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What Gives With All The Galas?

By Anne-Marie O'Connor, Los Angeles Times, April 2001


A look into L.A.’s virtually nonstop round of charity bashes reveals a world where women rule, elites of all kinds interact and social standing meets compassion.

By Anne-Marie O’Connor


She doesn’t look like a general - though would it be wrong if generals wore Valentino leather pants and had their hair styled at Cristophe? – but make no mistake, Donna Estes Antebi is commanding troops.


Young men in black coats, resembling escapees from an Armani catwalk, hoist boxes of luscious green orchids. Hotel staffers swirl around the cold, empty ballroom, swathing tables in scarlet Shantung silk.


“It’s chaos!” Antebi says, wrapped in a cloak (actually a tablecloth) like Napoleon at Waterloo. “We are just in total crisis mode! Millions of issues. Busy busy. I’m just handling everything!”


In a few hours she will don a red gown, stride onstage at the Beverly Hills Hotel and take command of a charity fund-raiser that will bring drama, music and celebrities together with wealthy and powerful Angelenos. Her mission: to persuade 450 guests to wear their money on their sleeves for COACH for Kids, a charity that brings basic medical attention to low-income children.


Antebi and her cadre have built up to this moment with living-room fund-raisers, ladies’ teas on Rodeo Drive, a celebrity garage sale of everything from the “Mad About You” sofa to Tina Turner’s dancing shoes and art collected by Sly Stallone.


The stakes tonight are high, and not just for this charity.


Charity galas are the behind-the-scenes Oscars of affluent Americans. They’re a stage where compassion, business and social status intersect. A place where outsiders become insiders- and insiders bond.


This Los Angeles soiree is no exception. Except, like so many things, charity is different here. The philanthropic tradition is younger than in New York and Philadelphia. And there are many tribes of elites – Old Money, the hard-to-get Young Money, Dot-Com Money, Rock ‘n’ Roll Money, Immigrant Money and Hollywood Money.


Like ever-changing dance partners, some combination of this money sits down in some ballroom virtually every evening in Los Angeles, supporting a multimillion-dollar economy of stylists, florists, caterers, dressmakers and stationers – and fueling on of the city’s most important social rituals. Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad was invited to four charity events colliding on a single recent night.


Antebi’s lieutenant, Irena Medavoy, the wife of Phoenix Pictures Chairman Mike Medavoy, know this world well. She is even co-developing a television show about how philanthropies help define the social pecking order in Hollywood, where some have sought to parlay charitable donations into access to exclusive celebrity bashes.


“It’s about how the hierarchy and social life in this town is run by the women: who they force alliances with, and how they force charities. The ones who do it just for social position and the ones who do it because there’s a passion and idealism behind them,” Medavoy said. “The irony of it is the dynamics that go on between charity and the hierarchy.”


Like a lot of things in the Hollywood orbit, success depends on relationships. If this mantra is true about making movies, consider the personal ties that jump-started the effort to aid COACH, Community Outreach Assistance for Children’s Health.


It all began, everyone agrees, with Antebi. She had written a script about a black historic figure. Antebi, who is white, asked Allysunn Walker, who is black, to read it for authenticity. Walker was then executive director of COACH, a Cedars-Sinai Medical Center program that sends mobile medical clinics, staffed by doctors and nurses, into low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods.


The staffers vaccinated kids, treated them for common problems – asthma, and earaches, strep and bronchitis – and screened them for such things as blood lead levels, tuberculosis, and developmental problems. They also spotted caner, leukemia, and ectopic pregnancies, and referred patients for treatment. Cedars-Sinai was struggling to support the program.


Antebi hated to think what would happen if she could not afford medical care for the four children she’s raising.


“Seeing mothers and babies – it gets me every time,” she said. “These are the uninsured kids who do not see a doctor until they get to the emergency room.”


Antebi had once started a product-placement company that arranged prominent spots in “Wall Street” and other films for the wares of such clients as Eastman-Kodak, Evian and Adidas. She thought she had the entrepreneurial skills to help COACH.


