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These aren’t the dinner partners you’d meet in Boise

IT was the kind of L.A. evening that makes New Yorkers cry, encased in stars and embraced by a warm, perfumed breeze.

Night-blooming jasmine and the velvety feel of the air added a dreamy quality to the lingering twilight, enhanced by pinpoint lights scattered over a hedge that bordered a swimming pool.

Thinking about it later, it was as though the dinner party was a performance, that this was a scene in one of those old romantic movies that Fred Astaire danced through, when candlelight and wine mattered, before musical beds became popular.

What made it even better was that real people sat around me on the patio. Almost all of them were actors, but actors can be real too, when the cameras are hauled away and the soundstage goes dark.

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We were at Alice Hirson’s home tucked into a hillside of Sherman Oaks, but in the sweep of imagination we were a thousand miles away in a land on the edge of memory.

Most of the guests had credits that reached from Broadway to Hollywood, including Hirson herself, a woman so full of life and movement that she stirred the wind when she bustled by.

I’m not going to scatter the night with the names of every guest because they were all special in their own way, adding to the pleasure of the moment with monologues rooted in the grand traditions of Jewish and Irish storytellers.

I was about the only nonperformer there, except maybe for actor Michael Douglas’ mother, Diana, an actress in her own right, who took pride in telling me what a nice boy Michael was. The point of all this is just to say how full of surprises L.A. can be if you’re lucky enough to be invited to a place where the evening soars above the ordinary, and you take home stories and conversations that enlighten your life.

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There was a dinner on another night on a hilltop with an ocean view, the home of legendary documentarians Gene and Natalie Jones, where I sat discussing time, one of my favorite subjects, with a man who I learned later was a Nobel laureate. Paul Boyer won the prize in chemistry nine years ago, and there I was, a wine-fueled dolt debating the fine points of science with a master scientist.

“I’ll give you this, Elmer,” my wife said later, “you’ve got guts.”

Sometimes one is blessed by sharing the company of those who have risen even above a level of performance enjoyed by others in the arena of showbiz. The comedian-actor-educator Shelley Berman has attained that height and can command an evening all by himself, except, perhaps, when Sid Caesar is sitting quietly on the sidelines.

Gentle and soft-spoken, far unlike what he was supposed to have been in his combustible youth, Caesar is one of those people who dominates without saying a word, content to let others come to him, smiling secretly even when alone, locked in a mysterious inner world. I could have argued time with him too, I suppose, but I didn’t.

On yet another evening, the actress Samantha Eggar talked not about herself at the home of Peter and Diane Dennis but about the prize she had won that very day: United States citizenship. One saw one’s self in her glowing pride, realizing for a shining moment how precious is that which we possess, and how much we wish it were still living up to the dreams of its founders. But even at its worse, it’s still better than just about anything else.

Later, international concert pianist Gloria Cheng celebrated the day by filling the room with a masterful rendition of Ravel’s “Sonatine,” proving without words why she is an international celebrity.

Peter Dennis added to the remarkable evening with a reading from “Winnie the Pooh,” whose characters he brings to life on stage and CD, narrating the world created by fellow Brit A.A. Milne. We heard the voices of Christopher Robin, Eeyore, Tigger and the snort of Piglet, offered in a spellbinding monologue that took us to a time of childhood innocence beyond the 100-Aker Wood.

And then there was a dinner party where comedian-actor Red Buttons tried desperately to steal an evening at the home of Max and Janet Salter, he the former mayor of Beverly Hills, but losing to the dignified presence of Jean Stapleton, who later starred in the one-woman show “Eleanor” at the old Canon Theatre. Even though Buttons faltered in an effort to own the night, the game of theatrical upstaging is always a contest worth witnessing. When egos flash, lightning strikes.

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I realize that if I weren’t writing a newspaper column, I probably would never have the pleasure of debating a Nobel laureate or leaning in to hear the almost whispered memories of “Your Show of Shows,” or to be entertained at a dinner table on a certain starry night by those who have entertained millions.

This couldn’t happen in Missoula, Mont., or Boise, Idaho, or just about anyplace else for that matter. I thought about that driving home from Alice Hirson’s place on a night as sweet as heaven, and decided that I was very glad to be in L.A.

Al Martinez’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez @latimes.com.


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