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The little aid group that could

June 27, 2004|Ann Conway | Times Staff Writer

It wasn't your typical L.A. story -- two hunks sunning on Venice Beach, wondering how to provide disaster relief. But 29 days later Richard Walden and Llew Werner were on a plane, bringing medical and shelter supplies to Vietnamese refugees.

That was 25 years ago. Today, the outreach that became Operation USA has helped "89 countries with $200 million in aid -- all of it private," Walden said as he welcomed guests to the organization's silver anniversary bash at the Malibu Colony home of supporters Barbara and Christopher Catlin. "No government money."

Board member Julie Andrews recalled how she learned about the humanitarian effort that "changed her life."

She and her husband, producer-director Blake Edwards, were watching television on a Saturday afternoon and saw Walden being interviewed about his frustration at not having enough money to fuel a planeload of supplies to Cambodia. "I told Blake, 'Let's donate the fuel,' " said Andrews, who has also served as a spokeswoman for the organization.

Added Walden: "Blake called and said, 'I've just been paid for the movie "10." Order the plane.' "

At the June 19 affair with a "Lunch in Provence" theme, casually attired guests -- among them board chairman Jonathan Estrin, Olivia Newton-John, former California Gov. Jerry Brown and Arianna Huffington -- sipped coolers in the garden of the lushly landscaped property situated a street from the beach and spoke about how one person can make a difference.

"Walden exemplifies the incredible instincts that Lincoln called 'the better angels of our nature,' " Huffington observed as she stood on a brick-paved terrace near the pool. "I very much believe in the work they are doing around the world, the lives they touch, and the ways they spread a positive image of America."

Said Brown: "I was there when they started. I came to wish them well. Walden has proved that when somebody wants to do something and they have the imagination and the energy, they can get a lot done."

While caterers set up a French repast on buffet tables spread with crisp white linen, Edwards took a moment to reflect on the upcoming remake of his comedic tour de force, "The Pink Panther," with Steve Martin playing Inspector Clouseau, the role Peter Sellers made famous. "I wouldn't want to try it," Edwards said. "Would you want to take on Peter Sellers? I don't care how good an actor you are, you're going to still have to face that.

"I can't tell you how many of my past films are trying to be resurrected," he added. "And nobody ever comes to me to ask, 'Was there a secret?' or 'Would you lend us a hand?' "

Seated at a wrought-iron patio table, Newton-John said she'd been touched by how many of her acquaintances had supported the relief organization.

"The Catlins are good friends and so are Blake and Julie," she said. "I have a lot of respect for what the organization does. So when I found out they were celebrating its 25th anniversary, I just had to come."

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