Social Season a Hit Before It Has Begun

With a solid local economy and gala table sales at an all-time high, Orange County's upcoming social season--traditionally launched after Labor Day weekend--is shaping up to be one of the most profitable in history.

A quick sampling of projected proceeds:

* South Coast Repertory's 35th season anniversary gala Sept. 19: $500,000 gross.

* The Irvine Barclay Theater's "Counterpoint" gala celebrations with the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, beginning Nov. 18: $1 million gross.

* The Orange County Performing Arts Center's 25th anniversary Candlelight Concert gala Dec. 11: $1 million net.

Chalk up the huge profits to Orange County's increasingly sophisticated cultural tastes and its desire to indulge them, said Michele Roberge, director of development for the Irvine Barclay Theater.

"Much of [the success] is due to the natural growth of these organizations," she said. "You start out small, build your audience, your arts program. You become known for a certain kind of thing. People are attracted to that, so you start expanding.

"Pretty soon, your track record is so good people are coming back because they like what you offer, and then--all of a sudden--you start doing these incredible programs, and budgets get higher."

As that happens, Roberge said, the need for fund-raising increases too.

"Theater tickets can't cover the costs--they would be exorbitant--so you find ways to . . . make up the difference, and people respond."

Interest has been high for the Orange County Performing Arts Center's 25th Candlelight Concert featuring Tony Bennett, says gala chairwoman Barbara Johnson. "It has really been the easiest thing," she said. "We sent out a schematic [gala seating chart] to all potential guests--people who have participated in the past and board members got first priority--and the response was fantastic."

With tables for 10 selling at $25,000, $50,000 and $75,000 each, Johnson and her committee fanned profits by offering unique ways for supporters to buy them.

Among the options:

* Syndicate a table: Have five couples split the cost.

* Buy a table outright, then resell the seats.

Several prominent couples--Judie and George Argyros of Newport Beach among them--joined to purchase a $75,000 table for the event, which will feature an onstage dinner in Segerstrom Hall. And Johnson--along with husband Mark Johnson, center chairman--bought a $50,000 table and sold the seats to friends. "I like to be generous, but this is a fund-raiser. So those sitting with us are also donating $5,000 or $10,000 a couple," Johnson said. "I told them to donate according to their ability--with a minimum of $5,000."

With an annual operating budget of about $22 million, the center can put the proceeds to good use, said Terry Jones, director of development. "During the last two years, we have seen really substantial gains from this event. . . . It's leaping into the stratosphere."


When David Emmes and Martin Benson founded South Coast Repertory 34 years ago, the operating cost was "$25,000 for the first year," said Emmes, artistic director. "There was no such thing as a budget in those days. It was always just, 'How much did we take in last night?'

"Now, our operating budget is $7.5 million."

The theater's annual gala benefit not only helps balance the budget, it is a "tremendous friend-raiser," Emmes said. "It helps affirm SCR's value to the community . . . [through the] tremendous support of the leaders and art lovers."

Other highlights on Orange County's 1998-99 social calendar:

* Opera Pacific's annual gala ball Nov. 18

at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach. More than ever before in its 12-year history, Opera Pacific will have its eye on the bottom line when it stages a gala tribute to founder David DiChiera--now director of Michigan Opera Theater.

Having finished its fiscal year last month with a $350,000 deficit, the struggling opera company hopes to erase that debt with gala proceeds estimated at about $400,000.

"From a balance sheet point of view, the opera company is still fragile," said Martin G. Hubbard, the retired investment banker who serves as the company's pro bono director. "We don't have an endowment, and we have an operating deficit. But our financial statement has nothing to do with opera. We have very loyal donors who, this past year, have given us $2 million."

* Cal State Fullerton's Front & Center fund-raiser at the Pond in Anaheim on Jan. 30. Comedian Bill Cosby will be the featured entertainer at the benefit for university scholarships. In past years, Colin Powell, Michael Eisner and Walter Cronkite have been featured. Estimated gross proceeds: $560,000.

"This will be our biggest success," university President Milton A. Gordon said. "We started school with the largest incoming class of Presidential Scholars in history. The success of Front & Center helps us do that."

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