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Butterflies and laughter

November 10, 2002|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

Lily Tomlin's eyes darted restlessly around the lobby of the Regent Beverly Wilshire. Dana Carvey tested his material on a reporter. And Robin Williams, just back from visiting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, hid his frustration at having first driven to the wrong hotel by dutifully posing for photos.

It was an anxious beginning to an event that, on the surface, seemed your standard black-tie, silent-auction, chicken-entree Beverly Hills banquet. But the Nov. 1 benefit for the Scleroderma Research Foundation, Bob Saget's pet charity, was instead a bittersweet memorial for the group's late founder, Sharon Monsky, and an evening of sidesplitting comedy.

"Sharon ... loved to laugh," Saget said of Monsky, who died in May after a long battle with the disease, which causes a persistent hardening of the body's tissues. His sister also died of scleroderma. "It's just the obvious flip side to such pain."

A last-minute venue change, prompted by the guest list nearly doubling to 650, left Williams roaming the Westside in search of his stage. "I have found that putting on events like these actually causes some diseases," Saget joked later. (Ultimately, the evening raised more than $850,000.)

Meanwhile, back in the lobby, Carvey, who'd had a long hiatus from the stage, poked fun at his interviewer, a well-groomed young man from an entertainment TV show. After a rousing impersonation of Queen Elizabeth, he quipped, "You'll never use any of this. ... I'm just using you to warm up."

Nearby, Tomlin flitted among the publicists and well-wishers. As she made a break for the ballroom, Ramelle Monsky, Sharon's mother, stopped her. "You've gotta tell me how it is on 'The West Wing'!" the woman said, referring to Tomlin's new recurring role on the show as White House secretary Debbie Fiderer. "I lobbied to get the part!" said Tomlin. "The writing was just so brilliant." Even the ambassador to Belgium is a fan, she noted.

In the ballroom, live butterflies alighted on orchids inside tabletop terrariums as guests dined on the gourmet Mexican fare provided by Monsky's friend chef-restaurateur Susan Feniger and her partner, Mary Sue Milliken. Later, Tomlin, her jitters seemingly gone, joked from the stage: "Somebody at our table ate the butterflies. It's terribly distracting while you're eating creatures that have lived" -- the main course was beef -- "to watch other creatures fight for their last breath."

During a lengthy (at more than an hour, some said insufferably so) live auction, a few butterflies escaped their glass cages and danced around the ballroom's massive chandelier, prompting the ever dry-witted Saget to chastise the anonymous insect activists: "Please do not release the butterflies. This is not a frat house."

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