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A Look Back Proves the County Is <i> the</i> Party Place to Be

“Does it get any better than this?” That was the question Bill Otton asked as he whooped it up under a waxing moon and a cloud of exploding fireworks at the Art Institute of Southern California’s “Fantasy Island” splash in August.

Well, does it? In 1988, Orange County party-goers kept asking themselves that question, pinching themselves in disbelief over the goings-on at party after high-stepping party.

The answer: Probably not. With its Mediterranean climate, snazzy hotels, sparkling yachts, dreamy mansions and zany sense of humor, Orange County is fast becoming Southern California’s most desirable Party Place.

The proof:

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* With their hearts prominently displayed on their sleeves, 800 opera buffs--including a wide-eyed Ernest Borgnine--gathered to honor Luciano Pavarotti after his sellout benefit concert for Opera Pacific at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in January. Janice Johnson pronounced the hirsute Italian “sexy. When he sings Puccini, you have to fall in love with him.” Does it get any better than this?

* Talk about a bash. Donna and John Crean staged a home demolition party in January that saw guests slinging sledgehammers and bricks while they sipped cool ones and raved over party fare. About 100 of the Creans’ nears and dears participated in the destruction of the Santa Ana Heights bungalow to make way for the couple’s new 21,000-square-foot mansion. Does it get any better than this?

* “How about a flying lesson?” asked Voyager pilot Dick Rutan after he swept into a Discovery Museum reception at the Irvine Hilton & Towers in January. With that, the aviator, who with Jeana Yeager set a world record when they circled the earth without refueling, whipped out a balsa-wood plane and sent it swooshing toward a chandelier. Does it get any better than this?

* “I hope this marriage will be a new high for you,” Mormon elder Widtsoe Shumway told Buzz Aldrin and Lois Driggs Cannon at their marriage in Phoenix on Valentine’s Day. A planeload of Orange County party-goers was on hand to watch the nuptials in the $27-million Western Savings Corporate Center, owned and operated by the Driggs family. As violinists struck up “Stairway to the Stars,” the couple descended Italian marble staircases, locked arms and then almost danced down another staircase before saying “I do.” Sadly, one comely matron fell into a reflecting pool. But she dried off in time to dine on a slew of tasty appetizers and hear the violinists strike up “Fly Me to the Moon.” Does it get any better than this?

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* Wild pheasant quenelles. Consomme with Santa Barbara shrimp. Turbot a la Provence. Turnips crammed with wild mushrooms. Roast duck. Chocolate honeybee nests. More than 400 guests dined until their fancy buttons popped at the Newport Harbor Art Museum’s “Art of Dining” in March. “And to think, I had enchiladas from the Price Club last night,” one guest piped. Does it get any better than this?

* Bill Manclark had stars in his eyes when he sat down to dinner at the Irvine Marriott one night in March. “I just shook hands with Glenn Ford,” he said incredulously. “I told him he’d been my hero forever.” Ford was just one star in the constellation that shone at the benefit for the American Cinema Awards Foundation. Also shining bright: Milton Berle, Spanky McFarland, Ruth Hussey, Ruby Keeler, Buddy Ebsen, Maureen O’Sullivan and Evelyn Keyes. Does it get any better than this?

* William and Willa Dean Lyon opened their new, 20,000-square-foot Coto de Caza mansion in April to raise $100,000 for Orangewood Children’s Foundation. Guests sipped mint juleps and dined on Cajun clam chowder, corn bread, blackened chicken, black-eyed peas and banana cream pie with a sprig of mint. But the highlight was the pre-dinner stroll through William Lyon’s 15,000-square-foot Classic Automobile Museum, with a 1931 Bugatti Royale Coupe De Ville as the centerpiece. Does it get any better than this?

* Hostess Joan Irvine Smith wore Hermes silk and orchids. Judith Krantz wore candy-pink Chanel and Reeboks. And Zsa Zsa Gabor wore snow-white linen and emeralds the size of postage stamps. Everybody, it seemed, dressed to impress at the lavish brunch in June that celebrated the final day of the Oaks Classic, a horse-jumping competition in San Juan Capistrano that featured $75,000 in prize money. “Style. That’s what this event is all about,” said New York’s Chrysler Fisher, president of Hermes USA. Does it get any better than this?

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* Some would say the Newport Harbor Art Museum had one of its most magical moments in June when John Marion, auctioneer for Sotheby’s in New York, hammered down $198,000 at Art Auction ’88. Marion is the man who helped negotiate the purchase of the rock that Richard Burton bought La Liz in 1969. Not to mention the sale of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Irises” for $53.9 million. Some of the contemporary art world’s best-known artists--Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg--were represented. Does it get any better than this?

* They rolled out 330 feet of red carpet and struck up a 60-piece band for the Guilds of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in August. The event celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Guilds, a Center support group. On the party agenda: the opening night performance of “Strike Up the Band” and medallions for every guild member. Does it get any better than this?

* “It’s to improve, not overwhelm!” That was how Nicola Bulgari described the role of adornment in September at a benefit in the Four Seasons hotel for the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Bulgari jewelers tossed a super-chic reception for members of the Angels of the Arts, the Center Stars, the Performing Arts Fraternity and the Sound of Music Chapter of the Guilds of the Performing Arts Center. At one point, the entrance of dashing opera star Placido Domingo upstaged the baubles. Does it get any better than this?

* Holly Golightly would have loved the 25th anniversary celebration of South Coast Repertory staged at the new Tiffany & Co. at South Coast Plaza in October. The heroine of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” would have felt right at home with the tulips of Domaine Chandon and the jewels and the jewels and the jewels. Special guests were Paloma Picasso and Martin Benson and David Emmes, the Tony Award-winning directors of SCR. Does it get any better than this?

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* The cocktail hour at the March of Dimes “Gourmet Gala” in September took a titillating turn when Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal swept into the Irvine Hilton ballroom. Posing for photos, Farrah tossed her loose curls and flashed her pearlies, while Ryan kept the patter flowing: “You want smiles?” he asked. “This is a good one--Look, honey, it’s the sun coming up!” Does it get any better than this?

* When an event begins with Shirley Temple Black signing copies of her book “Child Star” and ends with George Murphy, Buddy Ebsen and Donald O’ Connor doing that old soft shoe, you know you have been to an event to be thankful for. And there were enough memories in between at the “Thanksgiving Gala and Auction” at the Irvine Marriott in November to fill a movie fan’s scrapbook.

Does it get any better than this?

We think not. But you decide.

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