R S V P / ORANGE COUNTY : Founders Go Florentine With a Flourish

About 150 guests took an imaginary journey to Florence, Italy, for a night of Italian food and music when Founders Plus of the Orange County Performing Arts Center staged “A Fling in Firenze.”

The Lemon Heights estate of Ellie Cortese served as a real-life Italian villa for the annual founders’ gala, with its sweeping views of the surrounding hills, an interior adorned with fine art and marble and a towering statue of Botticelli’s Venus presiding over the pool. The $94-per-person gala was held Sunday to honor the founders of the Costa Mesa center.

Taste of Italy

“We were going to call this ‘An Evening in Rome,’ but our committee thought, ‘Oh, how dull.’ Then one of the members came up with ‘Fling in Firenze,’ ” said event chairwoman Jan Landstrom.


To create their romantic Firenze, organizers set up tables outdoors on the veranda overlooking the pool and adorned each with a clay pot filled with sunflowers--a common sight in Florence. There, guests listened to Sam Juliano perform on accordion and soprano Darrellyn Melilli sing two arias by Puccini.

When the singing stopped, party-goers visited a buffet stocked with Italian specialties prepared by Antonello’s, including insalata mista (salad with sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese), focaccia, penne in vodka-tomato sauce and chicken stuffed with ricotta and spinach. For dolci, or dessert, there was cioccolatino-- a flourless chocolate cake--and fruit tarts.

After dinner, guests could dance under the stars to the music of the Sam Conti trio or sip coffee drinks from a cappuccino station.

Sold on a Dream


The founders paid tribute to three couples who have played large parts in the center’s success: Ruth and Lock Gee Ding, Peter and Mary Muth and Ed and Floss Schumacher.

Floss Schumacher recalled how the founders began with a small group of men and women who wanted a music center in Orange County in the mid-1970s.

“From seven (founders) it ballooned to 500 people,” she said. Before the center was completed, Schumacher would give tours of the building wearing a hard hat.

The challenge was getting people to support a center that didn’t exist.


“Everything was very speculative. We didn’t know if the money was going down a rat hole,” joked Ed Schumacher.

Still, the center was able to drum up enough support to open doors in 1986.

“People had faith in it,” said Peter Muth. “And they backed up that faith with their money and time.”

Founders Plus was formed by those who wanted to carry on the work of the original founders and support center services.


“It’s an offspring of the original founders to serve the underserved,” Landstrom said. “In the past seven years we’ve distributed 120,000 tickets to people who could not afford to go to the center.”

Among the guests were: Tom Tomlinson, who thanked the group for welcoming him as the center’s executive director one year ago (“the fastest year of my life”); James Johnson and event co-chairwoman Nora Jorgensen-Johnson, Vesta Curry, Betty Belden-Palmer, Harry and Shari Esayian, Jim and Barbara Glabman, Tom Moon, Fred and Jean Hamann, Elaine Dysart, Maurice and Marcy Mulville, Keith and Barbara Johannes, Bob and Gini Robins and Kent and Carol Wilkens.