Cole a Merry Soul as Leader of the Band

The thought of it still turns his face the color of tomatoes.

Years ago, see, there was this high-society gig at Estee Lauder's Manhattan digs, says orchestra leader Barry Cole.

And, ever the punctual musician, Cole arrived early--about 40 minutes early, he says.

Tap tap. The door opened, and the cosmetics empress herself--impeccably coifed, bejeweled, and coutured--appeared.

" Who are you ?" Lauder wanted to know. "I'm the bass player," Cole said.

"In there!" Lauder ordered, showing Cole the closet and shutting the door.

So there he sat, schmoozing with galoshes and umbrellas, waiting for his gig to begin.

You've come a long way, Barry.

On Sept. 25, Cole and his Sounds of Music orchestra will star with Ben Vereen and Ann Jillian at "Starlight Expressions," the $500 to $2,500 per-person gala that will help launch the fifth anniversary of the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

In black-tie circles--where the beat is king--the engagement marks this year's orchestral coup.

How did a kid from Brooklyn, who began his career strumming a ukulele at Brighton Beach, end up with a job in Segerstrom Hall?

By putting away the bass, picking up the baton, and giving the glitterati what they want.

Cole knows, for example, that an orchestra doesn't begin playing "Maybelline" the second a bash begins.

Certainly not. His way, he says, is to start with a little night music that sets the theme.

At last week's Orangewood Ball, for example, he noted that hot air balloons were part of the decor. So, he led the orchestra in "Up, Up and Away," as guests swept through the door.

The next step was to check out the crowd. How many sixty-somethings? How many in their 20s, 30s?

Usually, there's a mix, Cole says, so he goes with The Formula: Begin with selections geared to the older crowd, sneak in a few contemporary hits so the young ones will know you can do it, and then, after dinner--when the mature folks have left--hit 'em with some serious rock 'n' roll.

"It always works," says Cole, who lives in Newport Beach. "Everybody's happy."

But no matter the age group, Cole had better not put down his baton before he leads the orchestra in selections from "The Phantom of the Opera," he says. "I've tried to put away the 'mask' for a long time, but people just won't allow it. If I don't play it, somebody always comes up and complains."

Another must: "New York, New York." Cole admits he's sick of the tune, he's heard it so many times. "Why people here insist on 'New York, New York,' I'll never understand," he says. "But we try to do anything people ask for."

His play-anything attitude (Cole's repertoire numbers "in the thousands," he says) and his ability to accompany top-brand entertainment got him the "Starlight Expressions" spot, he believes.

On Sept. 25--when the gala will be played out on stage--Cole will begin with selections from the hit musical "Starlight Express," he says. Then he will play show tunes for dancing.

And when it comes time for Jillian and Vereen to strut their stuff, Cole will be perfectly in tune. He accompanied both entertainers when they did their stints at the Orangewood Ball.

"Jillian is terrific," Cole says. "She's a bouncy, bubbly singer with great arrangements. Her act is reminiscent of the variety show era, the kind you'd see at Radio City Music Hall or Las Vegas. She can really control an audience."

And Vereen? "Funky, with some spectacular dancing," Cole says.

Over the years, his orchestra members have grown a little tired of Cole's quest for perfection, he says. "I really push them. That's why I got into orchestra-leading--so I could control the quality of a performance."

Not only do his musicians have to be the best, he says, they have to look their best, "with black ties straight, hair groomed, and clean clothes."

"And now I'm telling them, ' That's why we got the call for the anniversary party. We never let up!"

Happy Ending: South Coast Repertory not only filled its guests with fare from a slew of restaurants at Saturday night's end-of-season auction, it thrilled them with a mystery when it came time to raise auction paddles to bid on everything from a Wayne Gretsky hockey stick to a trip to London.

The whodunit got under way when guests mingled for the silent auction part of the benefit, which, overall, netted $100,000, said chairman James Henwood.

Later, the murder mystery unraveled on SCR's Mainstage where the live auction took place.

Diane Doyle, director of SCR's Young Conservatory, directed and organized the play, which featured a cast of 17 and used the existing set from the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill musical, "Happy End."

Catherine Thyen organized the cuisine offerings, which featured samplings from area bistros such as Alfedo's, Birraporetti's, Piret's, Bistro 201, Kachina, Zuni Grill and Gandhi.

Also on the committee: Melanie Day, Catherine McLarand, Dick Way, Noddie Weltner, Oliva Johnson, Tana Sherwood, Carol Ogilvie, Joyce Justice, and Mary Ann Finley.

Center stage: It was hard to miss Fred Merrill when he visited the Center Club last week. He was the stylish gent in the pin-stripe, the ponytail, and the brooch.

Not your everyday local businessmen doing lunch. But then, the creative genius behind the design of the new Spa at the Center was chosen for his eye for the hip . And Merrill, with his art-packed Dallas mansion, his design credits that include the private clubs in Miami, Dallas and Houston, is nothing if not on the fast track.

Take the art he recently selected for the Spa, which will open across from the Performing Arts Center this fall. Nothing less than works by contemporary greats such as Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, Jim Dine, and Joe Guy (and more).

Even "A Portfolio of Linocut Prints" by Henri Matisse will be near when Spa members do their down time.

More news: Antonio Cagnolo, owner of the popular Antonello Ristorante in South Coast Plaza Village, will oversee the operation and cuisine of the Spa's chic restaurant, which will have a view of--you guessed it--the Center.

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