A Clamor for Talk in Los Angeles : Lectures: Ever popular speaker programs give listeners an opportunity to hear Important People, who, in turn, get a chance to pitch their books, platforms and promises.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Marilyn Hudson, clad in black, steps to the lectern, set atop a table draped in peach, in a peach-colored ballroom, everything might seem peachy. But, as it happens, there's a little crisis this afternoon.

The chatter has grown to a dull roar in the Beverly Wilshire ballroom--the scene for Round Table West, the monthly lecture-lunch series that brings book writers (and fresh stacks of their books) to an impeccably coiffed roomful of women (and some men) who just happen to love books.

Shirley Jones and Marty Ingels are scheduled to headline the day's lunch, promoting their new book, "Shirley and Marty: An Unlikely Love Story," and herein the crisis:

Scratch Shirley, who is "tied up" in Washington, D.C. And Marty is about a half hour late.

While the audience of 400 or so gabs and occasionally pauses from picking at grilled chicken to blow kisses at one another, Hudson--who co-chairs Round Table West--steps discreetly offstage for a furtive swig of Scope.

The lecture series must go on.

Look who's talking, Los Angeles: Across town, speaker programs and lecture series are packing them in.

For those thinkers, writers, politicians, entertainers and other bigwigs who jet in to address rooms, and even auditoriums, full of people willing to listen, it's the power of the podium--the chance to be heard, for once, in something longer than sound bites; the glory of hearing one's self speak; a time to tell stories with beginnings and middles and punch lines.

It's a way to sell things, too. Books, campaign pledges and even domestic and foreign policy measures are all fair game on the lecture circuit.

And Southern California, with its new wealth and edge-of-hip life and times, is a prime stopover for, well, just about everyone dealing in the ultimate precious commodity in Podiumville: Ideas.

From the buttoned-down weightiness of Town Hall, the city's 53-year-old premiere speaker's platform, to the many lectures being planned for the new school year at area campuses, to the regular meetings of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council (whose members have heard such personalities as Saudi ambassador Bandar ibn Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills) it's time to pull up a chair for fleeting glimpses at--and words from--Important People.

We're talking here about the Dan Rathers, the George McGoverns, the Jeane Kirkpatricks, the Hunter Thompsons, the Maureen Reagans, the Carl Sagans and the Arthur Schlesingers of the world.

Pro and con; Right and Left; Where we've been and where we're headed.

What It All Means.

But it is important to consider the rest of the available speakers whose names don't drop quite as easily--the CEOs, the lawyers, the astrologers, the Wicca priestesses, the fast-food-chain founders and psychotherapists.

The How-Tos and the Tell-Alls; the Enlightened Enlighteners. What It All Is.

Adrianne Medawar is working on "getting" First Lady Barbara Bush.

As the president of Town Hall of California, Medawar leads her staff in the process of securing top names from politics, media, law and business for the organization's many lectures.

Formed in 1937, Town Hall considers itself a nonpartisan forum, where leaders and thinkers from around the country meet the present and future leaders and thinkers of the West Coast.

The roster of speakers it schedules attests to that--and a commitment to bring big names without the benefit of speaking fees or honorariums.

"It's hard," Medawar says, "since Town Hall is unique in that we don't pay a dime (to speakers)." The First Lady, of course, isn't on the lecture circuit, and wouldn't take an offered dime. But she does make several appearances per year, and perhaps. . . .

Yet Medawar exudes confidence in her ability to book Mrs. Bush for one of Town Hall's general meetings. The strategy, as always, is diplomacy and perseverance.

With enough well-timed phone calls and letters to the White House, says Medawar, Barbara Bush will appear at Town Hall. If not this year, next.

After all, her husband already has.

Indeed, the list of people who have addressed Town Hall's 4,000-plus members within the last year reads like a Who's Who of (mostly male) Talkers: Robert MacNeil, T. Boone Pickens, Carl Sagan, Vice President Dan Quayle, NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer, Gen. Colin Powell, Sony chairman Akio Morita and Dan Rather.

What draws people to speak at Town Hall is its roots in power. "I've been a member for 20 years," boasts Ronald Reagan in a Town Hall brochure.

Of its membership, almost all Town Hallers are corporate-connected. Executives (particularly up-and-coming junior execs) flock to the general meetings and other smaller meetings and lectures, which total about 50 a year.

Split into three forums (Downtown, Town Hall West and Orange County), membership in the organization starts at $80 a year, plus individual fees for lectures, breakfast seminars and study sections; an endowed membership costs $5,000.

"I make a sincere effort to have different viewpoints from every angle--men and women, local and national and international, conservative and liberal," Medawar says.

The idea, she says, is to have a program with the broadest perspectives possible. "After all, we are a bellwether community in a bellwether state."

The group also sponsors the ultra-civic "Toast of the Town," smaller forums concentrating on the events, issues and politics of the Southland. Speakers there have included Music Center President Esther Wachtell, State Bar President Alan Rothenberg and Los Angeles Festival grand pooh-bah Peter Sellars.

