Back in 1984, relatively early in the AIDS crisis, actors Michael Kearns and James Carroll Pickett met with David Galligan about directing a benefit show to help gay men afflicted with the disease.
Galligan, a journalist making the transition to theater director, enlisted producer Susan Obrow, and the group of four produced and directed what is now S.T.A.G.E., the Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event, billed as the world's longest-running musical theater AIDS benefit.
That first show celebrated the music of Leonard Bernstein. "We had no money," Galligan recalled, so members of the theatrical community helped out. Milt Larsen, the creator of the Magic Castle, provided use of the Variety Arts Theatre in downtown L.A. Robert Fryer, then artistic director of the Ahmanson, "gave us a water-stained backdrop," Galligan said.
Because most of the performers were working in L.A. theater, the event took place on a Monday evening — their night off from their shows. Admission was $10. Audiences brought groceries to help those in need.
Over the last three decades, these annual benefits have raised $6.5 million to $7 million for HIV and AIDS organizations, according to S.T.A.G.E. This year's beneficiary is AIDS Project Los Angeles, one of the largest nonprofit AIDS service organizations in the U.S., which runs food pantries, a dental clinic, counseling and HIV testing.
Galligan, who has directed every one of those benefits, is pulling out all the stops for the 30th anniversary edition Saturday night at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.
Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne will be the emcee of "S.T.A.G.E Goes to the Movies," which will feature Tony Award winner Betty Buckley ("Cats"), musical comedy star Mitzi Gaynor ("South Pacific"), singer-actor James Darren ("Gidget," "The Time Tunnel"), singer-artist Jason Gould (Barbra Streisand and Elliott Gould's son), 99-year-old Patricia Morison ("Kiss Me Kate"), singer Helen Reddy ("I Am Woman") and film critic Rex Reed.
Veteran Hollywood gossip columnist Rona Barrett will narrate a fashion show featuring iconic Hollywood costumes such as a dress Bette Davis wore in the 1950 "All About Eve" and Lena Horne's dress from the 1943 "Stormy Weather."
Two of the performers appearing Saturday — singer and actress Carole Cook, who starred in "42nd Street" on Broadway, and Donna McKechnie, who won the Tony Award as Cassie in "A Chorus Line" — participated in the first benefit 30 years ago. Cook has returned all but three years.
"All the arts were hit hard by AIDS," Cook said. "God knows what wonderful talent we lost."
The first few years of the benefit, Cook said, performers pitched in wherever they could. "We did everything," she said. "We cleaned the bathrooms. It was like an old movie where you would get together and do the show."
McKechnie's ex-husband, Tony Award-winning choreographer and director Michael Bennett ("A Chorus Line," "Dreamgirls"), died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1987.
"It's also a wonderful reunion with your friends," McKechnie said of the benefit. "The spirit of it is so great and powerful. The audience gets it and feels it on so many different levels."
Added Cook: "It is an audience of the faithful."
Singer Debby Boone and actor Richard Chamberlain are making their first S.T.A.G.E. appearances Saturday night. Boone will perform the Rodgers and Hammerstein song "It Might as Well Be Spring" from "State Fair." Chamberlain, who lived in Hawaii for years, wasn't aware of the S.T.A.G.E. benefit until he was asked to participate.
"I said, 'Well how about "I Could Have Danced All Night?" ' " the actor said of the "My Fair Lady" standard that is usually sung by a woman. "It's very happy and upbeat. We had a rehearsal at David's apartment with the musical director and decided how to present it."
Though Galligan expects to raise about $300,000, he acknowledged that times have changed. Interest in the show used to be strong enough to support three or four performances each year. Young audiences, he said, don't seem to care about the Great American Songbook.
"They aren't exactly enthused or care about George and Ira Gershwin," Galligan said.
Another factor: "There is a general apathy about AIDS," he said. "People think it has been cured, but it hasn't, of course."
Added Cook: "I call it AIDS fatigue."
So intermixed with a comedy routine about her childhood and a performance of the song "Something Cool," Cook said, "there will be a little reminder of why we are there. I don't want people to forget."
'S.T.A.G.E. Goes to the Movies'
Where: Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Information: http://www.stagela.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times