Fat or thin, in rehab or out, America loves Elizabeth Taylor.
The actress was the subject of a two-hour lovefest as she received the America's Hope Award at a black-tie gala at the McCallum Theatre for the Performing Arts at the Bob Hope Cultural Center Thursday night.
It was a more zaftig Taylor who appeared at the tribute, a fund-raiser celebrating the theater's first anniversary that drew a respectable celebrity crowd to this desert resort. La Liz appeared in a low-cut black dress with cleavage-to-spare and a tenty sequined black coat. Her hair puffed out in a punky spiked do, and impressive jewels dripped off her ears and from her throat.
The paparazzi were out, as were hundreds of fans who lined up against the chain-link fences that surrounded the theater to catch a glimpse of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono, Bob Hope and others. No one got a chance to see Taylor before the show, as she was escorted to another entrance. This was one of few public appearances the actress has made in the last several months since being plagued by back problems and tabloid headlines about a re-addiction to pain killers.
Place of Honor
Inside the theater Taylor had the best seat in the house in a flower-bedecked box with pal Malcolm Forbes, Bob and Dolores Hope and Betty and Gerald Ford.
She gallantly sat through the show (taped and edited down to air March 9 on ABC), which included a few technical glitches among the film clips and tributes by Carol Burnett and Dudley Moore (who sang a number with thinly veiled references to Taylor's weight and addiction problems), Robert Stack, Charles Bronson, June Allyson, Beau Bridges, Kenny Rogers, Stevie Wonder, Ann Miller, Mickey Rooney, Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, Taylor's son Michael Wilding and others.
The award, given for Taylor's work with AIDS groups and other organizations, wasn't the only present she went home with. She also received a collie puppy from Bronson (a belated memento from her 1943 film "Lassie Come Home") and driving lessons, a leather jacket and a radar detector from Forbes, who drove on stage astride Taylor's purple Harley-Davidson.
In her acceptance speech the actress told of fracturing her back last summer and learning to live with it. Trouper that she is, she added, "I'm fine now."
Half an hour later Taylor and entourage arrived at the Vintage Club for a post-gala dinner-dance for $2,500-ticket holders. Looking regal but walking with some stiffness, she and Forbes sat down to salad, chicken breast en croute and sorbet and berries.
"I thought it was an excellent tribute to a great, great star," said Gerald Ford in a most presidential voice. "This is the second year (a tribute has been done) and the theater's been a tremendous asset to the desert. Betty and I buy season tickets for two or three of the series. I went to see the tap dance performance. That's my style."
The dinner crowd was somewhat subdued (despite some jitterbugging on the dance floor), and several tables were partially empty. (Bob and Dolores Hope were no-shows; gala producer Greg Willenborg explained that Hope had to board a plane immediately for an engagement in Florida.)
"Elizabeth has gone through a rough year," said Carole Bayer Sager, who is a veteran of many Taylor tributes. "But it's particularly nice to see her this happy. She said she enjoyed the show, and I would assume that the evening touched her very much. It was really an evening of love. She's so real , Elizabeth."
Willenborg praised Taylor for "showing us that life is not something to be fearful of. She's really open--when she had problems she let us hear about them. Before Betty Ford and she spoke out about it, substance abuse was something that was never talked about."
Other guests were impressed with the turnout and optimistic about seeing the McCallum Theatre's financial status go from red to black soon.
"It was easy (to garner support) because it's such a small type community as far as raising funds," said Robin Ceriale, on the fund-raising committee for the theater. "I've never seen anything like this. People don't even care who (the names) are. It's the charity."
"And I think there's more competition for charity money here per capita," added Ardith Marguleas, also on the committee and a founding member of the theater. "This week there are 10 different fund-raising events going on."
"Our season is very short," said Ceriale. "It's fast, it's furious, and it works."
It was midnight when the party finally broke up. Guests made their way back to their cars and limos--Elizabeth Taylor's Passion perfume and table centerpieces in hand.