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Laguna Beach Couple’s Pool Party Always Makes a . . . : Splash of Cash for AIDS

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the beginning, in the early ‘80s, all they knew were the rumors.

On business trips to New York, Ken Jillson and Al Roberts heard talk of strange ailments and sudden deaths. They listened to the dire accounts and wild interpretations, then returned to their peaceful suburban neighborhood in Laguna Beach. Safe at home, they tried to forget.

AIDS zoomed in for a close-up in 1984 when it began killing people Jillson and Roberts knew. The disease--which by then had acquired a name and diagnosis--slashed a path through the close-knit Laguna Beach community. Jillson remembers attending a party in 1985 whose focal point was a blackboard covered with names of people who had died of AIDS.

“I stood there reading all these names, people I knew were sick, people I didn’t know were sick, and it was like the light finally went on in my head,” Jillson says. “You know: This is real. This is happening. What are we going to do?”

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What they did has affected more than 1,200 men, women and children with AIDS in Orange County. And it has forever changed Jillson and Roberts’ lives.

They had a pool party and called it Big Splash.

This weekend, Jillson and Roberts will host their sixth Big Splash benefit for AIDS Services Foundation, the county’s primary direct services agency for people with AIDS. The back-yard party--which will feature an original stage show with 35 singing, dancing, lip-syncing amateurs--will raise about $230,000. Ever penny, as Roberts likes to say, will be given to ASF.

Despite the recession, defying gala conventions in general and AIDS fund-raisers in particular, the ’91 Big Splash may be the most profitable charity party in county history.

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It will make more money than any fund-raiser ever held for the Orange County Performing Arts Center (last Dec. 17’s annual Candlelight Concert provided the single biggest bottom line, according to the Center’s development department--a net $128,000).

It will make more money than any event last year hosted by the local chapters of the American Cancer Society or the American Heart Assn.--two of the most prominent health care organizations. The American Cancer Society’s biggest event brought in $176,000; the Heart Assn.'s best haul was $80,000.

Big-time AIDS’ fund-raisers usually fall into one of two categories: Either they draw a huge crowd, to “raise friends” as well as funds, or they have marquee talent on the program to attract a mainstream audience and major donors.

AIDS Walk Orange County is an example of the first. Last June’s AIDS Walk in Irvine drew 3,000 participants. With a net of $200,000, the massive AIDS fund-raiser will still be the fiscal kid brother of the ’91 Big Splash.

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This Sunday--while Jillson and company perform on a back-yard pool deck in Laguna Beach--a crowd of 6,000 will gather at the Universal Amphitheatre for AIDS Project Los Angeles’ annual gala. Bette Midler, Angela Lansbury and the Irish band the Commitments--stars of Alan Parker’s movie of the same name--will headline the show. Stephen Bennett, APLA’s executive director, hopes the party will gross “in excess of $1 million.” Bennett expects expenses to be about $250,000.

Without the star-powered support that AIDS groups in Los Angeles and New York count on, ASF has had to invent its own rules.

Big Splash started as a trifle for friends.

Jillson and Roberts, co-owners of an 18-year-old designer gift-wrapping company with offices in Irvine and clients around the world, had a swimming pool built in their yard in 1985--a fateful home improvement, as it turned out.

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To celebrate the pool’s completion, Jillson concocted a 10-minute presentation and drafted seven friends to perform with him for guests invited to see the pool. It was a summer party gag, nothing more. Sun and fun at Ken and Al’s.

The show, rehearsed a few times as the party day approached, mainly consisted of Jillson and his buddies parading around the deck and splashing around the pool with beach balls held aloft. They wore the simplest of costumes--tank tops and trunks.

The hilarity of that midsummer afternoon was freighted with concern for those who could not attend the party--friends who were sick, friends who were dying, friends who were dead. The chalkboard list of names was growing. The rumors had come home to roost.

In August, an acquaintance gave Roberts a check for $500 to help someone they both knew who had AIDS.

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“He just handed me the check,” Roberts remembers, “and said, ‘I know you will know what to do with this.’ ”

What Roberts knew was that it was time to take action. He and Jillson gathered a dozen people in their home--including a lawyer, doctors and others involved with the county’s nascent AIDS programs--for what became one of the first planning sessions for ASF.

“Of course the first question was, ‘Where’s the money going to come from?’ ” says Roberts.

His answer--to his partner’s amazement--was the pool party show.

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“I said, ‘You want to make people pay to see it?’ ” recalls Jillson. “Al was dead serious about it, and I was falling on the floor laughing, going, ‘There is no way ! People will get there, see the show, and then ask for their money back .’ ”

Jillson--"a theater event waiting to happen,” in the words of one friend--often speaks in italics.

