Times Staff Writer

Old-fashioned show business came back to Hollywood Thursday night: spirited evangelism, star turns, pathos, a smattering of long windedness, superb song and dance and, finally, the kind of rallying cry that’s nothing less than wildly successful.

In one night, the $1-million goal set by the AIDS Project Los Angeles for its first Commitment to Life benefit dinner was exceeded (actually, $1.1 million was raised). But the six-hour program at the Bonaventure wasn’t as much about money, or illness, as it was about unity.

Hollywood exists in Big Moments, and when the community rallies--to a cause or a legend or a disease--the fervor may erase skepticism. Fifteen years ago, for the sake of the Motion Picture and TV Relief Fund, Rosalind Russell spearheaded a night featuring Frank Sinatra’s “retirement"; his “opening acts” included Barbra Streisand and Princess Grace of Monaco. Not since has the town come out for a benefit in such numbers. Nor have the generations crossed over so completely.

Imagine Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby) doing a fierce bugaloo at her table while rock’s Cyndi Lauper held the stage in short-shorts and horizontal-striped leotards. Lauper and Rod Stewart had Stevie Wonder standing for their rendition of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”


Imagine Cher, wearing braces on her teeth, telling 2,500-plus guests (who mostly paid $500 each) how significant it was “that self-centered, selfish people can get together . . . and love each other.”

Contradictory? Yes, she admitted. But it was a night made up of light and shadow, highs and lows, comedy and tragedy. To some it was like the opening mob scene in George Cukor’s “A Star Is Born” lasting from 6 p.m. until after midnight.

“If we can get Miss (Elizabeth) Taylor’s buns up here,” said Burt Reynolds, “we can begin the auction.” Reynolds and Taylor, the woman who was one of the evening’s organizers, made a savvy pair of auctioners, hawking an Andy Warhol graphic. “Am I bid $20,000 for the Warhol?” Reynolds wanted to know. “It’s an original!” Taylor piped in. “And,” Reynolds continued, “Liz and I will come to your house and do the cooking. We’ll do a whole day’s work. A whole night’s work.” The Warhol went to producer Jon Peters, for $25,000.

Reynolds deftly handled the next moment when hisses began as he read a telegram from President Ronald Reagan. “He took the time to send a telegram,” said Reynolds, calmly, to the tightly packed room. “If you don’t want to hear the telegram, then go outside.” (The hissing had to do with the degree of Reagan Administration support thus far for AIDS research. As Marlo Thomas at a pre-dinner press conference had put it: “I find it frustrating that we celebrities continue to tap-dance for money, while the Administration never makes health a priority.”)


Making music a priority was the team of Sammy Davis and Carol Burnett. “Let’s sing every song ever written,” Burnett suggested. “How?” wondered Davis. “Fast,” Burnett replied. And for a few brief Broadwayesque moments he became (among others) Tevye (“Fiddler on the Roof”) and she (among others) Sally Bowles (“Cabaret”).

As staged by Broadway’s Joe Layton, the show could have been a TV spectacular, but wasn’t--and won’t be. Gary Pudney, the ABC Entertainment vice president who put the talent together, explained: “Originally, I thought about a special, sure, but I knew you can’t get TV clearances for people like Rod Stewart and Cyndi Lauper. Not for ABC, not for HBO, not at all. So I thought, ‘First you do an evening like this. Then you do a TV special.’ My priority was to get the names involved.”

Names in the audience would have filled a large Rolodex. (Start with Christopher Atkins and stop with Pia Zadora.) Names on the stage also included Diahann Carroll, Richard Carpenter, comedian Steven Wright, Hinton Battle, Sam Harris, Kim Criswell, and the Gay Men’s Chorus.

Beyond the star turnout, came the Pitch, for more money.

“We’ll make it nice and tight for you,” said Phil Donahue. (It was Donahue’s first public benefit appearance with his wife, Marlo Thomas. “Tonight is the longest they’ve been together since they’ve been married,” cracked Shirley MacLaine, who introduced the couple.) Asked Donahue: Is this another Hollywood party, or . . . ?” Continued Thomas: “Or are we going to give as though our lives depended on it?”

The crowd gave, but the night was no telethon, plague mentality or otherwise. When MacLaine, in black Fabrice and showgirl legs, took center stage she told the crowd, “I’m the serious one.” Then she gave them the hook: “There are only two emotions, love and fear. Every other emotion stems from those two. How we behave in this moment, here in Hollywood, is something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. If fear is allowed to triumph . . . the ravages of AIDS will be secondary to the damages inflicted on ourselves . . . We cannot be governed by fear.”

The way was paved for Betty Ford, the evening’s honoree (she was given the AIDS Project’s first Commitment to Life award). Said Ford: “I believe you should live life to the very fullest, but you can’t always do that when dealing with diseases that cause fear and ignorance. They are the enemies.”

If song and dance and money are the antidotes, silence played its part, too. “Ironically,” said Burt Lancaster before reading a letter from Rock Hudson to the crowd, “there’s one man who can’t be up here tonight. And he’s the one man who’s done more to focus attention on this disease than any other. Through his silence, Rock has said more about AIDS than any of us.”


John Voland contributed to this story.