Benefit for Art Institute Draws Some Characters

Smoke--a.k.a. “jasmine-scented fog"--got in their eyes. Clowns, jugglers and magicians got their attention. And when the party was over, the Art Institute of Southern California got $40,000.

Designing Women, a support group for the Laguna Beach art school, hosted a circus-themed benefit Sunday that gave guests a chance to dress silly and play kids games while they forked over dollars like grown-ups.

The $150-per-person “Cirque du Sensationale"--with $25 raffle tickets and $21 souvenir photos--brought 240 art school patrons to the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point for cocktails, dinner, dancing, auctions and a magic show.

Big Top Backdrop


The party started on the hotel’s palm-lined patio, decked for the night with clouds of balloons and a tent housing a ring toss, mini-golf and darts. (The “dart board” was a huge canvas covered with abstract swirls of color, prompting the scorekeeper to dub the game “Throwing Darts at Modern Art.”)

Suds the Clown and a few other pros mugged and wisecracked for guests’ attention--an attitude that spread like a brush fire through the cocktail crowd.

Committee member Juin Foresman carried a stuffed-animal lion and homemade lash as props. Periodically, she set her little lion down on the brick patio and urged him forward with her whip.

“I’m a lady lion tamer,” quipped Foresman. “I practiced on my husband.”


Local artist Doretta Ensign, who designed the invitations, wore a skimpy black sequinned dress and decals that looked like tattoos. Flowers and butterflies decorated her arms and back. A lobster decal clung to her neck. Two linked hearts were etched below her right collarbone, along with the inscription “Jim.”

“That’s my husband--or any other handsome Jim who comes along,” Ensign deadpanned.

Joe Degenhardt of Corona del Mar stepped up to a magician’s card table with his wife, Verna. Looking festive in a top hat he’d decorated with tinsel, Degenhardt leaned toward the conjurer. He held his right hand out, palm down, with what looked like a playing card wedged between his fingers.

“Look! I can turn this into an expensive dress,” he said. Flipping his hand over with a flourish, Degenhardt brandished a credit card.



The end of cocktail hour was signaled with chimes and a scented storm front of jasmine fog. Pumped from the ballroom, wafting out into the darkened patio, the fog (and a few hotel employees) drew guests toward a blue silk tunnel leading into the ballroom.

Noting the bottleneck at the tunnel’s mouth, banquet waiter John McCollum said, “I’m telling everyone not to worry--there’s just a very large smoking section.”

Art Jacobson stepped gingerly through the smoky tunnel with his wife, Jackie.


“I’m afraid of the dark!” he whispered, taking his wife’s hand. Then he added, “Why hasn’t this stuff set off the fire alarm?”

Who’s Who

Christine Rhoades, daughter of local developer and big-time art patron William Lyon, chaired the party. Rhoades’ committee included Designing Women president Susan McFadden, Marsha Finlay, Peg Reday, Nancy Snyder, Laura Little and Susan Beechner.

Among guests were John Lottes, the art school’s new president, and Art Institute painting teacher Roger Armstrong with two of his students, Alice Powell of Laguna Beach and Joyce Donna of Dana Point.


Also seen: Willa Dean and William Lyon, Beverly and Bob White, Zelma Salmeri, and Claire Robinson, who introduced herself at cocktail hour as “Mimi the magician’s assistant,” and strolled around with a pale blue dog leash descending to an empty harness--or as Mimi put it, “That’s Fifi, the invisible dog.”