Seder Observance Is a Sellout . . . at Chasen's

Times Staff Writer

When Hollywood big shots take a meeting, they go to Chasen's. So why not go there to take a seder?

"When we invite people to Chasen's for Passover they say, 'What, are you crazy?,' " said Evelyn Ostin, who along with her husband, Mo, chairman of Warner Bros. Records, helped host Monday night's otherwise traditional seder for 126.

"It's absolutely Hollywood but once they come they love it," Ostin said. "We don't lose the religious aspect and there's a wonderful sense of family here."

Besides, what would be so terrible if someone else slaved over a hot stove making the gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, brisket, chicken, overcooked vegetables, cake and washed all the dishes while you relax with the family?

"We (women) don't come to the seder all exhausted like I did for a lot of years," said Donnie Smith, the other seder host and wife of Joe Smith, the vice chairman of Capitol Records.

Prayer and Shtick

"We've been married for 30 years. I cooked for 15 years and got 15 years off for good behavior," she said, laughing. Joe Smith, who led the congregation in Hebrew and English prayer with a little shtick thrown in, quipped, "Are you kidding? My wife thinks the word cook is a noun, not a verb. 'Where is the cook,' she says?"

Now in its seventh year, the Ostin-Smith seder at Chasen's has grown from a few families and their children to a sellout crowd. Publicist Lee Solters joked that the seder had become such a hot ticket, the only way to get invited now is to have someone will you the privilege when they die.

"Tonight, the room has a different feeling to it than usual," said Bernie Brillstein, who as chief executive of Lorimar Film Entertainment is no stranger to the clubby, wood-paneled room where Los Angeles' moguls and movie stars flock to eat and deal on other nights.

Flanked by his wife, five children and in-laws, Brillstein added, "There's a very safe feeling here and a lot less tension. Everyone is mostly interested in eating."

By the time night fell, beginning the eight-day festive holiday that commemorates the Jews' release from Egyptian bondage, the trendy, Beverly Boulevard restaurant was transformed.

Although Chasen's is usually closed on Mondays, there was the requisite valet parking team, but no paparazzi waited outside for stars. A simple black sign outside the door bore the words Private Party, and with little more fanfare than arriving at Aunt Sophie's cramped apartment, the guests and their children were ushered inside.

The piano player filled the large room with Israeli and Jewish melodies. Yarmulkes and the Haggadah (the text for the Passover seder) lay on the giant horseshoe table, along with the traditional seder plate.

A Substitute Wine

Elegant candlelight on each of the tables masked the gumball-sized white bulbs that decorate the indoor trees and dark-tinted windows of the restaurant. And because, as Joe Smith put it, "Chasen's is not known as one of the great Yiddish restaurants," his wife brought crystal decanters from home and filled them with sweet, Manischewitz wine, replacing the pricey bottles of Bordeaux that Chasen's typically pours.

Among the guests were Milton A. Rudin, attorney for Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli; Mace Neufeld, producer of "The Omen" and executive producer of "Cagney and Lacey," and Joseph Sinay, whose credits include chairman of RB Industries (furniture), president of the Variety Club International and his wife, Ruth, who taught Chasen's chef how to make gefilte fish the first year. Except for a few celebrities--like Henry Winkler and Sally Struthers--the seder crowd was more the powerful supporting cast to some of tinseltown's biggest names and ventures.

"This is not an A-list party," Brillstein noted as his 7-year-old son, Michael, scraped the apple sauce off his potato pancake. "We all know each other very well. No one was invited because of their position."

Added Winkler, "This is a warm, funny, comfortable seder. Ultimately what you realize when you're here is this room can be anywhere.

One of the seder's newcomers, Bob Daly, chairman of the board at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Co., observed:

"What I love about it is everyone has brought their family." Asked whether anyone had tried to pitch a movie deal during the four-hour meal, Daly smiled and shook his head no.

"Which also makes for a great evening," he said. "The days are long enough."

As Chasen's staff cleared the table, he singing of Jewish songs and reading from the Haggadah continued. At the point in the ceremony where Jewish legend recalls the mystical appearance of the beloved prophet, Elijah, the tradition is to leave the door slightly ajar so that his spirit may enter. Chasen's ornate glass doors were then parted so that Elijah, in accordance with the story, could precede the Messiah's arrival, and with it, the arrival of peace and freedom for all men.

"If (David) Geffen is outside the door, don't let him in," Smith interjected as an affectionate aside, referring to the young, super-successful music and movie magnate. "He thinks he's the Messiah, but not quite."

The insider's line brought laughs.

Traditional Food

Not only are the Passover traditions adhered to at this seder, the food, in spite of Chasen's talented kitchen, is, well, traditional. Bland and heavy. And such large portions, too, as the old joke goes.

"If the Israeli air force had to eat this way, they'd never get off the ground," chided Mace Neufeld.

Chasen's tuxedoed manager, Ron Clint, respectfully conceded, "Sometimes, it's not the tastiest food, but it's traditional."

When the seder was over, the piano quietly shifted from Yiddish songs to Michel LeGrand. Chasen's was regaining its identity.

One guest, Charlotte Sinay, recalled how years ago she helped her great-grandmother make the matzo balls for the family seder.

"Mine floated," she said, confiding to a reporter that "theirs (Chasen's) sunk a little.

"But that's OK," Sinay added. "She didn't take me to Chasen's either."

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