Letdown at a Music Center Fund-Raiser

Times Staff Writer

Imagine paying $100 for a feast, only to leave famished.

That's what happened to about 250 people at the first Music Center New Year's Eve fund-raising gala. The event was planned to draw a new crowd to the Music Center, including young professionals whose rising incomes might make them regular donors.

Instead, the event, while a smashing success for some, apparently has alienated other potential supporters. Michael Newton, president of the Music Center Performing Arts Council, said an "extensive post mortem" is under way to figure out what went wrong.

No decision has been made on whether to hold another gala next New Year's Eve, added Newton, who conceived the idea.

A Delight for Some For the 750 to 825 people who did eat, and for another 250 people at a $350-per-plate sit-down dinner backstage, it was a delightful experience capped by an abbreviated Herbie Hancock concert as George Orwell's least favorite year passed into history.

But for several hundred people there was no pasta salad, vegetables and sliced-to-order roast beef. Even as people inside were waiting for food that did not exist, dozens of $100 tickets were being sold to latecomers at the Pavilion box office.

One hungry man got so angry he grabbed a waiter, shook him and demanded dinner, according to Robert Kissinger, general manager of the Music Center restaurants, which are operated by Hungry Tiger Inc. The operation Kissinger directs has a long-term exclusive contract to provide all food service at the Music Center.

Veteran fund-raising professionals at other organizations said they cannot imagine staging an event where anyone, much less 25% of the guests, went hungry. These professionals said that if such a situation did arise they would handle it much differently than did the Performing Arts Council, the Music Center's umbrella fund-raising group.

The buffet dinner, mix of jazz, swing and juke box music and strolling entertainment in the Grand Hall of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion drew either 970 or 1,100 people, depending on which Music Center official is speaking.

Tickets were sold at the door because "when we opened those doors we did not have cash in hand from ticket sales for the number of dinners we had guaranteed the Hungry Tiger," said Esther Wachtell, vice chair of the Music Center Unified Fund, who manages the fund-raising campaign on a day-to-day basis.

Many of these people, including the press and some Music Center employees, attended free. Newton declined to say just how many free tickets were handed out, but did say it was fewer than 300 tickets, as one Music Center insider reported.

The morning of the gala, the order for meals was increased from 650 to 750.

The afternoon of the gala, more than 100 people called to inquire about buying tickets. But this outpouring of last-minute interest did not prompt any move to further increase the food order, Wachtell said, because it was not known how many of the callers would show up.

"We misjudged it. There's no question about it," Wachtell said.

As to why ticket sales were not stopped at 825, the maximum number of meals that could be served, Wachtell said:

"I don't think anybody realized it was happening . . . how do you know how many are coming through that door unless they are sitting there counting 1,000 tickets at the door, like an airline does?"

Lack of food was not the only problem. Guests were forced to stand in one line, some for an hour, to get fed, according to those in the line, Wachtell, Newton and observers. Kissinger said that there were four separate feeding lines.

Upstairs in the Pavilion restaurant, where a dance floor was installed for a nightclub atmosphere, many chairs were not in place and some of the linen-covered tables were dirty. Wachtell said she had to clean her table off before she and guests could sit down for some post-midnight conversation.

And while the Performing Arts Council bought white wine and champagne--which guests were to receive without additional charge--some bartenders at the impromptu nightclub charged $1.50 for each glass of white wine they served.

Experts at staging such events, such as Nate Zack of the City of Hope's fund-raising office, said a separate feeding line should be formed for every 100 or so guests, with three different feeding areas for a crowd of 750 to 1,000.

"For 250 people not to get fed you have to have to be pretty casual about what you are doing," observed Jack Schwartz, executive director of the American Assn. of Fund Raising Counsel, an organization of 30 of the nation's leading fund-raising firms.

"Something like that just doesn't happen if you are competent," Schwartz said.

"This is unbelievable," said Flo Green of Green & Scribner, a Santa Monica fund-raising firm. "You always control your event and you don't sell more tickets than you have food." Green said that if a special event she staged ran out of food, "I would call Col. Sanders or order pizza in or call a place that does sandwiches. But I would not, under any circumstances, let those people go hungry. You can't do that."

Newton, Wachtell and Kissinger all said it was 10 p.m. or so before they realized there was not enough food and that with the Hancock concert scheduled to begin in 90 minutes there was not enough time to reorder food. Kissinger said the restaurants did not have more food because it was the end of a long weekend.

"The secret to avoiding problems is two things," said Gerald Plessner of Fund Raising Inc. in Arcadia, who stages many $250-a-plate benefit dinners for nonprofit clients. "One is planning and the other is early fund raising."

Plessner and others emphasized that because caterers must be told one or two days in advance how many people to feed, event organizers must keep close count of the number of tickets issued and not exceed the catering order.

Plessner, who also teaches fund raising at USC, said planning for special events also should start six months in advance. Wachtell agreed. But Wachtell also noted that the Music Center's fund-raising year begins July 1 and because new volunteers are chosen each year she was unable to get started on the event until mid-September. "What can I say," she said.

Typical Example Typical of the lengths that professional fund raisers said they would go to resolve problems with a special event that did not work out as planned was a 10K run announced by the Los Angeles Library Assn., which raises funds for the city libraries.

Sheila Grether, who was then the library association's executive director, said she canceled the event when too few people signed up.

"We got on the phone and called everyone we could and asked if they wanted their $10 registration back," Grether said. "About 75% of them said to keep it. Then we wrote to the people we couldn't get by telephone and sent them each a $10 check. Most of those people cashed the checks.

"Then we had 10 people left whose addresses we couldn't make out or who we couldn't reach by telephone so on the morning of the event a couple of us went to where it was supposed to start, refund money in hand. All 10 people showed up and we gave them their money back."

"We felt we established good will that way," Grether said.

John McIllquham, editor of Fund Raising Management magazine, said there is no established standard for handling refunds on special events. "It depends on the ethics of the organization and how much credibility they want to have later," he said.

At the New Year's Eve gala no attempt was made to identify those who did not get fed.

Newton said that the Performing Arts Council has made full refunds to all 12 people who requested them.

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