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Allure of old Hollywood

March 07, 2004|Ann Conway | Times Staff Writer

"We all look better in this light!" actress Ruta Lee quipped as the electricity crashed in the middle of the first phase of the two-day Desert Extravaganza -- a "Casablanca" poolside supper for 200 guests at the Rancho Mirage home of Tani and William Austin.

Moments earlier, Lee had gushed over the 50-and-up set for their support of the Thalians Mental Health Center at Cedars-Sinai and Barbara Sinatra had thanked them for donating to the desert facility she founded with her husband, Frank: The Barbara Sinatra Children's Center at Eisenhower.

"Everybody light a match. That's the way we did it in Europe," deadpanned comedian Norm Crosby, adding: "Bill Austin makes a lot of money at these things. He's got a cousin who's a pickpocket!" And then the lights were up again, illuminating partygoers -- half of them Angelenos -- gathered at the palm-studded estate at the foot of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Arriving guests swept along a red carpet, then mingled over cocktails in the tile-paved living room as pianist Bill Marx, son of Harpo, played "As Time Goes By" on a piano once owned by Elton John.

Also on the playlist: a post-supper performance by desert songbird Keely Smith. What would she sing? "I have no idea," she said, entering the party with Sinatra. "This was one of those things where they called up and said, 'Would you show up and sing a song?' and I said, 'Yeah!' "

Smith's gig was supposed to be performed alfresco -- after guests bid on auction items and dined on sea bass with a Dijon crust and apple tarts -- but a chilling breeze forced the party indoors. "Would everybody please come inside?" invited Crosby, the king of the malaprop. "It's not mandatory, but you have to."

Dragging ballroom chairs from the terrace, guests turned the living area into a nightclub, where they warmed themselves near a fireplace hung with a portrait of Frank Sinatra. Singing silky renditions of "I Had the Craziest Dream" and "My Way," along with a lively Louis Prima-inspired take on "That Old Black Magic," Smith thrilled the crowd with the kind of concert most people only dream about: one sung in a home, just for them.

But the experience was nothing new for members of the Thalians, founded by young showbiz types who in the '50s combined forces to help raise funds for emotionally disturbed children. "Young Hollywood people like Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor and Jack Haley Jr. always got together to have a good time, and there were those people who wanted to come to those parties," said Lee, Thalians board chairwoman. "So they decided, instead of being called hard-smoking, hard-drinking, sex-minded idiots, they'd do something for the community."

It was blond bombshell Jayne Mansfield who did the research, learning that emotionally abused children needed help, Lee said. After a half-century of raising millions for mental health, the Thalians joined forces last year with the Sinatra center to create the two-day extravaganza, which, at $600 per couple, included a second-night reception at the Palm Springs Desert Museum Sculpture Garden and seats at the Palm Springs Follies. "We're mining desert sands for support because they're filled with people not only from Los Angeles and Orange County, but from all over the country," Lee said. Benefit underwriters included the Austins, Robert and Sandra Borns, Jim and Jackie Lee Houston, Harold Matzner and Beverly Rogers.

The event is so popular guests had to be turned away, said Frances Allen, coordinator of the Feb. 27-28 parties.

"I'm here because I love the job Cedars-Sinai does for the community," said Robert Cohen, owner of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, as he enjoyed the sculpture garden reception. "It was great to hear Keely. She blew me away last night -- really took me back."

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