Hollywood AIDS Gala High on Emotion : President, Rock Hudson Send Messages to Million-Dollar Fund-Raiser

Times Staff Writer

Hollywood at its most glamorous turned out Thursday night for an emotion-laden, million-dollar fund-raiser for AIDS Project Los Angeles.

Messages from two absent celebrities personified the evening’s spirit and emotional impact: President Ronald Reagan, who sent out a national call to combat the disease, and the stricken Rock Hudson, who sent his love and thanks in a message read by his friend, Burt Lancaster.

The charity gala was landmark in its size and in the caliber of stars who performed--Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Cher, Linda Evans, Diahann Carroll, Carol Burnett and Sammy Davis Jr. (dueting across the Bonaventure ballroom) and Cyndi Lauper and Rod Stewart, rocking into the night.


The entertainers were joined by philanthropists Wallis Annenberg and Sybil Brand; elected officials--Mayor Tom Bradley was an honorary co-chairman--and former First Lady Betty Ford, who Taylor presented with the AIDS Project’s Commitment to Life award.

The 2,500-plus guests received entertainment punches and emotional pulls at a rapid pace. The show, organized by Gary Pudney, ABC Entertainment vice president, had moments seemingly too poignant to have anything to do with singing or dancing--Shirley MacLaine interviewing a mother whose child died after receiving an infected blood transfusion, or Burt Reynolds saying, “I used to think ‘macho’ was a marvelous thing to be--strong, swaggering, courageous, bold. I played all of that; our friends with AIDS are now having to live it. . . . The real macho men are not on the screen. They are fighting for their lives--and ours--at home and in hospitals.”

Taylor, the evening’s hostess, said “Tonight is the start of my personal war on this disease, AIDS.” Describing herself as “a survivor,” Taylor’s toast said, “We celebrate life by increasing the number of survivors and not by counting the number of victims . . . commit to doing and learning more about the disease, and the cure can be found.” She then said the Jewish toast “L’Chayim, “ to life.

A page-long statement from Reagan, read by Reynolds, said “remarkable progress” had been made in efforts to conquer the disease, but “there is still much to be done.”

Scattered hissing broke out in the audience when Reynolds read a line that began: “The U.S. Public Health Service has made remarkable progress . . . “

Reynolds stopped reading and told the audience that “I don’t care what your political persuasion is, if you don’t want the telegram read, then go outside.”

There was applause and Reynolds continued to read the statement.

Reagan, who spoke out publicly on acquired immune deficiency syndrome for the first time at a news conference earlier this week, said the fight against the disease is a “top priority” of his Administration but told supporters of the AIDS Project that “we recognize the need for concerted action by organizations like yours, devoted to education, support services and research.”


The President has “risen to his personal responsibility as a member of the show business community,” said MacLaine at a marathon news conference before the dinner.

There were literally hundreds of stars and well-known socialites who crowded the ballroom. They included Gregory and Veronique Peck, Whoopi Goldberg, Angie Dickinson with George Hamilton, Stevie Wonder, society florist David Jones with Doris Fields, Barbara Marshall, Olive Behrendt, Gina Lollobrigida, Joan and Marco Weiss and Episcopal Suffragen Bishop Oliver Garver.

On entering the ballroom to a tumultuous standing ovation, a radiant Ford said she found the “love and support and caring in the room just inspirational.”

“I am proud to be here,” she said.

Other educational and political statements were interspersed between the show biz routines.

AIDS is “not just a Hollywood disease. And it is not just a gay disease. This is the health crisis of this century,” Peter Scott, the AIDS Project chairman, told the audience.

“Every knowledgeable scientist will affirm that AIDS is not an easy disease to catch, and yet we continue to witness unfounded and unconscionable mistreatment of persons with AIDS and those at risk,” he said.


In his remarks, Bradley said, “A battle must be waged; a war must be won. Speaking for Los Angeles, this city shall not rest until this killer is defeated.”

In a statement from Gov. George Deukmejian honoring Ford, read by AIDS Project board member Gene La Pietra, the governor said, “The generous and compassionate support offered by your presence will provide further assistance in our shared efforts to find a cure for this disease.”

Taylor, in presenting the award to the former First Lady, said Ford was her “hero. . . . We honor her for sometimes falling down and always getting up; for speaking the often-painful truth. . . . “

In accepting the award, Ford said she had battled “two diseases, that for a long time nobody wanted to talk about: cancer and alcoholism. With public awareness, attitudes toward these have been changed. Attitudes can be changed about AIDS too. They are changing. In my life, being part of this is important. . . . Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to help with the understanding of another disease.”

Money raised by the event will help finance social services for AIDS victims and education about the disease in Los Angeles. Ticket sales and the silent auction grossed more than $1 million, but the final figure could be much higher after a live auction of Andy Warhol paintings, the program book income and the contributions solicited in an appeal by Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue are totalled.