She started with an October 998 fund-raiser at her home featuring writer Sarah Ban Beathnach, whose appearance on “Oprah” two years earlier had helped put her book “Simple Abundance” on national bestseller lists. The author donated $50,000. Antebi and her husband, Steve, matched her. By the end of the night, the charity’s bottom line was $250,000 fatter.


Antebi formed a support group, starting with friends in her baby play group.


There was Jennifer Flavin, wife of Sylvester Stallone. There was Shelli Azoff, wife of music industry heavyweight Irving Azoff. And there was Medavoy, whose toddler had come down with transient synovitis, a painful condition that left him temporarily unable to walk.


“It was so scary, I can’t tell you,” Medavoy said. “I thought, ‘What do these kids do when you don’t have money and no one to support you’ It was at that moment I went to Donna and said, ‘I’m in.’”


Sugar Ray Leonard and his wife, Bernadette, hosted a fashion show benefit six months later. There was a pre-Oscars Vanity Fair fundraiser. An Armani shopping party. A super-celebrity “garage sale” at a historic Victorian in Santa Monica. (The Stallones also gave silver; Bette Midler bolstered the celebrity shoe pool). There was the first COACH gala dinner, which brought in $1 million – or $890,000 after costs. Things were rolling.


“We support each other,” Medavoy said. “In the women’s system, everyone is a queen bee.” Especially these women, some of them veterans of long Hollywood careers and in a position to call in lots of favors – what Antebi calls “guerrilla producing.”


It was Medavoy who ambushed Rob Lowe.


“I look and say, ‘Who’s got heat?’ And he’s on ‘West Wing’ the most popular show,” she said. “He starring in a film with Gwyneth Paltrow. He’s on fire.”


She called Lowe, and he agreed to be the guest of honor at the dinner with his wife, Sheryl, in recognition of their work with children’s charities in Santa Barbara.


“Celebrities are very hard to get to commit,” Medavoy said. “But these are their friends. These are people they know.”


Antebi drafted Hollywood uber-florist Eric Buterbaugh, whom she often uses personally. He gave $7,000 worth (at cost) of those waxy, translucent green cymbidiums. Phoenix Pictures is just one of the many Hollywood clients.


“They’re great clients, so I’m happy to support them,” he said. “I get asked to do these charities every day, and at the end of the day you pick the ones of people who support you.”


Antebi also recruited Marc Friedland, the high-styled invitation czar of Creative Intelligence Inc. Friedland chooses colors and concepts to “brand” social and charity events, following the same principles marketers use to create awareness of start-up companies.


He has designed invitations for Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s wedding and the charity events of Tom Hanks’s wife, Rita Wilson.


“There’s a huge social aspect” to the charity scene, said Friedland, who showed up at Antebi’s nighttime gala in mod blue sunglasses.


While people are eager to help causes, charity parties are also “a see-and-be-seen kind of evening,” he said. “It’s the only taste of New York society, the gala and fund-raising circuit in L.A.”


Friedland donated $7,000 to $10,000 worth of conceptual work and discounted the cost of producing the invitation.


“This is our way of contributing to the community and at the same time doing good,” he said, adding that it’s also good for business.


And the COACH board, he said, “is definitely a power group of women. They have a lot of clout. They pull a lot of strings. This is the crème de la crème.”


Shelli Azoff bagged Seal and Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit, who agreed to perform. Her husband manages them – along with a huge roster of artists, including Christina Aguilera.


The housekeepers of two board members stitched together the silk tablecloths.


Table pledges came pouring in, spiraling to a stratospheric $150,000 per table, paid from such deep pockets as those of the Marciano family – the Guess Jeans dynasty.


That’s on the hefty side for Los Angeles, where tables at charity events typically go for $5,000 to $6,000, compared with $10,000 to $25,000 in New York, according to Broad.


We’re a younger city, and we’re not as philanthropic as we ought to be, but hopefully that’s all about to change,” said Broad, who, with donations of $137.5 million last year, came in second only to Bill Gates on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of most generous Americans.


