R S V P / ORANGE COUNTY : Guests Get Into Act at Mystery Benefit

About 100 would-be detectives attempted to solve a whodunit Saturday at a Murder Mystery Dinner Theater benefit for the Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Orange County.

Guests gathered at the Anaheim Plaza Hotel under the guise of meeting Eleanor Randolph (played by "Night of the Living Dead" veteran Judy O'Dea), described as a self-centered, over-the-hill actress who has just completed her memoirs. The $50-per-person benefit was expected to net $4,000 for the alliance.

Rounding Up the Usual Suspects

"This is the first time we've done a murder mystery, and we have no idea what to expect," said Charlotte Cassity, event chairwoman. "It really is a mystery."

Guests gathered for a champagne reception in the hotel salon, where they mingled with cast members from Three M Productions, playing roles including Randolph's personal psychic, her secretary, her lover and her estranged daughter.

Then Randolph arrived, reveling in the attention from her "fans" and flirting shamelessly with the male guests while becoming increasingly intoxicated.

"Blake, be a darling and get me a drink," she tells her young lover. "And not this stuff they're drinking."

Soon the audience was getting into the act. Whenever Randolph mentioned one of her movies, guest Donald Bedard would say, "You were great in that" or "That was my favorite."

After a dinner of chicken Marsala, guests were told that Randolph had been murdered--strangled with her scarf and stabbed with a brooch.

As the guests all filed past the body, Bedard--ever the sleuth--bent down to feel her pulse. Guests then reviewed the evidence and listened while cast members exchanged accusations.

"I think I saw a white Ford Bronco," quipped one party-goer.

In the end, the audience proved lacking in sleuthing skills. Nobody guessed that the murder was committed by not one person but two--the psychic and the secretary.

Strength in Numbers

This is the 10th dinner-theater gala staged by the alliance, which offers support for families of the mentally ill.

Fifteen years ago, Merle Tracy, the parent of a mentally ill son, held a meeting for 60 to 70 family members concerned about the lack of mental health services in Orange County. The group has evolved into the 520-member alliance.

"We sponsor support groups throughout Orange County, educate families about mental illness and teach them how to cope," said Nancy Weir, board president. "We also advocate legislation on behalf of the mentally ill. . . . We'll let people know we're here and we need services."

Many guests had stories of children whose lives went terribly awry with the onset of mental illness. Weir has a son, now 40, who became mentally ill after graduating from college.

"We deal with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and manic depression, which usually sets in between (ages) 17 and 25," said Jeff Hovsepian, executive director of the alliance.

The first sign of trouble often comes when the child starts avoiding friends and family, withdraws into his or her bedroom and eventually leaves home--often winding up on the streets.

"By this time, the parents' dreams for their child are shattered," Hovsepian said.

Proceeds will help start a building campaign for a permanent location for the alliance, which has temporary quarters in Tustin.

Among the guests were Sandy Runkle, committee member; Paul and Dody Lawson; Gunnar and Susan Christiansen; Bob and Donna Pollard; Bob and Helen Freeman; Florence Fitzgerald; John and Colleen Ballas; Michael and Elizabeth Ford; Wilma Mottin; Richard and Cecile DeNuccio, and Bob and Liz Harris.

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