In Came the Clowns, Then Tribute and Tears

They sent in the clowns, but there were tears along with the laughter at the benefit that netted $75,000 for the Mardan Center of Educational Therapy on Saturday night.

The laughter came after dinner when 500 guests watched honoree Tom Nielsen, a vice chairman of the Irvine Co., go on stage at Le Meridien hotel in Newport Beach to be bamboozled by “court jester” Armando Lucero. Using sleight-of-hand (in the broadest sense), Lucero sailed wads of toilet paper over Nielsen’s head while Nielsen watched in wonder, hypnotized by Lucero’s ability to make the TP disappear.

The tears began to well up when donations--on top of benefit proceeds--were announced: The Irvine Co. donated $500,000 in cash and land for Mardan’s proposed new school in Irvine, and the Irvine Health Foundation gave a $200,000 grant.

The tears finally began to flow at the finale of the tribute to Nielsen when his cherubic granddaughters--Emily, 4, and Sara, 2--padded onto the ballroom floor with posies for Grandpa.


Mardan has embarked on a $5.2-million fund-raising program to build a new, state-of-the-art school for learning-disabled children on a 3-acre parcel next to the Irvine Unified School District administration offices. Presently, the school is on 19th Street in Costa Mesa.

During the cocktail hour, Tom and Marilyn Nielsen explained why, when invited by Mardan benefit committee members to help choose the theme, they selected clowns. “I happen to love the song ‘Send in the Clowns,’ ” Tom said. “It’s happy and sad and mysterious, the way life is.”

“During the old days of the circus,” Marilyn said, “clowns were used to divert the audience from the high-wire act if something went wrong.

“The way we see it, the kids at Mardan are on the high wire. And we--their supporters--are the clowns. So, when the kids say, ‘Send in the clowns,’ we can all say, ‘Don’t bother! We’re here!’ ”


Harry Bubb, chairman and chief executive officer of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co., and Gary Hunt, Irvine Co. senior vice president, were co-chairmen of the event.

Also on the guest list were the Nielsens’ sons, Peter, with his wife, Kathie, and John, with Susan Paterno; their daughter, Kirsten, with her husband David Nilsson; Ron Saienni, Mardan’s board president; David Sills, board chairman of the Irvine Health Foundation; Larry and Carol Hoffman; Mardan director David Eisenman; Irvine Health Foundation executive director David Baker; Hancock Banning III; J. M. Peters; Bob Shelton; Paul Reed and Ralph Sabin, chairman of Mardan Center’s building campaign committee.

Mental health: “Not a popular charity,” said restaurateur Hans Prager on Sunday night at the annual Dinner at the Ritz benefit for the Orange County Mental Health Assn. “It just seems to be something that doesn’t get the support it deserves.

“But, I have someone very dear to me, who, because he gets support, is capable of leading a life without being a burden to anyone.” That is one of the reasons why Prager--owner of the Ritz--annually hosts one of the county’s most popular un -benefits.


There is no auctioneering, speechmaking or even award-giving at the $150-per-person event, which netted $13,000, just a dreamy dinner--lobster bisque, prime rib of veal and chocolate souffle--and the chance to visit with good friends.

“When you think about it,” said Orange County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, chatting with Prager over a tulip of champagne, “it’s only in recent years that people have really begun to acknowledge that mental illness exists in their families.”

Donald Bredberg, president of MHA’s board of trustees, was more than willing to acknowledge that mental illness has existed in his family. He had a brother with schizophrenia, he said. “That’s why I became involved with MHA about two years ago. I figured that maybe if I did some good here, the universe would kick in and help my brother.

“We suffered as a family for 10 years, watching him spiral downward because of the illness. He finally committed suicide last year.”


If Bredberg has a message for families with members who are mentally ill, it’s to “ not accept the frustration and the tragedy; get help .”

One of the ways the MHA helps is through Project Return, an outreach program consisting of 13 clubs situated around the county. “They’re places where the mentally ill, mostly manic-depressives and schizophrenics, can socialize and learn vocation skills,” said Bredberg, a real estate development consultant.

“When you’re mentally ill, one of your biggest problems is you’re out of the typical social scene, even your own family’s. It’s great to have your own network, a place where you don’t have to face disappointment.”

Bredberg cited the Project Return club in Tustin, where, a month ago, its members staged “a few skits and Mercury Savings put on a low-cost meal for those who came. They had a great time.


“We treasure each volunteer,” Bredberg continued. “If we could inspire 10 or 20 times what we have, we’d be so much better off. But, even one more would help us do tremendous good here in Orange County.”

Also on the guest list: Emma Jane Riley; Carolyn and John Shea; Nora and Charles Hester; Kathryn Thompson with Gus Owen; Jackie and Orange County Supervisor Donald R. Roth; Jean Awad; Stephanie Bredberg; Phyllis Dillon; David Kemper; David Smith, and Celinda and John Garrett, executive director of MHA.