"I have a policy of putting on a diverse program without omitting culture and the arts--that's something I'm real big on," Medawar says. "To give you an illustration, I just booked Paloma Picasso and Gore Vidal."

Can Mrs. Bush be far behind?

Meanwhile, on another plane entirely, Marty Ingels shows up at the Round Table West luncheon, at last, with all the grace and subtlety of Mighty Mouse.

He is seated at a table with the other assorted speakers at the day's luncheon: Marian Pretzel, Holocaust survivor and author of the autobiographical "Portrait of a Young Forger"; Jeraldine Saunders, the former cruise director whose writings spawned "The Love Boat," and TV soap star Brett Halsey, author of the tell-all novel "Yesterday's Children," which explores the fictitious lives and loves of daytime drama stars.

In its 13th year, Round Table West celebrates just about anything off the presses.

The idea, says Marilyn Hudson, is that book connoisseurs are a wide and varied bunch--and Round Table's members (who pay about $35 for each lecture, including lunch) are among the city's most avid book readers.

"In 13 years," Hudson boasts, "we've hosted well over 500 authors, with everything you can imagine--autobiographies, mysteries, romance novels, astrology. . . ."

The organization was founded by journalist and author Adela Rogers St. John, with help from Hudson and Margaret Burk.

The luncheons were held in the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel, until it closed.

Since the group is nonprofit, it also does not pay its guest authors. Their payoff is promotion for the book, and publishers make sure that healthy stacks of the books are poised and ready for purchase--and autographs.

Burk takes to the podium to ahem the luncheon guests to attention.

Good news, she says, announcing Round Table programs for September and October. "I think we'll be able to get Walter Cronkite and his new book in October."

The crowd oohs and aahs.

"However," Burk adds, "It's not written in stone. I guess you could say I'm still mixing that cement."

Campuses are the lecture circuit's mainstay, with student unions booking a year's worth of writers, activists, politicians and artists for the general elevation of university minds.

The student-run speakers program of the Associated Students of UCLA, for example, is gearing up for another school year of free lectures that recently have seen the likes of Billy Joel and Michael Douglas.

"Basically," says ASUCLA associate Kathy Ho, "we go for people we believe students are really interested in."

Which, for the MTV generation that now makes up the undergraduate population, means UCLA has presented Billy Crystal, Julia Roberts, Sean Penn, Steve Garvey, Rutger Hauer, Denzel Washington and Jay Leno.

These are not necessarily performances, Ho says, and the speakers are not paid. Because of its proximity to the stardom of Beverly Hills and Hollywood, UCLA attracts performers who spend their time talking about their craft, their crises and answering questions from the audience.

Each year, the board gives its Jack Benny Award to a comedian and the Spencer Tracy Award to an actor. "That's our biggest event," Ho says.

But things are not strictly glitter.

Other lectures at UCLA have included Archbishop Desmond Tutu and (again) Bar chief Rothenberg.

With classes beginning later this month, the ASUCLA is planning events that would turn most campuses' ivy even greener: Ho says it is planning a "Twin Peaks" forum with stars and creators of the macabre TV series.

"It's our 26th year, so we've been around for awhile and have done a lot of programs." she says.

And for non-students getting in isn't that hard.

"With film screenings, where the star or director or whatever talks afterward, you usually need a student ID to get a free ticket, because it gets pretty crowded."

But the organization also has smaller events where packed attendance is less of a problem. There's often standing-room only at the 1,000-seat Ackerman auditorium.

At USC, things are decidedly smaller but more serious.

According to Student Affairs representative Bret Carver, USC's student-run Program Board features four main lecture events each year, or two per semester.

Past events have included a debate between George McGovern and former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese; author Manuel Puig; a forum on South Africa and an African-American Film Festival.

With a yearly budget of about $30,000, Carver said the Program Board usually shops the lecture circuit for something timely, "usually finding the pro and con of something, or conservative and liberal."

At USC and UCLA, various colleges and departments will host a number of smaller lectures on subjects ranging from politics to ceramics.

"Sometimes, after the school year gets under way, you can't even keep track of every little lecture going on," Ho says.

Medawar says she loves the job of getting men and women--some of whom could command thousands for a single lecture--to come to Southern California and meet with Town Hall not for money but purely for intellectual exchange.

In a world where the news of the last year or so has seemed at times unbelievable, people like Medawar have reaped the benefit of ideas: Town Hall has recently had the editor of Pravda and the chief of Tass at its meetings.

"I cannot tell you how important it was when the mayor of Leningrad (Anatoli Sobchak) came last month," she says. "He is opening up the free trade zone. He brought a consulting firm who were enthusiastic about trade laws and all the possibilities. It was just exciting to be there and see that happen."

It would not occur to Medawar that some might find a lecture less than scintillating.

"Oh no, they're all worthwhile," she says. "Just think of all the perspectives we gain."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°