Muhammad Ali was showing conjurer Brian Gillis a trick or two. The boxing champ's sleight of hand with a sugar substitute package drew an admiring crowd into a corner table in the 20th Century Fox commissary. "He's the greatest," said Gillis when asked to rate Ali's magic skills.
The conjurer was one of several show-biz touches that greeted the 300 guests who came in from the damp Saturday night for a 10th-anniversary celebration on the eve of the Los Angeles Marathon.
Fake paparazzi and autograph hounds and a faux radio reporter in a Hedda Hopper hat accosted arriving guests, while inside the dining room mimes posing as Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx standing on platforms appeared to be centerpieces of the buffet table.
Along with Ali, other longtime supporters of the marathon joined the evening's hosts, co-founders Marie Patrick and Bill Burke (there with his wife, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke) and George Vradenburg, the Fox Inc. executive vice president who got involved because "the marathon is a good thing for this city, just like Fox is a good thing for this city."
"I see some of them sneaked in," said Patrick Connelly, commissioner of athletes for the race, noting that few runners had ignored his advice that a cocktail party is not the ideal place to be the night before a marathon. "Oh, it's OK for me, I'm a natural athlete," teased New Zealander Rod Dixon, a veteran running star of the 1980s who is now an official marathon ambassador.
Dixon, whose best time was 2 hours, 8 minutes and 59 seconds, says the most vital thing he can tell competitors is, "It's not the times that are important, it's shared emotions."
Not all the talk was about running in the rain.
Interrupting the flow of party chatter, Bill Burke hushed everyone--"I'll put you out if you're still talking"--so the citizen of the year award could be given posthumously to Fred Lebow, who was director of the New York City Marathon. On hand to accept the honor was the NYC Marathon's current director, Allan Steinfeld, who held himself to only a couple of East Coast-versus-West Cost jibes.
Also honored, with the Patsy Choco Courage Award, named for a runner who competed during her final battle with breast cancer, was Becky Wecksler, a cancer survivor who still races.