“He is just one of the most incredibly talented, creative, cheerful, joyous, caring people I have ever met,” says Pearl Jemison-Smith, AIDS coordinator for UCI Medical Center and acting executive director of ASF.

A nurse who had dealt with AIDS’ first wave of victims, Jemison-Smith was among those at the meeting in Jillson and Roberts’ house in 1985. Six weeks later, she was in the crowd of 200 at the first Big Splash.

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Tickets sold for $50, and additional donations were encouraged. Before the show, Jillson stood in front of the group holding a letter sent by actor Rock Hudson, a longtime friend and an investor in Jillson and Roberts’ company.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be with you today, but I want all of you to know that I’m very proud of what you’re doing,” Jillson read aloud, straining to be heard without a microphone. He was hoping he could get to the end of Hudson’s message without tears.

“As you know,” Hudson wrote, “my close friend Elizabeth Taylor got things successfully rolling in Los Angeles, and I’m sure that all of you will be able to follow in her footsteps . . . . It makes me feel great to know that when there’s a real life-threatening problem, everyone bands together.

“Keep fighting, and never give up,” Hudson wrote. A month later, he was dead.

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Al Roberts’ business acumen carried the day. By the time the sun set on the back-yard benefit, guests had given a total of $33,000. The hosts footed the bill--"It didn’t dawn on us that you were supposed to deduct expenses,” Jillson says--so every penny from the party was ASF’s profit.

In the six years since it was established, ASF has assisted 1,227 clients. Its services include legal and medical referrals, financial counseling, emergency funding, transportation, food delivery, hospital and home visitations, private and group mental health counseling and maintenance of a six-bed residence.

ASF’s original annual budget of $90,000 has grown to $1.75 million. Government grants and other public funding will cover about $950,000 of the ’91-92 budget, leaving the rest to be raised through private donations.

As president of the board, Al Roberts now spends about half of every day working on ASF business and many evenings visiting people with AIDS. Over the years, he says, the work has changed him.

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“When you start to spend more time with caring people, you begin to see friends who are still very interested in this new car or that new house or whatever material thing in a different way,” he says. “You still know them, and they are still your friends, but you’re moving in one direction and they are falling away from you.”

Mel Louis, a retired radiologist and founding ASF board member, sees it like this: “Before ASF, Ken and Al were quiet suburban people who made their money and minded their own business. Now they have a very major role in this community.”

Roberts is ASF’s guiding light on money matters--a role that has made him something of a legend among his peers.

“If ASF spends one nickel, believe me, we’re getting eight cents worth of value,” says Georgia Garrett-Norris, a Santa Ana lawyer and founding board member. “We can thank Al Roberts for that.”

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Adds Garrett-Norris, a founding member of an AIDS lobbying group in Sacramento: “I’ve been involved with lots of nonprofits, and this is absolutely the premiere class act. ASF is the only board that I have been on where personalities don’t run the board, the cause runs the board.”

On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, that cause will bring 650 people from as far away as Hawaii and New York to Jillson and Roberts’ Laguna Beach house. Big Splash tickets still begin at $50 but now ascend to $250 for a gourmet dinner and include major donor categories stretching from $1,000 to $10,000.

Mark Miller, who was Rock Hudson’s secretary for many years, donated $30,000. He and partner George Nader will fly in from Maui for the party Miller calls “the event of the year.”

Miller’s gift makes him one of two “heavenly angels” credited in this year’s program. The other is Bud Kerr, a Los Angeles banker who died last spring, leaving a $50,000 bequest for the Splash party.

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The show that began as a poolside romp is now a major production. Written each year by the irrepressible Jillson, it has grown to include custom sets, elaborate costumes, original music, tap dancing, lip-syncing and voice-overs by, among others, prime-time Golden Girl Bea Arthur. Yet for all its grandeur, it has retained a spirit of gleeful amateurism-- Hey kids! Let’s put on a show! The joys of grandstanding endure.

And Jillson and Roberts still pick up the tab--with a little help from their friends. Laguna Beach caterer Geeter Newell will prepare a gourmet buffet dinner for 350--gratis. Painting contractor Judy McInnis has donated the services of seven artists and set builders. Brenda Kalatzes of Brenda’s Dance Studio in Laguna Beach has spent hundreds of hours working with Jillson on the show’s choreography and giving free tap lessons to the cast.

Jillson says this might be the last Big Splash. He doesn’t know if he can take another year of planning, arranging and rehearsing a project that fills his home with the 50-plus cast and crew and devours every spare moment for three solid months.

“He says that every year at this time,” shrugs Roberts. “The moment the show’s over, he starts dreaming about the next one.”

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McInnis, the painting contractor who oversaw construction of the set, knows exactly when she’ll quit the production.

“I will be doing this until the last show, which will be when they find a cure for AIDS,” she says. “Then we’ll have our last Big Splash. That will be my favorite party.”


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