Broad hopes that people jostling for prominence at newer Los Angeles cultural meccas – from the Museum of Contemporary Art to Walt Disney Concert Hall – will make gifts like the multimillion-dollar academic endowments of supermarket magnate Ron Burkle less unusual.


“People weren’t there five or 10 years ago, and neither was I,” Broad said. “It becomes contagious.”


One thing that spurs giving, experts say, is social competition among elites. Los Angeles’ more dispersed, transient wealthy communities don’t feel the pressure to get their family names on buildings that inspires donations arms races in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. But galas are another matter.


Half of all wealthy American donors give to a cause through a cocktail party, black-tie dinner, or other charity event, according to a recent study.


“If you want the big bucks, you’ve got to put on a big event,” said Westwood One radio syndication czar Norm Pattiz, whose wife, Mary, is on the COACH board.


“You would like to think that people would just write checks and not care about the event, but that’s a fantasy,” agreed Jill Brooke, the editor of New York’s Avenue magazine, which covers the philanthropic scene.


“The truth is that many people only go to these events because of the social cachet and the opportunity to network,” she said. “But that’s OK, because if these parties did not exist, those causes would not be getting the cash infusions they need.”


Back in the ballroom, the pressure is on. Antebi is taking a crash course in the TelePrompTer.


“Who’s in charge of stage lighting?” a cameraman grouses. “Every one of these I go to they use blue. Especially for older ladies, its not flattering at all.”


By the time Rob Lowe saunters down the red carpet, the baroque illusion – styled by interior designer Red Barris and Oprah-featured author Danica Perez – is complete.


The orchids drip like Spanish moss from tree branches twisted, like huge antlers, into candelabra. Billowing scarlet fabric canopies the ceiling like a giant red heart. Heart-shaped lights illuminate potted pepper trees. A king’s ransom of donated designer booty – La Perla, Gucci, Escada – awaits auction.


No East Coast blueblood rectitude prevails here. An Old Guard septuagenarian thinks nothing of sitting across from a thrice-married film producer whose last divorce still fuels gossip.  And who would imagine Woodstock stage-fright notable David Crosby as a pillar of this community? Yet here he is in a tuxedo and his trademark handlebar mustache.


Antebi’s big moment arrives. She rustles onstage in red silk and throws a rose to her lieutenant, Medavoy: “Thankfully for the children, the size of her heart is matched by the size of her rolodex.”


The crowd laughs knowingly.


Chuck Woolery, of “Dating Game” and “Love Connection” fame, emcees, and Michael King – of the King World syndication empire (“Hollywood Squares,” “Jeopardy”) – kicks off the auction. Two at-home dinners cooked by Wolfgang Puck go for $28,000 each. There are trips to an Arizona golf retreat, a romantic getaway to Bali (Eagle Schmidt buys that).


It’s all in the family. Norman Lear bids $8,000 for lunch with his old co-producer, Bud Yorkin. Another Yorkin buddy, Merv Andelson, bids $7,000 not to have lunch with Yorkin.


Lowe accepts his award with ironic solemnity, quipping: “I’m going to take this home and tell my children it’s a Golden Globe.”


A few days later, a coughing, nauseated toddler is examined by a COACH nurse at the Pueblo del Rio housing project in South Los Angeles. The child’s immigrant mother, Aida Quezada, says the COACH van is the only clinic she and her four children have ever used. Her kids have gotten Christmas toys from COACH.


Another nurse, the sister-in-law of a major contributor, idly relates the thrill of seeing Lowe across the bar.


Publicists fax out the final tally: The event grossed $1.3 million for COACH (the $170,000 gala costs were paid by the Antebis and other sponsors). That’s enough for a new medical van – and a year of its operating costs.


By Monday, Antebi and Medavoy are already deep into the guest list for their next “friend-raiser.”


“I’m working on getting a celebrity to match with the charity. A big one, who will show up every time,” Medavoy says. “It would be nice to get a big studio to sponsor us too. And a musical talent.”


Says charity observer Brooke: doing good not only makes you feel good, it makes the world a better place. The more you do it, the more you like it. It also gives you immortality.”


Though immortality – as everyone knows – has a short shelf life in Hollywood.

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