacific Chorale.

"The biggest demand on the Kirwans will be the quantity of social events they will attend on an ongoing basis," said outgoing center chairman Mark Johnson, who, with his wife, Barbara, has staged dozens of parties for arts supporters in their North Tustin home. "Besides opening nights, there are the functions staged by the center's five support groups, nine guilds, 30-some-odd chapters and its artistic partners. It's demanding. But it's a good demanding."

The Kirwans are no strangers to entertaining on behalf of the center. But the events the couple has staged in their 8,000-square-foot home--built to imitate a French chateau pictured on a bottle of Bordeaux--have been ultra-private.

There was last year's spring luncheon catered by the Four Seasons hotel for the Angels of the Arts, a by-invitation-only center support group to which Gail Kirwan belongs. And there was the posh tea--also catered by the Four Seasons--Gail Kirwan staged for center donors in January where glittering jewels by Harry Winston were on display.

Four Seasons catering director Marc Kaufman describes the Kirwans as "gracious and private people who know how to entertain."

"When you step inside their incredible home, you feel welcome and comfortable," he said.

"We love to share our home with people," said Gail Kirwan, who collects 18th century French furniture. "I love to select menus, cook--or oversee the cooking--and arrange flowers."

*

They met in the Hamptons during a Fourth of July weekend in 1969. She was a fifth-grade teacher in East Chester, N.Y. He was living upstate, financing recreational vehicles.

She was renting a beach house with friends, who included Roger Kirwan's sister.

He learned of the gathering.

"I knew my sister was sharing a house with six or seven young women--so that was a very good reason to visit," Roger Kirwan deadpanned.

She liked him immediately.

"He was good-looking, Irish and Catholic," Gail Kirwan said. "I've always been partial to Irish Americans."

He liked "the white bikini she was wearing," he said. "And her smile."

They went for a stroll on the beach and he gave her a seashell and a ring--"the pop-off top from a beer can," he said--and promised her three things: "a visit to a special New York restaurant, a trip to San Francisco and someday Paris."

They were married two years later.

"I've delivered them all," Roger Kirwan said, "though it took us three years to get to San Francisco and 17 years to get to Paris."

*

During his first week as center chairman, Roger Kirwan got a sampling of the social demands to come: He spoke at a dinner meeting for the Philharmonic Society at the Pelican Hill Golf Club; he and Gail attended the opening-night performance of "Sunset Boulevard" at Segerstrom Hall, where they mingled during intermission with donors in the exclusive Center Room; and he presided over a luncheon with the center's architectural team.

"It was all very exciting and fun," Roger Kirwan said.

Besides fund-raising, what is his goal during his tenure?

"I'd like to see the board get a little more involved in attending performances. Some think they don't like ballet, for example. But today's ballet is wonderful. And some think they don't enjoy classical music--but if they heard what was on that stage, they'd have a totally different perception."

*

Ann Conway can be reached via e-mail at ann.conway@latimes.com.

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